THE TOMB OF ST. PETER
by Margherita Guarducci
© 1960, Hawthorn Books
(all rights reserved)
- H. V. Morton
A visitor to Rome who goes out to the Appian Way to see the remains of pagan and Christian antiquity usually visits the Church of St. Sebastian, at the place usually called in Catacumbas. He knows already, or he is soon told by the guides that this church, built at the third mile of the Appian Way, was once dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul, and that it is one of the great Christian houses of prayer constructed by Constantine to express his gratitude for the victory at the Milvian Bridge (October 28, 312). Another bit of information is usually added to this: that the remains of Peter and Paul were kept there for a certain period - according to the most popular version, from 258 until the time of Constantine. In 258, it is claimed, the remains were taken from their respective tombs; and in the time of Constantine, when the basilicas in the Vatican and on the Via Ostiense were complete or nearing completion, they were brought back to their original locations which had been made more magnificent by the generous Emperor.
How much truth is there in all this?
That the basilica dedicated to Peter and Paul on the Appian Way was built by Constantine is absolutely certain; but there is less certainty that the remains of the Apostles were actually kept there for a certain period. This question has been long and passionately discussed and it is not yet solved in all its details. Many scholars, some of them very reliable, have made rivers of ink flow, some confirming, some denying the story of the bodies' translation.
This is not the place to analyze the whole problem; it will be sufficient to clarify its principal elements and then to draw a conclusion wherever we can.
Let us examine first what we can find in ancient authors on the transfer of the bodies of the Apostles to the Appian Way.
The chief testimony is that of Pope Damasus. This great pontiff, who reigned from 366 to 384 and who, among other tasks, glorified the ancient martyrs in a series of epigrams written by himself, dedicated an epigram to the Apostles venerated on the Appian Way.1 The original epigraphic text of the poem has been lost, but there is a partial copy at the church, preserved on a carved stone which can be dated in about the thirteenth century. Other copies have been handed down, with several variant readings, by certain ancient manuscripts. The most probable version of the epigram reads:
habitare (or habitasse) prius sanctos cognoscere
Endless discussions have arisen about the word habitare (or habitasse). Some prefer the variant habitare (present infinitive) thinking that Damasus means "know that Peter and Paul dwell here (in a spiritual sense, i.e., are venerated here.)" Those who support the variant habitasse (perfect infinitive) may interpret this verb in a literal or figurative sense. According to some, Damasus is referring to a tradition that during their lives the Apostles lived at this site; according to others he is thinking of a mortuary dwelling, i.e., a tomb.
It must be admitted that Damasus' words are not a model of clarity. But one thing is very clear, that they make not the least mention of any transfer to the two holy bodies. And this is very significant. We must note that Damasus lived at a time when, without any hesitation or reservation, the faithful believed in the existence of the tombs of Peter and Paul respectively in the Vatican and on the Via Ostiense. For that reason he would certainly not have neglected to mention the transfer of the two holy relics if he truly had any information on it. His silence leads to the conclusion that he knew nothing about it.
After Damasus, other voices are raised from the fifth to seventh century to tell us of the Apostles in relation to the church on the Appian Way. But they are all voices that refer to the epigram of Damasus, either to clarify it or to embellish it with more or less colorful additions. It is interesting to note that even these late sources do not speak of a transfer of the holy remains in 258 A.D. If any hint can be found on the temporary entombment of Peter and Paul on the Appian Way, it is attributed to a time earlier than 258, sometimes immediately after the martyrdom of the Apostles; and in these cases the duration of their stay is kept to a minimum by those who tell of the transfer, to avoid dimming the glory universally attributed to the tombs in the Vatican and on the Via Ostiense.
In conclusion, the testimony of ancient authors is reduced (and only for those who prefer the variant habitasse) to the obscure hint from Damasus.
But how did the opinion arise that 258 was the year in which the remains of the Apostles were transferred to the Appian Way in Catacumbas?
The so-called Chronography of 354 is a collection of Roman religious feasts edited in 354 A.D. by Furius Dionysius Philocalus, the future secretary of Pope Damasus. Enumerating the feasts celebrated in honor of martyrs on the days on which each of them was placed in his tomb (Depositio martyrum), he has entered, for June 29, a feast of Peter in the Catacombs and of Paul on the Via Ostiense. Added to this note are the words Tusco et Basso cons(ulibus),3 which brings us to the year 258 A.D. in which Tuscus and Bassus were consuls. Although the Chronography was written in 354, it seems to reflect the situation in the years before 336. Another source, the so-called Martyrology of Jerome (a collection of martyrs' feasts which goes back, at most, to the beginning of the fifth century) records, on the date of June 29, a feat of Peter in the Vatican, one of Paul on the Via Ostiense, and a third of Peter and Paul at the Catacombs. It also adds a mention of the consuls Tuscus and Bassus, i.e., of the year 258 A.D.4 While the Martyrology speaks of a common feast of Peter and Paul in the Catacombs, the Chronography mentions, as I have said, only a feast of Peter in the Catacombs and says nothing of the feast in the Vatican. Some scholars explain this silence ingeniously by asserting that in 354 (or 336?) the Vatican basilica was not yet finished and therefore the feast of Peter was still being celebrated, for the convenience of the faithful, in the church on the Appian Way. Be that as it may, there is still the puzzling date of 258. What significance can we attribute to it?
Evidently it marks the beginning of a common feast of Peter and Paul in the region of the Catacombs. But a great student of Church history, Msgr. Louis Duchesne, sees something more in it. In his monumental edition of the Liber Pontificalis, whose first volume was printed in Pars in 1886, Duchesne5 observes that in the years 257 and 258 the Christians suffered violent persecution under the emperor Valerian. In 257, he notes, an edict was issued forbidding the faithful to assemble in their cemeteries.6 Since this was so, Duchesne observes, the Christians of Rome must have wanted to save the venerated remains of the Apostles from danger and may have taken them from the Vatican and the Via Ostiense to the Appian Way. The placing of the relics in the new tombs must have taken place on the date recorded in the Chronography and the Martyrology. Only in the time of Constantine, with the persecutions ended and peace established between the Empire and the Church (by the Edict of Milan in 313) would the precious remains have been brought back to their original resting places from the Appian Way.
Duchesne's conjecture had a very widespread response and occasioned a swarm of writings which has not yet ceased. Some scholars welcomed it enthusiastically, and even considered it a fact now beyond discussion; others rejected it as unsatisfactory or even absurd. And indeed the objections against this thesis cannot be ignored. First of all, the Chronography and the Martyrology tell us that June 29, the day on which the common martyrdom of the two Apostles is believed to have occurred, was celebrated as a feast in their honor in the Catacombs region, but they do not mention any transfer of their remains. And if this silence does not seem a very weighty point, it must also be mentioned that the hypothesis of transfer is, in itself, very improbable. In the first place, Valerian's edict forbade the Christians to hold meetings in their cemeteries, but it did not threaten their tombs; both Christian and pagan Romans had too great a respect for tombs, too great a reluctance to trouble in any way the peace of the dead. In the second place, it is hard to see what practical effect the transfer of the two bodies to the Catacombs could have. Certainly they would not have been safer in the Catacombs than they were in the Vatican and on the Via Ostiense. Rather, since in both places the Apostle's tombs were in the middle of pagan cemeteries, the faithful had the advantage of being able to visit them freely without disobeying the imperial edict. Besides, it is very difficult to believe that the Christians would have exposed themselves, precisely during a time of persecution, to the charge of disturbing sepulchers. If they opened the tombs and transported their contents from one end of Rome to the other, they would be under the eyes of the imperial guards, who are known to have had one of their stations at that time near the Catacombs, close to the still existing tomb of Cecilia Metella.
Another strong objection to the thesis of Duchesne and his followers can be found in the very significant silence of Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine. This learned historian of the Church preserved for us, as I have mentioned,7 a passage from Gaius, a churchman who lived in Rome at the end of the second and beginning of the third century A.D. This passage mentions the presence of Peter's and Paul's tombs respectively in the Vatican and on the Via Ostiense. Gaius' valuable words are included in a passage of the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, and in a part of it which is dated between the years 310 and 312 A.D., approximately. Now, Eusebius does not seem to know any other tradition on the Apostle's tombs but that of Gaius: that is, he knows that Peter's tomb is in the Vatican, Paul's on the Via Ostiense. And this is quite important, since if the remains of the two Apostles had really been on the Appian Way (according to Duchesne's theory they would still be there in the period 310-312), Eusebius would certainly have known about it, and would have passed on the information. In another work, the Theophania, written in 333, Eusebius speaks explicitly of the glorious tomb of Peter in the Vatican, remarking on the fervent devotion he received from all the faithful. I have quoted this passage at the beginning of this book.8
At the end of the fourth century, a hymn attributed to St. Ambrose tells us of a feast in honor of the Apostles celebrated simultaneously on "three roads," i.e., in the Vatican, on the Via Ostiense and on the Appian Way.9 This information is substantially the same as that which we receive at the beginning of the next century from the Martyrology. At about the same time, the Christian poet Prudentius, in a hymn on the martyrdom of the two Apostles, refers to the feasts celebrated in their honor in the Vatican and on the Via Ostiense,10 but he does not mention the feast on the Appian Way. This silence would seem to contrast with the data in the Martyrology and the Ambrosian hymn, but it may be explained by considering that the celebration of the feast on the Appian Way must by then have lost much of its importance compared to the feasts celebrated near the tombs of the Apostles in the Vatican and on the Via Ostiense.
As for the presumed return of the two bodies to their former resting places, it is not mentioned by any ancient author. This is not without meaning, since if these glorious remains had really been returned from the Appian Way to the two basilicas built in honor of the Apostles this return would have been an outstanding event and widely mentioned.
Now let us sum up the information we have from the authors:
1. There is no explicit record of a transfer, only a vague hint from Damasus (between the years 366 and 383) of the Apostles "dwelling" on the Appian Way;
2. There is definite mention of a feast in honor of the two Apostles, instituted in 258 during the consulship of Tuscus and Bassus.
Now let us see what the excavations under the Church of St. Sebastian add to the literary tradition.
Begun in 1892 and resumed after a long interruption in 1915, these excavations permit us to establish with sufficient exactness what has happened in the area. In the first century A.D., and perhaps even before, there was an ancient quarry here, and it is quite probable that this excavation was the origin of the Greek expression (kata kumbus - "near the pit") which became the Latin in Catacumbas. After a Christian cemetery was discovered in this part of the Appian Way, the name of "Catacomb" soon became synonymous with Christian underground cemeteries in Rome and elsewhere.
During the first century A.D. and in the first half of the second there were tombs in the vicinity of the pozzuolite quarry, including some columbaria with their niches for cremation urns. At the same time there was another set of structures rising in the same area, being built with great care and decorated with rather good pictures; the so-called Villa Grande, whose purpose has not yet been very well explained. Work on this unusual structure was suddenly interrupted about the middle of the second century. The sections already built and part of the neighboring cemetery were covered with earth, and on the new level, between the end of the second and the beginning of the third century, new tombs were built. This time they were ornate mausolea (Fig. 45) decorated with plaster ornaments and pictures (Fig. 46) and fairly similar to the tombs of the same period brought to light by the recent excavations under St. Peter's Basilica. Contemporary with these rich mausolea there are more modest tombs and some installations certainly designed for holding funeral ceremonies.
All the tombs of the earlier burial place (previous to the middle of the second century) are pagan. The first traces of Christianity begin to appear only in the second burial place, from the end of the second to the beginning of the third century. But from the middle of the third century on, after the second burial place was covered over, the new religion began to show itself with a fairly conspicuous set of very interesting monuments. This group is unquestionably the most important discovery of the excavations here.
On the level reached by the covering of the second cemetery, in a place that corresponds almost exactly to the center of the present Church of St. Sebastian, the excavations have brought to light a walled courtyard, roofless and paved with bricks. Along the walls there are benches, protected by an awning. Evidently associated with this structure were a well and some remains that showed the existence of a kitchen at one time. Evidently, this was a place used or simple banquets, one of the places called tricliae by the Romans. The walls of the triclia were painted, and on the painting many graffiti had been carved in the course of time. These graffiti contain invocations by the faithful to the Apostles Peter and Paul for the salvation of living and dead persons: "Paul and Peter, pray for Victor," "Peter and Paul, remember Antonius Bassus," etc. Along with the requests for prayers were records of refrigeria held in this place: for example, "To Peter and Paul I, Tomius Celius, made a refrigerium," "Near Paul and Peter I made a refrigerium," and so forth (Fig. 47).
In the vocabulary of the ancient Christians, refrigerium usually signifies the reward and comforts of heaven, the eternal "coolness" invoked by the faithful for the dead. But here we are dealing with something else. The term refrigerium seems to have a specialized meaning, indicating a funeral banquet. This interpretation is confirmed by the presence of the triclia. The very ancient practice of holding funeral banquets was widespread among the pagans and lasted well into the Christian era although it was rather seriously opposed by the Church. As for the refrigeria of St. Sebastian's, naturally they were not intended to help the Apostles, who had no need of help; but rather to honor them, with the probable purpose of thus aiding the souls of the deceased. It is quite possible, indeed even very probable that the joy of the banquet sometimes went beyond the limits required by the respect for a holy place. At a later date, in Carthage, St. Augustine had to complain of the wild banquets held right inside the churches. Something of this sort may have taken place here.
The spiritual center of the joyful celebrations in honor of SS. Peter and Paul on the Appian Way seems to have been a monument facing south near the entrance to the triclia; a sort of little shrine flanked by two small blind arches covered with marble and mosaics on the inside. Some scholars have described this monument as a mensa martyrum, but in reality it is hard to state its exact nature. We can only be fairly certain that the two arches served to guard something connected with each of the Apostles. The richness of the marble and mosaics with which they are decorated testifies to this. There is a sharp contrast between this richness and the simplicity, I might almost say poverty, of the rest of the structure.
Those who support the theory that the Apostles' bodies were kept for some time in this region of the Appian Way conducted a long search for the two special tombs throughout the vast area of St. Sebastian's. But their researches have remained completely unsuccessful, and this negative result has strengthened the opinion that the true center of the cult must have been the monument with the two little arches.
To establish the level on which the triclia was built, it was necessary, as I have said, to fill in the second-stage burial place with dirt, covering the rich mausolea and the more modest tombs. Built about the middle of the third century, the triclia was used through that century and into the first years of the fourth. At the time of Constantine, from about 315 to 325 A.D., it was buried, in its turn, to form the level on which the basilica in honor of Peter and Paul was built. The Christian cult based on the practice of refrigerium had lasted, therefore, only a few decades.
The basilica erected by Constantine in honor of the Apostles soon became a burial place and its exterior was circled with a crown of mausolea. Much later, in the ninth century, the modern name of St. Sebastian was substituted for those of Peter and Paul, in honor of the famous martyr, killed during the persecutions of Diocletian, who had been buried at that part of the Appian Way and who soon attracted the veneration of the faithful to his glorious tomb.
That, in summary, is what can be deduced from the archaeological investigations carried out under the Basilica of St. Sebastian.
Clearly, these results are totally negative on the question of whether the Apostles' bodies were ever transferred. In this, they agree perfectly with the data of the literary sources. In other words, the authors and the excavations offer no explicit evidence that the remains of Peter and Paul were transported, during the third century to this part of the Appian Way and later returned, during the age of Constantine, to their original resting places.
In addition, as far as St. Peter is concerned, it can be demonstrated that from the second century onward the faithful in Rome have believed with question that his remains were in the Vatican; naturally this weakens the transfer theory. Besides the famous passage from Gaius, which I have already mentioned,11 this belief is shown by many pieces of evidence uncovered during the excavations under St. Peter's Basilica. Let us look at the evidence in chronological order:
graffito on the Red Wall (about 160 A.D.);
All these sources indicate the common belief that Peter's remains were in the Vatican. In addition, the graffiti carved on an outside wall of Tomb R demonstrate, as we have seen, the existence of a Christian cult, evidently connected with the Apostle's tomb, in about 150 A.D. and perhaps even earlier.12
In this closely-linked chain of evidence testifying to Peter's presence in the Vatican it would be difficult to insert the (poorly attested) episode of a transfer. In addition, the graffiti on Wall G and the Christian evidence in the tomb of the Valerii, approximately contemporary with the graffiti on the Appian Way, speak of the burial of Peter in the Vatican as they certainly would not if the faithful of the time had know the Apostle's remains to be in the sanctuary in Catacumbas. Finally, it must be considered that the graffiti in the Vatican are on a much higher spiritual level than those on the Appian Way. This deeper spirituality also favors the theory that the faithful considered the Vatican the only place where Peter had been entombed.
Then what is the devotion to Peter and Paul that began in 258 on the Appian Way?
Above all, it must be borne in mind that it is a joint devotion to both Apostles. We have seen that even in the earliest times St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch, as well as Gaius, did not hesitate to unite Peter and Paul in a single memory;13 but 258 may have marked the beginning of a true and proper devotion to the two Martyrs whom the Church considered its brightest luminaries. And indeed it can be established, from other evidence, that the cult of the martyrs, although it was practiced in Rome from the most ancient times, acquired a greater development and a more clearly defined character precisely during the first half of the third century.
In addition, the existence of a burial place for the Popes in the nearby cemetery of St. Callistus certainly contributed to the origin of the devotion to Peter and Paul on the Appian Way. Already in 217, when Pope St. Zephyrinus died, his body had been placed in this cemetery on the Appian Way; but the idea of building a special crypt there did not occur until some years later, and the first Pope buried in this crypt was Anteros who died in 236. The year 258, in which the joint cult of Peter and Paul was instituted is also a memorable date for the crypt of the Popes: the martyr Sixtus II was laid to rest there in that year. The persecution of Valerian was raging at the time, and Sixtus II, defying the imperial edict which forbade Christians to hold meetings in their own cemeteries,14 had gone with some deacons to the cemetery of St. Callistus to officiate near the tombs of his predecessors. There he had been captured and barbarously killed with his companions a short time thereafter, on August 6, 258.15 The coincidence of the two events may not be merely casual. It is probable that the heroic death of Sixtus II aroused in the faithful a desire to establish a devotion to the two Chiefs of the Apostles near the place where, since 217 A.D., the Popes were being buried, where that very year, a new, glorious martyr had been laid to rest.
Since the edict of Valerian forbade Christians to meet in their cemeteries, the new devotion obviously could not be started in the Cemetery of St. Callistus. For reasons unknown to us, the choice fell to the nearby location in Catacumbas. The tombs were covered over and on the new level, thus formed, the devotion to the Apostles was organized. Those who hold the thesis that the remains of Peter and Paul were totally or partially transferred to this place in 258 stress the very serious decision taken at that time to cover the former burial place. Only an exceptional motive, such as the transfer of the Apostles' remains, could have lead to such an action, they claim. But this type of explanation does not seem necessary, particularly since, at an earlier date, in the second century, a similar event had taken place: the covering of earlier tombs and the interruption of work on the so-called Villa Grande to create a new level for the building of the rich mausolea of the second burial place. Naturally we must recognize that, by the middle of the third century, the Christians must have been the proprietors of the region in Catacumbas; otherwise they would not have been able to sacrifice an entire cemetery even for the noble and heartfelt purpose of establishing devotion to the Apostles in that area.
Although the cemetery was completely buried, the new cult still had a funereal character. In the first place, its high point was on June 29, the day on which, according to tradition, the two Apostles suffered martyrdom. In addition, the most characteristic rite of the feast was that of a funeral banquet: the refrigerium. Finally, the evident relation of the Apostles' shrine to the neighboring Crypt of the Popes confirms the funereal character of the cult itself.
But all this does not force us to believe that the bodies of the Apostles had been transferred to the Appian Way, and it can easily be maintained that the devotion centered (as sometimes occurred) on a cenotaph, or, at most, on a few relics. In the latter case, it might be well to think of objects (such as medals, pieces of cloth, etc.) which had been in contact with the true tombs of Peter and Paul, probably not of relics actually taken from their tombs. The unauthorized opening of tombs would have been too difficult and too dangerous in that time of persecution. The fact that the feast of June 29 on the Appian Way is recorded in the Chronography of 354 together with those which were celebrated at the actual tombs of the martyrs does not prove the presence of the holy remains in the shrine in Catacumbas, since this same Chronography also records the feasts of three martyrs - Cyprian, Felicitas and Perpetua - whose tombs were generally know to be in Africa, very far from Rome. It would also be an error to give decisive importance to the expression "near to Peter and Paul," which occurs as we have seen, in a graffito of the triclia. It does not necessarily mean "near the tombs of Peter and Paul," but could rather indicate only the place where devotion to the Apostles flourished, perhaps with the aid of some "relics." This interpretation is well supported by an ancient Christian sepulchral inscription in Algeria which speaks of a child buried by his parents "near Saints Peter and Paul."16 In this case, naturally we cannot find a reference to the true tombs of the Apostles; the expression must have been suggested by the presence of some sort of "relics" of the two outstanding martyrs - an explanation which can have equal validity for the graffito in the triclia. Finally, the monument with the two little arches which was found near the triclia and which seems to have been the center of the devotion to Peter and Paul hardly justifies the concept of two true tombs, while on the other hand it could very appropriately be considered a repository for "relics."
Summing up all that is known on the devotion to the Apostles in Catacumbas, we can establish the following:
In 258, during the consulate of Tuscus and Bassus, a devotion to Peter and Paul was instituted. June 29, the date given for the double martyrdom of the Apostles, was chosen as the date for the feast. The devotion was established at the third mile of the Appian Way, in the place called in Catacumbas. The reasons for choosing this site are no longer very clear. We can only assume that the nearness of the Cemetery of St. Callistus had something to do with the choice. Since the year 217, it had been customary to bury deceased pontiffs in this cemetery, and there was a Papal Crypt in which, precisely in the year 258, the martyr Sixtus II had been laid to rest. Certainly the devotion to the two greatest luminaries of the Church would have been better situated right in the Cemetery of Callistus; but, since the very recent edict of Valerian forbade the Christians to meet in their own cemeteries, a nearby location had to be chosen. This was the area in Catacumbas. There was also a cemetery here, but the Christians, who must have owned it, covered it over and built a shrine to the Apostles on the new level. The new devotion had a funereal aspect, characterized by the practice of the refrigerium. This aspect can be explained without recourse to the thesis (very improbable and certainly not proved) of a transfer of the Apostles' bodies from their original locations. It is sufficient to reflect that the new feast was established to commemorate the glorious deaths of Peter and Paul, and that undoubtedly it had some connection with the tombs of the Popes in the nearby Cemetery of St. Callistus. The material center of the devotion must have been various "relics" of the Apostles kept in a typical monument with two small arches. The devotion itself did not last very long: from 258 to about 320 A.D. At the latter date, the triclia was buried to make room for Constantine's basilica in honor of Peter and Paul. In the ninth century, this basilica was given the name of St. Sebastian, in homage to the martyr who had been buried there during the persecution of Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century, and whose tomb had attracted those of many other Christians.
Although there is not sufficient evidence to prove that the remains of Peter and Paul were kept for some time in Catacumbas on the site of the present Church of St. Sebastian, this region of the Appian Way can still claim the glory of having first given impetus to the devotion which associates Peter and Paul in the glory of martyrdom and in the supreme dignity of Princes of the Apostles.