Discover the Amazing Ancient Necropolis Below Saint Peter’s Basilica

One of the most fascinating sights to visit in the Vatican is the Roman necropolis on top of which stands the modern St. Peter’s Basilica and also part of St. Peter’s Square. The most common Vatican tours pretty much always include a visit to the Vatican Museums and a tour of the stunning Renaissance Basilica, some even getting down the crypt where many popes are buried. However, for a tour of this ancient pre-Christian graveyard, you need to book via the Vatican website itself. Here is everything you need to know to visit this intriguing Vatican site.

Under St. Peter’s Basilica: the History

Under what we know today of the Renaissance Saint Peter’s Basilica with all its mosaics, statues and masterpieces, are some layers of history that make it for a fascinating underground trip. Built in what was known as Ager Vaticanus, the deeper step of our century-old journey is the circus emperor Caligula established in the Horti Agrippinae, the huge and luscious gardens he had inherited from his mother Agrippina. Caligula’s circus was mainly used for public and private events and, later, under Nero’s rule, when it became Nero’s Circus, the space was used to execute the early Christians in a time where persecutions were common. According to some research, the apostle Peter was martyred here crucified upside down.

The circus was built next to a pagan cemetery where wealthy Romans were buried and that later became an early-Christian cemetery some 11 meters below street level. Gradually, the circus stopped being used and as the cemetery expanded, the graves started invading the space of what once was Caligula’s stadium.

In the 4th century, Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, decided to build a Basilica on top of theniche that was believed to enshrine and protect the tomb of Peter. The Renaissance Basilica stands on top of the 4ht-century one and is actually much smaller. From the grottoes below the modern church, where are the Popes’ tombs, it’s marked in many places the level of the floor of the Constantinian Basilica.

Image: St. Peter's tomb from Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican
What we can see of St. Peter’s tomb from Saint Peter’s Basilica after layers of history and art

What You Will See inSt. Peter’s Basilica Necropolis

Initially, the old cemetery was the last resting place for Roman patricians so you are going to pass through monumental mausoleums usually including a larger chamber, sometimes with frescoes, carvings, jars, cubicles to host the different members of the family, the inscription at the entrance making it clear who they belonged to. Sometimes, you can see the tombs of their slaves placed just beside the rich mausoleums as if to say that in the afterlife they would feast altogether. Some of the mausoleums featured also the small holes on the floor needed for the ablutions the relatives of the dead would do with sweet drinks commemorate their deceased from the terrace on top of the mausoleum possible to reach via an internal staircase.

During your whole visit, always keep in mind that while you will be walking underground, in origins this was an open-air cemetery and you will be actually walking along a normal street of ancient Rome. From the beginning to the end of the tour, your expert, a Vatican-certified guide, usually an archaeologist, will explain to you step by step the story linked to St. Peter’s tomb.

Before descending to the necropolis, your guide will show you a replica of the famous Gaius’ Trophy, the 2nd-century votive niche leaning on a red wall that Roman citizen Gaius made to protect what was believed to be the small tomb of Peter. From here, century after century several buildings were placed on top of this humble tomb to signify a continuous devotion and commemoration of the place where the first Christian Pope was martyred and buried.

The tour ends near the small chapel of the Constantinian memorial and your guide will show you where it’s now believed to be the box containing the actual bones and remains of Peter. While his tomb (the one inside Gaius’ Trophy) was never moved, in fact, his remains were. During new excavations in the early 20th century, it was found that his tomb was actually empty and only a few decades later archaeologists found a small box containing human remains with a piece of the red wall of the Gaius’ Trophy bearing the inscription “Peter Eni”, “Peter is here”. Following the analyses of the remains, they found that they were the bones of a 65-ish-year-old man and they couldn’t find feet bones. This was linked to the fact that Peter was crucified upside down and probably the feet separated from the rest of the body.

The tour is extremely interesting whether you are religious or not because it takes you on a fantastic trip to ancient Rome, its society, its burial rituals and shows you how the transition from paganism to Christianity happened at least concerning the cult of the dead.

How to Book Your Tour to St. Peter’s Basilica Necropolis

Sometimes, you can find tickets for the Vatican necropolis on reseller websites, but I think your best bet is to just book directly with the Ufficio Scavi (Vatican Excavation Office). They do require a few pieces of information but the booking process goes smooth and fast. I booked a week before but it was a quiet period, in general, I recommend emailing them a few weeks before your desired date.

The easiest way is to send an email to [email protected] with these details:

  • The number of participants;
  • Names of each of the participants;
  • The language you prefer for the tour;
  • A range of dates you prefer. They ask you to write the month in full and the time will be chosen by the Ufficio Scavi;
  • Your e-mail address, or fax number, or postal address, depending on how you prefer them to reply to you.

Where to go once there? The entrance is on the left side of the colonnade, considering you are facing the Basilica. Either from inside the colonnade or right outside, you will be able to access the police control and from there, get to the entrance with the Swiss Guards. They will direct you to the Excavations Office where they will check your booking and assign you to your guide.

Image: entrance to the excavation office in the Vatican
Entrance to the Ufficio Scavi in the Vatican

St. Peter’s Basilica Necropolis Tour: Know Before You Go

Here are my tips to best enjoy your visit and avoid all surprises.

  • No photography or video allowed. If you are only visiting the necropolis or your hotel is nearby and want to avoid extra wait, you can leave your photography gear home since you won’t be able to use it. Otherwise, don’t bother taking it out of your bag.
  • Wear comfortable shoes. The tour involves ancient narrow roads and uneven staircases, so you are better off with comfortable shoes, whether they are sneakers or walking sandals.
  • It’s very narrow. Some of the passageways of this underground labyrinth are very narrow and some quite dark despite the artificial lights. If you are claustrophobic either avoid or be prepared.
  • FFP2 mask mandatory. A normal face mask is not accepted to get down the necropolis, maybe due to the very narrow spaces. Either you arrive with your own FFP2 mask or you can buy it there for 2€.
Image: FFP2 mask to enter the Vatican necropolis in Rome

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