Peter is Here
In the days, months, and years following the Ascension of Jesus and the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter continued in the role that Jesus had given: leader of the Apostles, first in Jerusalem, then in Antioch, and finally in Rome. There are many no-Catholics who claim that Peter never even went to Rome, attempting to discredit his legitimacy as the first pope and the centrality of the Vatican to our faith. As Catholics, however, we can be confident that Peter indeed is buried beneath the altar at St. Peter’s Basilica; there is overwhelming biblical and historical evidence that he did indeed serve as leader of the Church At Rome and lose his life there.
In 1 Peter 5:13, Peter himself says that he is in “Babylon,” but the ancient capital of Babylon had been reduced to an inconsequential village by that time. “Babylon” was a common code word early Christians used to indicate Rome during the times of Roman persecution of Christians. (We also see this is in the book of Revelation.) Starting in 110 A.D., there is a long list of witnesses to Peter being the Bishop of Rome, including St. Ignatius, Clement, Tertullian, Irenaeus, and many others. Nowhere do any ancient writers claim that he died anywhere but Rome.
The story of Peter’s martyrdom is fascinating. Christians were unpopular in the Roman Empire since they did not believe in the Roman gods, which was a very un-patriotic act. Also, there was the mysterious assertion that they ate the Body and Blood of Jesus, and that led to suspicion they might be cannibals.
Nero was emperor of Rome in 64 A.D. while Peter was the head of the Church there. A fire broke out in the city which consumed 3 of the city’s 14 districts and damaged 7 others. It burned for 6 days before being brought under control.
Some historians, even those contemporary to the first century, claimed that Nero had the fire set on purpose to clear space for a new palace and for urban construction. Several ancient historians recorded that he watched the fire from his balcony, playing the lyre. This is where we get the phrase, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.”
However it started, the fire devastated the city economically, and Nero blamed the Christians. The ancient Roman historian Tacitus records that he did this to throw suspicion off of himself. This started the first Roman persecution of Christians, which Tacitus described in his Annals:
“Those who confessed were the first to be caught, then those who were assessed by informers. Those sentenced to death were also mocked: they were torn to pieces by dogs, after being disguised as wild beasts, or they were crucified and set on fire at the end of the day, as torches to illumine the night.
“Nero kept his gardens for this spectacle, hiding among the crowd, dressed as a charioteer . . . This a feeling of pity for the victims was born, for it was obvious that they had not been sacrificed for the public good but due to an individual’s cruelty” (Annals, XV, 44, 2-5).
Among those captured in the next few years was Peter, Pope and bishop of Rome. Nero sentenced him to be crucified in the Roman circus, which was an arena for chariot races and performances. The main circus, the Circus Maximus, had been damaged in the fire, so Nero ordered Peter to be killed in the Circus of Caligula. This Circus of Caligula is near Vatican Hill, at the edge of the city. This minor circus had an Egyptian spire or obelisk, to mark the racing track, and the chariots turned around it to complete a lap. The Vaticanum, the area between the hill and the Tiber river, was a poor area including a cemetery for the destitute.
After Peter’s crucifixion, Christians stole or bribed soldiers for his body, and buried it in the nearby cemetery in an unmarked grave. The grace became a place of pilgrimage for Christians, and over the next 300 years, small shrines were built over it and graffiti inscriptions to Peter were written around it. It is possible at various time, Peter’s bones may have been hidden during a persecution and returned when they danger ended. Various Christian martyrs were arrested while praying at Peter’s gave during these persecutions.
Ina bout 325 A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine converted to the Faith and ended the persecutions against the Church. He built a huge wooden church over the well-known site of Peter’s tomb, which was completed in 360 A.D. and stood for nearly 1200 years.
In the year 1506, construction began on the new St Peter’s Basilica. It rook 120 years to build, and it is the church that we all recognize today as the face of the Vatican. In 1586, the obelisk, weighing over 40 tons, was moved from the center of the site of the ancient circus, 400 yards to its current position in the square. It took 900 men and 72 horses over 5 months to complete the move.
In 1939, Pope Pius XI requested archaeological digs to begin under St. Peters, and in the years 1940-1949, the entirety of the old Roman cemetery was re-discovered, including the tomb of St. Peter. The tomb area is indeed directly under the main altar of the basilica. While it is impossible to know with medical certainty the identity of the bones discovered in the first-century tomb, they were found next to a scratched inscription from the third century that proclaims, Petros Eni– Peter is here.