by Jan Bartek
The Vatican is the smallest state in Europe, but it has
many interesting attractions to offer.
If you visit the
beautiful Sistine Chapel, you'll find the greatest treasures Vatican
City has to offer. St. Peter's Basilica one of the largest churches
in the world is one of the holiest temples for Christianity and
therefore naturally an important pilgrimage site.
Many Popes are buried
inside St. Peter's Basilica.
St. Peter's Square is
also a true wonder worthy of admirations and those who are
interested in art should visit the Vatican Museums that houses
thousands of works of art.
Discoveries Inside the Walls of the Vatican City
These are all buildings and priceless ancient works we can see and
admire with our own eyes, but the Vatican has also some
archaeological secrets that shed light on the independent city
state's history located in the heart of Rome.
Ruled by the Pope, the
Bishop of Rome, the Vatican City is home to about 1,000 people that
live on a total area of 0,44 km².
But have you ever wondered how many people are buried inside Vatican
Archaeologists have so far unearthed 250 magnificent ancient Roman
burials inside the walls of the Vatican City, and many more are
This shouldn't be
surprising considering the fact the Roman necropolis of Santa Rosa,
stands under what is now Vatican City.
Investigations of the unearthed burials inside the Vatican City's
walls reveal the tombs contain human remains dating from the 1st
to the beginning of the 4th century C.E.
Inside the burial
scientists have found dead bodies belonging to the Roman elite,
servants, and freed slaves from the Julio-Claudian era to the
times of Emperor Constantine.
Funerary stele dedicated
to a slave by the name of Grathus.
Credit: Vatican Museum
The Roman necropolis on the current hill of the Vatican is the final
resting place to people of all classes, rich and poor.
The ongoing excavations inside the Vatican City's walls have
provided scientists with vital historical information that reveals
how changes of ancient Roman burial practices and the transformation
The burials not only shed light on the transition of burial
practices, such as the passage from cremation to the less expensive
practice of inhumation:
"The funerary rites
also express the hopes and superstition of the deceased at a
time when the Romans stopped believing in the Olympian gods, so
they were left uncertain [how to] trust their expectation of an
afterlife [relative] to new philosophies or old superstitions,"
director of the department of Greek and Roman art in the Vatican
Slaves and Servants of Julius Caesar and Other Roman Emperors
Today remembered as a political and military genius who overthrew
Rome's decaying political order and replaced it with a dictatorship,
Julius Caesar was a man of great power who had many slaves.
Archaeologists have now found tombs that belong to former ancient
In ancient Rome, it was
not uncommon that slaves could become wealthy and when they did
these people of the lower classes sought to memorialize their
success by building a tomb or grave marker that served as a visual
reminder of their rise to new improved social status.
As the Jerusalem Post
"two examples of
surviving funerary monuments from the necropolis of Santa Rosa
illustrate some of these tendencies while providing a window
into Roman funerary culture and art associated with freedmen,
that is, people who were former slaves."
In the eastern part of
the cemetery, many of the monumental tombs that have been excavated
have engraved inscriptions providing valuable details into the life
of the deceased.
In this burial area, the archaeologists also discovered two lavish
funeral altars that date to the time of Emperor Nero (54-68
to the time of Emperor Nero,
were dedicated to Flora and Passiena Prima
freedman Tiberius Claudius Optatus.
The first altar was dedicated to Flora by her parents
Tiberius Claudius Optatus and Passiena Prima.
Later on, an inscription
was added with the name of their son, Tiberius Claudius Proculus as
well as of Lucius Passienus Evaristus, who was the freed slave and
Passiena Prima's brother.
What is of great interest is the specification of Optatus' job in
He had served as
Nero's archivist, a position of trust and delicacy.
The second altar is
dedicated to the memory of Passiena Prima, showing a portrait of her
with a hairstyle typical of the Julia-Claudian era, which is
identical with the hair style of Agrippina the younger, Nero's
"We seem to have here
a group of freedmen all connected, either directly or
indirectly, to the familia Caesaris," says Dr.
Leonardo Di Blasi
who is co-director of the necropolis of Santa Rosa.
"While the freed
slave Tiberius Claudius was not a member of Rome's elite or
patrician class, he certainly wanted to convey his importance
and close proximity to the imperial family by erecting these two
altars, showing his family's status."
In addition to this,
archaeologist have also unearthed beautiful funerary building
dedicated to the slave Alcimus, whom Emperor Nero had
commissioned to carry out maintenance work inside one of Rome's most
important theaters, Theatro Pompeiano, also known as the
theater of Pompeus since it was built by Pompeus the Great in
Nearby was found a marble funerary shrine with the portrait of young
child, Tiberius Natronius Venustus, who was four years, four months
and ten days old when he died.
Chamber Tomb that Belongs to a Knight who Died 1,800 Years Ago
One of the most startling discoveries was the extraordinary burial
tomb that is located on the hillside, in the northeastern corner of
"The entrance of the
tomb leads to a 1,800-year-old chamber room, with two arched
recesses at the back of the chamber, which was used as a place
archaeologists found five sarcophagi placed on an elaborate
decorated mosaic floor, with a braided pattern depicting cupids
harvesting grapes from vines, and a Dionysius leaning on a young
satyr," the Jerusalem Post reports.
"From the end of the
second century, families belonging to the new social class built
their own sepulchers above the ancient burials, displaying their
social status through the rich marble sarcophagi that replaced
the practice of cremation," explains Di Blasi.
Buried inside one of the
sarcophaguses was Publius Caesilius Victorinus, a Roman
equestrian (equivalent to the social class of a knight) who died at
the age of 17.
The lid of the
sarcophagus depicts several dolphins swimming among the sea waves.
"Dolphins, known as
friends of sailors, were considered a good omen by seamen; there
are many legends about dolphins that lead sailors to safer
shores," explains Di Blasi.
Grave stele of Nero's servant Alcimus
who carried out maintenance work
at theater of Pompeus in Rome.
Credit: Vatican Museum
In the classical world, dolphins often give lifts to both mortals
and gods, and were considered Poseidon's special messengers.
In the funerary context,
therefore, the dolphins accompany the souls to the underworld.
buried at a time when Christianity was spreading in the Roman
iconography of the sarcophagi displays both pagan and Christian
For instance, the
figures of the dolphins are symbolically transformed into
Christ, who leads the dead to the "safest shores" of the
discoveries made inside the Vatican City's walls provide scholars
with valuable insight into Roman society.
The tombs give clues to
how religious and burial practices changed over time and the
importance of social status.
Scientists have so far found burials of ordinary men such as
postmen, bakers, blacksmiths, fountain makers, ambassadors and
members of a team of the charioteers that competed in the circus,
and we can expect more findings in the future.
necropolis of Santa Rosa is one
of the best-preserved burial sites of the Roman world and
contains a treasure trove of the life of the ancient Romans," Di
Needless to say, that
looking through the eyes of archaeologists the Vatican City has much
more to offer than the famous tourist attractions we hear about
Vital clues shedding light on the ancient Roman Empire's history are
still buried beneath the ground which is why it's so important to
keep excavating this area.