St. Peter’s Basilica is said to be built over the bones of the apostle Peter. On a tour of the Vatican Necropolis, you can explore the ancient graveyard that lies underneath the basilica.
(The following is adapted from my book Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper.)
Limited to about 250 people a day, the tour of the Vatican Necropolis is one of the hardest-to-score tickets in Rome. The Scavi—an Italian word meaning excavations—is the archaeological site underneath the basilica, the place where the remains of the apostle Peter are said to lie. When Jesus said that Peter was the rock upon which the church would be built, the Catholics took him literally: St. Peter’s Basilica is built over St. Peter’s bones.
Touring an underground graveyard was a peculiar way to spend a sunny afternoon in a capital renowned for its beauty, but I hoped that this city of the dead (the English translation of the Greek word nekropolis) would help me better understand the Eternal City that lies above it.
I was curious, too, why my ecclesiastical cousins the Roman Catholics had preserved this ancient site underneath their most magnificent church. My own branch of Christianity doesn’t do much with relics, but my fondness for the more esoteric parts of religious belief put the Necropolis at the top of my Rome agenda.
Passing through security, we entered a much quieter area filled with buildings housing Vatican bureaucrats. A helpful Swiss Guard—dressed in the photogenic, though slightly ludicrous, outfit of his tribe—directed us to a small ticket booth a short distance away.
There we joined a group of ten Americans who had also signed up for a tour of the Necropolis led by a seminarian from the Pontifical North American College in Rome. Introducing himself as Justin, he welcomed us to the tour. After struggling to make our way in the city with no Italian other than buongiorno and gelato, per favore, I heard the young man’s accent with relief.
“You’re going to see a part of the Vatican most people don’t know much about,” he said.
He began by leading us just a few steps away to a marker we’d walked over without noticing: a small plaque embedded in the paving stones. Justin explained that before the construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica, the obelisk now on the square had stood here.
“Tradition says that the apostle Peter was martyred next to the obelisk,” Justin said. “He asked to be crucified upside down, because he felt he wasn’t worthy to be killed in the same way as his master.”
I was pleased to be reminded of the man for whom the basilica was named, a fisherman who’d been poor his entire life, because my entry into the Vatican had made me feel a bit Martin Luther-ish. In 1510, the German monk’s reactions to what he saw in Rome helped spark the Protestant Reformation. I wasn’t ready to go as far as Luther, but the whole place did seem a little over the top, even for someone with a high tolerance for high church. But here, in this quiet corner of the Vatican, a grittier spiritual history was commemorated. I was eager to learn more.
After leading us through a side entrance into the basilica, Justin continued his story.
Following Peter’s death on the cross, he said, his followers removed the body and buried it nearby in a simple earthen grave. Its location was passed down from generation to generation of believers. About fifty years after his death, the area around the emperor Nero’s circus became a place for other burials. In ancient Rome, it was illegal to bury people inside the city walls, and so tombs were often located next to the roads leading into the city (the hope was that the dead would be remembered by the living as they passed by).
“Then at the beginning of the fourth century, after Christianity was no longer outlawed, the emperor Constantine began building a church over the remains of St. Peter,” said Justin. “The people of Rome were asked to remove their dead from the tombs. The area was filled with earth and the first St. Peter’s Basilica was constructed on top. It wasn’t until 1939 that excavations began on the Roman-era necropolis.”
By this time we’d made our way down a set of stairs and into the bowels of the basilica, where we entered a narrow corridor bordered by two rows of side-by-side, small buildings. Constructed of brick, the tombs looked like miniature houses, with windows and doorways that allowed us to peer inside.
As we passed them, Justin pointed out details that reflected the lives of those once interred within. One had an image of the falcon-headed Egyptian god Horus on its wall; others featured mosaics and frescoes showing scenes from Roman mythology. Most had niches embedded in their walls for remains, and over their doorways were Latin inscriptions giving information about the dead, from freedmen who’d become wealthy merchants to aristocratic families boasting of their lineage.
At last we came to our destination: the place where Peter’s remains are kept in a clear box tucked into a crevice in the rock wall. All that was visible was a small glimpse of bones.
“We can’t know for certain that these are the remains of St. Peter,” Justin said, answering our unspoken question. “But ancient sources say that St. Peter was buried in this area, and DNA evidence indicates that the bones are from a man between the ages of sixty and seventy. And they’re wrapped in a purple cloth, suggesting they were highly valued. But in the end, people have to make up their own minds.”
Saying that he would leave us for private prayer, he exited the room. While most of the group filed out after him, several of us stayed. Instead of praying, I thought of the huge weight of the basilica above us, remembering my time inside the Great Pyramids at Giza. Like those immense edifices, all of the Vatican’s magnificence is built upon a graveyard.
If You Go: Tickets for the Vatican Necropolis Tour must be ordered well in advance of your visit to Rome (I ordered them online six months in advance). Tours take about 90 minutes. Reserve tickets through the Vatican’s Excavations Office.
See also: St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.