THE TOMB OF ST. PETER
by Margherita Guarducci
© 1960, Hawthorn Books
(all rights reserved)
- H. V. Morton
The other passage usually cited by scholars to prove the martyrdom of Peter in Rome is, as I have mentioned, that of St. Ignatius of Antioch in his Epistle to the Romans. Curing the reign of the Emperor Trajan, and precisely, it would seem, in 107, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch in Syria, had been condemned to a horrible death: to be exposed to wild animals in the arena, ad bestias, in the language of the time. Imprisoned in Antioch, St. Ignatius was sent with other Christians to Rome where his martyrdom was to take place. Sustained by a marvelous faith, he went through the stages of the long and painful journey by land and sea, yearning with tremulous joy for the suffering from which he would rise to the glory of heaven. During the trip there was a delay at Smyrna, and the heroic bishop took advantage of it to dictate several letters. Among others, he dictated one directly to the Christians of Rome, the city in which he knew he would soon lose his earthly life. In this Epistle, he exhorts the Romans not to make any attempt to rescue him; rather they should pray to Christ that his body might disappear completely - a total holocaust - in the jaws of the beasts. And just at this point, Ignatius finds it necessary to add: "I do not command you as did Peter and Paul; they were Apostles and I am a condemned man, they were free men and I, until now, a slave. But if I suffer martyrdom, I shall be a freeman of Jesus and I shall rise free in Him."12 Peter and Paul are recalled to the Romans as the leaders who hold the supreme authority over them, and this shows that, according to Ignatius, they had closer ties to Rome than to any other city. Ignatius knew, evidently, that they had come to Rome and had suffered martyrdom there. At least it is true that, writing to other cities in which no martyr had lived or suffered the supreme penalty, St. Ignatius does not mention any of the martyrs; and when he writes to the Christians of Ephesus, among whom only Paul had lived, he mentions only Paul.
But perhaps even clearer than the testimony of St. Clement and St. Ignatius is that which results from the close study of two Egyptian texts. These date apparently from the beginning of the second century, and were recently evaluated by a great student of ancient Christian literature, Erik Peterson.13 They are two "prophetic" works of a literary type that began to enjoy wide favor at the end of the first century, a form best known through St. John's Apocalypse. They are entitled The Ascension of Isaias and The Apocalypse of Peter. In the first of these works it is predicted that Beliar (i.e., the devil) lord of the world, will descend from his firmament in the form of a matricidal man and destroy the seeds planted by the twelve apostles of the "Beloved" (i.e., of Christ), one of whom will fall into his hands.14 The second work records certain words of Christ to Peter: "Behold, Peter, I have shown and exposed all things to you; and you must go into the capital of corruption and drink the chalice I have announced to you, from the hands of the son of him who is in Hades (i.e., of Satan who dwells in Hell), that his ruin may begin and that you may receive the fulfillment of the promises."15
The symbolic language could not be more transparent. The matricide mentioned in the first text is Nero, murderer of his own mother; the capital of corruption, alluded to in the second text, is Rome (as we have seen, St. Peter himself refers to it as "Babylon" in an Epistle), and that is where Peter must "drink the chalice," i.e. suffer martyrdom, thus beginning the downfall of the Antichrist, personified by Nero. It is clear that Peter's martyrdom in Rome, through the work of Nero, was already universally known in Egypt at the beginning of the second century.
If we continue to advance into the second century, testimonies of the martyrdom of Peter in Rome increase in number and in clarity. During the pontificate of Soter (165-174), Dionysus, Bishop of Corinth, wrote to the Romans recalling to them the teaching and martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Italy (i.e., in Rome). He added that their deaths occurred "on the same occasion" ( - kata ton auton kairon).16 A few years later, the same information is offered by St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons,17 and several times by the Carthaginian apologist Tertullian.18 To these concordant statements may be added that of the Acts of Peter, an account of the Apostle's activities composed in the Orient (perhaps in Syria) shortly after the middle of the second century. In this narration, there is a detailed account of the apostolate and martyrdom of Peter in the City. The Apostle is said to have been crucified and his body buried devoutly in the tomb of a follower of his, a certain senator Marcellus.19
It has been observed, and correctly so, that all of those notices which can be dated from the second half of the second century bring us back, implicitly, at least to the first half of the same century, since the tradition from which they derive could not have been formed on the spur of the moment, but must have taken some time to mature. Therefore, if they derive from the first half of the second century, it is possible to group them with the more ancient testimonies of St. Clement, St. Ignatius, The Ascension of Isaias and The Apocalypse of Peter. An uninterrupted chain is formed from the end of the first century to the second half of the second, and it continues, naturally growing stronger, into the succeeding century.
Some scholars believe that an allusion to the martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Rome can be found in the Apocalypse of St. John;20 but the reasons given to sustain this thesis are not, according to others, sufficiently solid. The texts which tell us of the martyrdom of Peter in Rome are clearly numerous and eloquent enough to eliminate any doubt on the question. As for the form of martyrdom, there are strong reasons for asserting that Peter was crucified like his Master. This is the conclusion, as I have already observed, from a passage in the Gospel of St. John.21 The words in the Acts of Peter, composed, as we have seen, shortly after the middle of the second century, are even more explicit. And testimonies on the crucifixion of the Apostle multiply as time passes, not only from the Christians but also from their enemies. Thus, in the second half of the third century the Palestinian philosopher, Porphyry, and adversary of the Christians, believed firmly that Peter had been crucified.22 The historian Tacitus, describing the horrible spectacle of Nero's persecution in a famous passage of the Annals, also tells us of Christians crucified (crucibus affixi)23 and nothing prevents us from believing that among these crosses there could have been one on which Peter died. A tradition states that Peter wished, in his humility, to be crucified upside down. The information is very ancient, since the Alexandrian writer Origen already knew it at the beginning of the third century;24 and, in succeeding centuries it became a favorite motif of pious Christian art (Fig.5).
If we admit, as everything leads us to believe, that Peter was crucified during Nero's persecution, we must also necessarily recognize that the gardens of Nero were the site of the martyrdom. Tacitus, in the same passage of the Annals, mentions that the Christians were tortured in the gardens of Nero (and specially in the arena which was in those gardens), during the horrible spectacles which the emperor had arranged. Indeed, there was not, at that time, any other arena available or, at least, none appropriate for the purpose, since the Circus Maximus had been seriously damaged by the famous fire, which had in fact originated there, and the Circus Flaminius, even if it had not also been damaged by the fire, was too small and too tightly enclosed in the heart of the city to be used for Nero's grandiose plans.25 The arena of Nero's garden, at the foot of the Vatican Hill, was, therefore, the most suitable, particularly since, after the fire, these very extensive gardens had been among the areas of Rome chosen by the Emperor to take care of the citizens who had lost their homes. Parr of the exasperated lower classes, whom Nero wished to pacify with the torture of the Christians, could go to find amusement (if we may call it that) almost at their doorsteps.
But the logical deduction that Peter was crucified in that part of Rome is confirmed by other sources of information. An account of Peter's martyrdom, inspired by the Acts of Peter and falsely attributed to Linus, disciple and successor of the Apostle, informs us that Peter was crucified "near Nero's obelisk, by the hill."26 This account is rather late, and certainly not written before the fourth century; but, as opposed to the Acts of Peter, composed in the Orient, it was written in Rome. Its information on the topography and local traditions of the City, therefore, deserves some attention. The author of this piece seems to believe that Peter was crucified in Nero's arena. Toward the end of the fourth century, St. Jerome states that Peter was crucified upside down "in the Vatican, near the Via Triumphalis."27 The indication is obviously practically the same as that of Pseudo-Linus. This information is also confirmed by other sources. It is sufficient to mention the Liber Pontificalis, the classic history of the ancient Popes, which can be dated, in its most ancient form, in the sixth century. In Peter's biography it is stated that the Apostle was buried near the place where he had been crucified, i.e. "near the palace of Nero, in the Vatican, close to the Triumphalis region."28 Since the "palace of Nero" is a fanciful term with which the Middle Ages identified the arena of Nero, and since the "Triumphalis region" is the zone adjacent to the Via Triumphalis, it can be seen that this report confirms the others.
Now let us consider the Apostles tomb.
There is a tradition which holds that the tombs of Peter and Paul have been known and venerated since the time of St. John the Evangelist, i.e., since the time immediately following the martyrdom of the two Apostles. A sentence by the paganizing emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363) in his book Against the Galileans,29 mentions this tradition. Julian observes that St. John first dared to give Jesus the title of God, and believes that he did it because he saw many of the Greek and Italian cities infested with the "disease" of Christianity and heard that the "memorials" ( -nmemata) of Peter and Paul, that is, their tombs, were venerated, if only in secret, by the faithful. We must note, however, that Julian introduces this bit of information with an "I believe" ( - oimai). All that can be derived from it, therefore, is this: that according to Julian, who was certainly better informed than we are on the ancient writers, the tombs of the Apostles were already venerated in the time of St. John.
According to some scholars, a direct testimony on the existence of Peter's tomb at Rome in the first half of the third century can be found in a passage of the apologist Tertullian in his book On Modesty.30 In this work, Tertullian criticizes an unnamed bishop for absolving even those who have sinned against modesty, an absolution which, in his opinion, abuses the power to forgive sins given by Christ to Peter. "Perhaps," he says, addressing the bishop, "you think that the power of binding and loosing actually derived from you, that is, from all the church close to Peter?" Identifying the unknown bishop with the Bishop of Rome, Callistus I, it has been conjectured that the expression "church close to Peter" refers to the privileged position of the Roman Church, formed and continuing to exist near the Apostle's tomb. This interpretation is not certain, but undoubtedly the words "ecclesiam Petri propinquam" might suggest a reference to memories of St. Peter's tomb.
Where was this tomb, according to the ancients? The Acts of Peter, written in the Orient shortly after 150 A.D., speak of the interment of Peter in the tomb of a senator, Marcellus, but they do not say where the tomb was located. The oldest and most important text that refers to Peter's tomb and indicates its location is the famous passage from Gaius. He was a churchman in Rome who lived at the time of Pope Zephyrinus (198-217) and became famous through a controversy with Proclus, a follower of the heretical Montanist sect. This controversy, which probably took place even before the reign of Zephyrinus, i.e., during the pontificate of Pope Victor I (186-197?), is known to us through a passage in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine. This passage can be dated between 312 and 315 A.D.31 In the work of Eusebius are inserted the words of Gaius. Proclus, living in Asia Minor, had attempted to degrade the authority of the Church in Rome, asserting that Asia Minor possessed the tombs of various outstanding Christians, such as those - in the city of Hierapolis - of the Apostle Philip and his four daughters who were endowed with the prophetic spirit.. Gaius, inflamed with zeal, replied to his adversary: "But I can show you the trophies of the Apostles. Indeed, if you wish to come to the Vatican or to the road to Ostia, you will find the trophies of those who have founded this Church."
The word "trophies" ( - tropaia), used by Gaius, has been much discussed by scholars. According to the etymology of the word, the Greek term (tropaion) indicates a monument commemorating the retreat ( - trope) of the enemy and therefore the glory of the victor. Even the "trophies" of which Gaius speaks have undoubtedly a connotation of "victory"; on this point there is general agreement. But some scholars consider them merely "monuments of honor," admitting, at most, that they might indicate the place where the Apostles suffered martyrdom; other scholars, more accurately, give "trophies" the meaning of "tombs." And in fact the tomb of a Christian martyr, who has won his battle in the name of Christ, deserves to be considered a monument of victory, a "trophy." Besides, what could Gaius offer in opposition to the tombs of Philip and his daughters except other, much more glorious tombs? This interpretation, adopted by Eusebius himself in passing on the question from Gaius, is fully confirmed, as we shall see, by an epigraph found during the excavations under St. Peter's Basilica.32 The testimony of Gaius tells us, then, that in the second half of the second century the tombs of Peter and Paul were honored in Rome, respectively in the Vatican and on the road to Ostia.
The fourth-century Roman author who wrote Martyrdom of Saint Peter (falsely attributed to Linus) records the place of the crucifixion, as we have seen, but does not mention the location of the tomb, stating only that the martyr's body was taken down from the cross and placed in a new sarcophagus with the aid of the same senator Marcellus mentioned by the Acts of Peter in the second-century.
Another fourth-century text, based on the Acts of Peter, gives a clue to the location of the tomb. This is a narrative attributed (another false attribution) to our friend, Marcellus the senator. We are told that Marcellus, helped by foreigners who had come from the Orient, secretly took Peter's body from the cross and placed it "under the terebinth near the Naumachia, in a place called Vatican."33 The Naumachia was, in ancient times, a place on the Vatican plain where demonstrations of naval battles were held;34 but the mention of the terebinth (a small tree that grows in dry places practically everywhere in the Mediterranean basin) is rather questionable. Certainly it would not be strange that St. Peter was buried under a terebinth tree, more so since the Vatican Hill must have been rich in vegetation at the time. But the terebinth is mentioned too often in the books of the Old Testament not to inspire a suspicion that we have here a bit of literary imitation. On the other hand, as we shall see late, there was a funeral monument in this same Vatican area which was called the Terebinth in the Middle Ages. The name was derived from the stone of Tivoli (tiburtine or, in the common language, travertine) with which it was built.35 But that as it may, the mention of the Naumachia and of the Vatican brings us, substantially, back to the same section of Rome.
There is also the information in the Liber Pontificalis, which cannot be dated before the sixth century. According to this text, Peter was buried "on the Via Aurelia, near the temple of Apollo, close to where he was crucified, near the palace of Nero, in the Vatican, near the Triumphalis region." I have already explained this text in reference to the crucifixion of Peter;36 and I shall speak on the "temple of Apollo" later.37 Here it is sufficient to point out that the Liber Pontificalis also places Peter's tomb in the Vatican, near the "palace" of Nero, that is, near the arena in which the Apostle had suffered martyrdom.
A detailed examination of the literary sources leads, as we have seen, to a result that does not conflict with the tradition. That is, it confirms that Peter came to Rome and suffered martyrdom there under Nero; and it indicates the existence of his tomb in precisely the place where the piety of the faithful has sought it and venerated it for so many centuries.