The history of the area of the Vatican predates the construction of the first Basilica of Saint Peter, which was built at the behest of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD. It was here that Caligula built a circus, later restored by Emperor Nero. It was during the rule of the latter that the Christian persecutions began, and the Vaticanum became an execution ground and, later, the burial site of the martyrs of the new religion.
Caligula’s private circus and Nero’s performances
What is now occupied by the Vatican City and Via della Conciliazione, was an incredibly sought-after area during the 1st century AD. Roman patricians built their country homes here, surrounded by immense gardens, called horti.
Close to the area on which St Peter’s Basilica now stands were the horti of Agrippina the Elder, Emperor Caligula’s mother. Inside them, Caligula built a circus that spanned 500 metres in length and 100 metres in width. It could hold up to 20,000 spectators and was mostly used as a hippodrome for horse and chariot racing. The emperor would usually watch these shows surrounded only by his court, but on special occasions entry would be open to the Roman people.
In 37 AD, Caligula had an ancient Egyptian obelisk placed in the centre of the circus. This is the same obelisk that is now located at the centre of St Peter’s square. It was moved to its current location at the behest of Pope Sixtus V in 1586.
Due to his dislike of Patrician families, Caligula’s successor Nero was determined to ingratiate himself with the Roman people. To this end, he created more occasions for entertainment, by organising numerous celebratory events right inside the Vatican circus. In addition to attending the shows, Nero loved to join in the chariot races and perform as a lyre player.
The Great Fire of 64 AD, that destroyed Rome, was not initiated by Nero, as is often erroneously alleged. The emperor however certainly didn’t do much to prevent it, allowing it to destroy those luxurious domus on the Palatine belonging to the Roman nobility that he despised so much. The high density of inhabitants in the city, coupled with the fact that many buildings were made of wood, made fires quite a common occurrence in Rome at that time. Nero knew this well, but nevertheless decided to lay blame for the fire on the Christians, paving the way for the persecution of the next two centuries.
Some of the first martyrs, presumably including St Peter, were executed north of the Circus of Nero, on the Vatican Hill.
By the middle of 2nd century AD the Circus had already been abandoned and the land was conceded to individuals for the construction of tombs.
The first burials in the Vatican Necropolis, located underneath present-day St Peter’s Basilica, were pagan. This cemetery was used by the liberti in particular. These were freed slaves that had been able to save money. Its location was perfect for this purpose as it was close to the city, but still outside its walls, as burials within the city were not permitted. It was, in fact, positioned just across the river, connected to the city by two bridges.
Today the Vatican Necropolis is divided into 24 rooms, that were used for collective burials, each identified by a letter. A central path connects the different areas.
The largest, and most luxurious, tomb of the entire necropolis is tomb H. Designed to hold 170 deceased, it came to accommodate 250. It was built by a freed slave, Gaius Valerius Herma, who had reached an enviable cultural and economic status.
The richness and elegance of the spaces and their decoration is astonishing. The floors are made of marble and the walls have niches for the sarcophagi of his family members. The back wall is replete with statues of different Roman deities, that are partly preserved.
Also discovered within the tomb of the Valerii were two busts of Gaius Valerius Herma and his wife Flavia. This is also where the sophisticated sarcophagus of Valerius Vasatalus should have been located, and which can now be found along the main path. A bas-relief on the lower part of the sarcophagus depicts a man participating in a lion hunt, an activity that denoted strength and purity in Roman tradition.
With the progressive spread of the religion of Peter and Paul, pagan burials would accompany Christian ones.
Sepulchre M, the smallest of the necropolis, is home to the oldest known Christian mosaic. This work is a representation of Christ as Sol Invictus (the Sun God), an image that still presented a mix between Pagan and Christian traditions. On the lower part of the mosaic is a scene from the Old Testament, where the prophet Jonah is about to be swallowed by the whale.
To see the burial site of St Peter, however, one must reach the area called Field P. The apostle was buried in the bare earth but, a century later, a niche was created over the tomb, with two columns and a marble slab. A small portion of the aedicule is still visible today.
Later, Christians would choose to bury their dead in catacombs rather than in the necropolises. This occurred because their cemeteries required much more space, since bodies were preserved and not cremated.
Contrary to popular belief, the catacombs were not sites of religious celebration. They were humid and malodorous, and not pleasant to spend time in. Here Christians could bury their dead without having to spend the enormous sums of money required to purchase plots of land and masonry tombs.