2. The Vatican Hill

22-06-2019 00:06

By P.J Chanderly, S.J.
Author of ” Rooms and Shrines of the Saints”, “Le Gesu de Rome”, etc.
” Oh ! how beautiful must be the heavenly Jerusalem if earthly Rome is so glorious !”
– St. Fulgentius. (d. 533.)
LONDON : MANRESA PRESS, ROEHAMPTON, S.W. 1908 (The right of Reproduction reserved .)



The considerable stretch of country that lies between the Janiculum and the Milvian bridge (Ponte Molle) on the west bank of the Tiber, was known to the ancients as Colles and Campi Vaticani. The district was crossed by the important roads Via Cornelia, Via Vaticana, Via Aurelia, and was a sort of pleasure ground of the Romans, covered with gardens and adorned with many noble monuments(1) that towered above the surrounding trees. Here was the little farm of L. Quintius Cincinnatus, who was summoned from the plough to assume the office of Dictator at a crisis of the affairs of the republic. Here likewise were the farm of Mutius Scaevola, the villas of Geta and of Galba, of Regulus Causidicus and a host of other well-known families. The place had its temples too, of Apollo, Mars, Cybele, Faunus, and it was in the temple of Apollo that the pagan priests deluded the people by lying oracles known as vaticinia, whence the name Vatican is thought to be derived. The traditions of the locality were all pagan, yet this was the spot in which St. Peter was to consummate his martyrdom, and to which a long stream of Christian worshippers was to flow to the end of time.

On the slopes of the Vatican hill, as it rises gently from the river (near the spot where St. Peter’s now stands) were the famous gardens of Agrippina, mother of Caligula, which in course of time became crown property, and were a favourite resort of the profligate young Emperors Caligula, Nero, Heliogabalus. The gardens enclosed a portico on the riverside and a circus, begun by Caligula and finished by Nero. In the centre of the spina, or middle line of the circus, between the two metae (goals), stood the famous obelisk brought from Egypt by Caligula, which now stands in front of St. Peter’s. Outside the sacristy of the basilica a stone with an inscription let into the pavement marks the original site of the obelisk, whence it was removed by Sixtus V.

These gardens were the scene of the fearful agony and death of a great multitude(2) of Christians in the First great Persecution of the Church.

In the year 64, Nero set fire to Rome, partly out of a spirit of fiendish mischief, partly from a wish to rebuild it on a scale of greater magnificence ; being alarmed at the storm of popular excitement, in his wish to screen himself from suspicion, he charged the Christians(3) with the crime. Such was the origin of the persecution. The poor Christians were arrested in great numbers, and suffered by terrible and hitherto unheard of forms of death. They were sewn up in the skins of beasts and exposed to wild dogs to be torn to pieces; they were wrapped in garments saturated with pitch, and then hung up on lofty gallows and set fire to in the dusk of the evening.(4) Their remains, buried in the grottoes of the Vatican hill, lie somewhere near St. Peter’s tomb, and their triumph is commemorated in the Roman martyrology on June 24.

  1. Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom in this same persecution on the same day, June the 29th, and in the same year, either a.d. 66 or 67. There is some controversy as to the precise year, but the latter seems to be the one generally accepted.

Baronius, Panciroli, and others held that St. Peter was martyred on the Janiculum, where the church of S. Pietro in Montorio now stands. Anastasius Bibliothecarius, Mallius, Comestor, Bosio, Arringhi and most modern writers say that he was put to death in Nero’s circus on the Vatican, and this opinion is now generally accepted. The reasons urged in favour of the Vatican as the site of martyrdom are :

  1. The tradition on which Baronius, &c., rely, goes back no further than the eleventh century, whereas the tradition in favour of Nero’s circus on the Vatican can be traced to the fourth century.(5)
  2. A writer of the fourth century says the Apostle was crucified “juxta palatium Neronianum — juxta obeliscum Neronis.” But there was no such obelisk on the Janiculum.
  3. A very early tradition says that he was martyred ” inter duas metas,” “between the two goals” (of the circus). In the middle ages the two metae were supposed to refer to two pyramidal monuments known as the tombs of Romulus and Remus, situated the one at the Ostian gate ( Porta di S. Paolo) which still exists, viz., the tomb of C. Cestius; the other near S. Maria Traspontina, which was destroyed by Alexander VII. S. Pietro in Montorio being in the line between these two land-marks, is supposed to be referred to as inter duas metas ; but this is a very forced interpretation, and would have been a most vague topographical indication.

The Apostle, at his own request, was crucified with his head downwards, for he accounted himself unworthy of dying in the same manner as his Divine Master. This fact is mentioned by St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and Prudentius.(6) We are told that St. Clement, his third successor in the Pontificate, St. Marcellus, a priest, St. Apuleius, one of his disciples, together with SS. Anastasia and Basilissa, afterwards martyred under Nero, came and took down the body of the Apostle(7) and having washed it in wine mingled with myrrh, aloes and spikenard, and having carefully embalmed it, wrapped it in fine linen and placed it in a marble urn which they had before strewn with leaves of laurel and ivy as a symbol of their faith in the future life.(8) With many fervent prayers they deposited the remains in a tomb on the Via Cornelia, close to the circus of Nero, and they placed at the same time the foot of the sarcophagus toward the east, and marked by an inscription the place where remains so precious were buried.(9)

The tomb still remains in the original spot. The temporary removal of the body for a short period to the cemetery on the Appia Via, will be referred to later, when we visit S. Sebastiano.



(1) The chief monuments were those erected to Romulus, Numa, Scipio, and Valerian, also the tombs of Numidicus, and Marcus Aurelius.

(2) Tacitus, Annales , lib. xv. n. 44.

(3) As the purity of their lives was a censure on the corruption of the age, and their total separation from pagan festivities an occasion of hatred and contempt, Nero thought them fit subjects for public vengeance.

(4) Tacitus ( Annales ) relates that the atrocious cruelties inflicted on these innocent victims ended by winning for them a certain degree of pity, and by swelling the torrent of popular indignation which was soon to overwhelm the crowned monster. Seneca was one whom these horrible spectacles struck with admiring compassion, as may be gathered from his letters. ( Epist. xiv. et lxxviii.). Seneca, of whom Tertullian, in his treatise De Anima , says that he is soepe noster , was an eye-witness of the final struggles of many of these martyrs of Christ.

(5) Marucchi, Basiliques de Rome , p.462. Grisar, S.J., I Papi del medio Evo , vol. i. pp. 367, 368, 408.

(6) Alban Butler, Lives of the Saints , June 29.

(7) The law allowed in certain cases the bodies of those put to death to be given to their friends for burial. Allard, Histoire des Persécutions , vol. i. p. 315.

(8) Aless. d’Achille, I sepolcri dei Rom. Pontifici. vol. i. p. 3. Filippo Mignanti, Istoria della Basilica Vaticana, c. ii. p. II. Cav. de Rossi, Roma Sotteranea Cristiana , vol. i. p. 135. Eusebius, Hist. Eccl . l.ii. c. xxiv. &c.

(9) MacLeod, S.J., The Months November, 1869, p. 499.