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The Necropolis

Written and read by Pietro Zander

The Vatican Necropolis is located below the level of the Vatican Grottoes, at a depth of between three and eleven metres in relation to the floor of the central nave of the basilica. Here it is possible to rediscover the most significant historical and archaeological evidence of Saint Peter’s Basilica, and to retrace the ancient earthen road leading to the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles.

The discovery of the site dates back to the early years of the pontificate of Pius XII (1939-1958), who wanted to undertake a series of archaeological explorations in the area of the Vatican Confessio and in the central part of the sacred grottoes.

At the time of the excavations, brick buildings from the second century came to light, which, once open, became in the fourth century the foundations of the first Petrine Basilica. Indeed, the necropolis was still in use when it was covered by Constantine, who ordered the demolition of the upper parts of the sepulchral buildings and their foundation, resolute in his desire to build the largest basilica in the west exactly on the tomb of Peter: a basilica divided into five naves by 88 columns, a majestic temple that had its floor at the same level as the “Trophy of Gaius”.

It was a grandiose undertaking, that involved the movement of over 40,000 cubic metres of earth to level the double slope of the Vatican hill, which ascended slightly from east to west, but which also sloped deeply from north to south in the direction of the valley of the circus. The necropolis, which extended over the southern slopes of the hill, ended up beneath the central nave of the basilica, and it was therefore essential to demolish the top of the tomb buildings that exceeded the height established for the floor of the new church. While on the one hand the basilica built at the behest of Constantine and Pope Sylvester brought about the end of the Roman necropolis, on the other, it assured its conservation up to the present day.

An approximate calculation of the inhumation and incineration tombs suggests that 22 tomb buildings, unearthed during excavations, were designed to accommodate around 1000 burials. Of this multitude of men, women and especially children, inscriptions have handed down to us the names of some individuals from imperial freedmen families.

© Fabric of Saint Peter