Rome Diary, Day Four: St. Peter's Basilica and Death-Defying Traffic

According to our tour guide…

The Necropolis or City of the Dead was discovered by accident sometime in the late 1930s. A part of the floor in the Basilica of St. Peter needed to be lowered and while digging up the old floor a workman broke off a chunk of what looked like hand-carved rock. 

It would take another three decades and an extraordinary amount of luck and happenstance to eventually find the remains of St. Peter.

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Popes are buried in St. Peter's Basilica and below it. 

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The Pope was told of the workman’s find, and because Catholic priests were being trained in archaeology, he felt comfortable with the idea of an excavation.

The excavation team worked only at night. Hitler’s European rampage was already in full bloom, and although Mussolini had agreed to allow Vatican City to be a separate nation-state, everyone involved feared the Nazis would still steal whatever treasures happened to be unearthed. 

What was found beneath the basilica was an area populated with one-story mausoleums built along a hillside for wealthy Roman families. Some of these brick buildings -- built side by side over centuries -- could house hundreds of family members. What is now a damp, dark, claustrophobic underground city (with tombs instead of shops lining the sidewalks) was once above ground -- a place where mourners came to visit bringing food, honey, and water to their deceased loved-ones. 

Peter is not buried here. He was neither wealthy nor Roman. 

In the first century A.D., a stone’s throw from the City of the Dead, what is now St. Peter’s Plaza was then the Circus of Nero. All that remains of this infamous place is a tall obelisk that still sits in the middle of the plaza. The Circus of Nero was a race track. In order to enjoy night races light was needed and Christians doused in oil were burned alive to provide it.

It was at this place that Peter was crucified. Because he did not believe himself worthy to die as Christ died, the fisherman requested to be crucified upside down. His wish was granted.

Fearing Roman soldiers would toss Peter’s body into the river, his followers stole the corpse from the cross. Next to the City of the Dead was a field where paupers could be buried. St. Peter’s followers buried him there.

Fast forward a few centuries to the reign of Constantine I, the first Christian Roman Emperor. Knowing where Peter was buried, Constantine filled the City of the Dead with dirt to provide the foundation for what is now known as Old St. Peter’s Basilica. A specific shrine within this basilica was placed over the place believed to be Peter’s grave site. 

Some ten years after the WWII-era excavation began, Constantine’s shrine was unearthed. Some human remains were found, but nothing conclusive. In 1950, the Pope announced to the world that the Tomb of St. Peter had been found -- but not St. Peter. 

In the 1960s, a female archaeologist capable of reading the graffiti scrawled onto an ancient wall found at the North end of the excavation, located a missing piece of this wall (that an excavator had taken home as a souvenir). This piece would solve a two-thousand year-old puzzle. Once it was put into place, the graffiti identified the spot as Peter’s resting place. “Peter is Here,” it read.

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St. Peter's Dome built over Peter's tomb was designed by Michelangelo and to this day remains the tallest structure in the city. By agreement, law or both, the dome must remain the tallest structure in Rome.

Behind this wall were the remains of a man -- remains that matched those few remains found in Constantine’s shrine. A series of scientific tests proved this person was male, died during his seventh decade, had a stocky build, and was covered in the purple cloth worn by Christian bishops. 

Missing from the remains were the feet.

If a man is crucified upside down, his feet are nailed to a cross. To steal a corpse quickly before being caught by Roman soldiers (who threw corpses into the nearby Tiber River), it makes perfect sense that taking the time to save the feet would not be an option.  

Apparently, for centuries, Christians knew for a fact St. Peter was buried there and prayed at the site in secret to avoid persecution. But as the centuries passed, fact turned into myth and the current Basilica of St. Peter came to only symbolize Peter’s final resting place.

A mere fifty years ago, modern science turned that myth and symbolism back into fact. 

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Thanks to a jump-on-and-off bus pass, for the first time today we left the few block area between our hotel and the Vatican. This is when we discovered that walking and driving in Rome is a full-contact sport.

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Over the last thirty years I have driven the mean streets of Los Angeles and Chicago. None of this, though, could prepare anyone for what happens on the streets of Rome. It’s bumper cars without bumping. There are very few stop lights, and whatever signs there are appear to be suggestions.

Pedestrians assume cars will stop. Cars assume other cars will stop. Steel and flesh mass on most every corner and intersection to jostle for position and advantage. Instinct rules the road, not rules. In just a few hours I saw more near-accidents than I have in all my time in the States. But I have yet to see an accident. 

The bus I was on nearly killed four people. And what was the reaction of those who came within a single mile-per-hour of meeting their maker? What would have most Americans huffing into a paper bag only kind of annoys the Romans.

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As required by tradition and song, I three three coins in a certain fountain this afternoon and felt a little manipulated in the process. Who collects this money? Why three instead of one or two? I smell a rat.

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No photos could be taken at any time during the Tomb of St. Peter tour. A simple Google search will give you a visual to go along with my report. I've read that Pope Francis recently became is the first Pope to enter the Necropolis. 

Tomorrow … Pompeii.


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