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Basilica of St. Peter
Rome Blog 3 of 4

Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, was responsible for the building of the first basilica of St Peter.  He became emperor in the year 314 AD and it was sometime during his reign that construction began. The basilica was built on the site of the Roman Circus but because of the hilly terrain surrounding it the land had to be levelled.

To get a picture of what life was like when St Peter was crucified upside down  (because he felt his unworthiness in being crucified in the same way as his master) we have to go behind the Basilica which was the location of the Roman Circus where Christian martyrs were executed because of their faith and because of the unjust blame that was put on them by the pagan emperor Nero who deliberately set fire to Rome then pointed his vindictive finger at them. The great Egyptian obelisk which stands in the middle of St Peter’s square today was formerly located in the middle of the Roman Circus, the site of which is clearly indicated, then later relocated to the front of the basilica.

Pope Pius XII commissioned a team of archaeologists to excavate the ground below the Basilica in the hope of finding the tomb of St Peter. It is recorded that one of the early Roman Christians, Gaius, told the Christians in Greece that he knew where the tombs of St Peter and St Paul were located. During the Second World War 1939 – 1945 the excavation work continued in secret as there were fears that the occupying enemy in Rome might interfere.
The excavation team discovered the road surrounding the Circus where many wealthy pagan Romans had built elaborate tombs for their loved ones. The sculptures chiselled into the many sarcophagi depicted aspects of the life of the dead person and it is this artwork that the change from paganism to Christianity can be detected. From prostitutes, loose women and battle scenes to the dove carrying the olive branch.  

A wall was found among the debris called the “graffiti wall.” One of the archaeologists said that she would study it for a month and instead it took her six years!! Among the graffiti she discovered hundreds of “chi-rhos” which is the X surmounted by a P - the first two letters of “Christ”; another few hundred of a P on top of an E referring  to the keys given to St Peter by Christ. “I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom;” hundreds of the insignia of Constantine the first Christian Roman emperor who changed the law allowing Christianity to be practised openly after his victory on the Milvian bridge, where he  saw in the sky the cross with the insignia. “In this sign you will conquer.” The Milvian bridge is still in use today and only about ten minutes by bus from the College.

Rome Blog 2 of 4 -
Basilica of St Peter for a ‘Scavi’ Tour

This levelling affected the grand tombs of the wealthy who were ordered to remove the remains of their deceased relatives to make room for the new Christian basilica. Can you imagine the uproar?

These beautiful tombs, some with their own courtyards, were party places, where pagan families still celebrated, wine–ing and dining, singing and dancing, remembering their deceased. The levelling of the land didn’t destroy the tombs completely but buried them and fortunately preserved them, making it possible for us today in the 21st century to get a glimpse of life as it was lived among those ancient breath takingly beautiful ruins of the 1st century.
Here we were so many metres below ground level, breathing shallowly with the lack of air, walking on the same flagstones as our predecessors, touching the same building bricks and witnessing to a life, long gone by but ready at the same time to give up its secrets.

The early Christians didn’t take long to move into these once-pagan cemeteries, once Christianity was no longer forbidden by law. There is evidence of an early Christian who helped himself to somebody else’s inscribed marble plaque, turned it to the back and inscribed his dead friend’s name with a beautifully etched “chi-rho” on the top right hand corner.
There was however a marked difference in the tombs between the pagan and the Christian. The tomb of a wealthy Christian believed to be a convert can be seen.  It is small and in its smallness indicates the Christian belief that the deceased person is no longer there but with God in his true home in Heaven. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen.”

Rome Blog 4 of 4