by Jan Bartek
March 11, 2021
from AncientPages Website




Vatican City.

Credit: Public Domain

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.




Archaeological 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 City?

Archaeologists have so far unearthed 250 magnificent ancient Roman burials inside the walls of the Vatican City, and many more are being discovered.


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 of beliefs.

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," Giandomenico Spinola, director of the department of Greek and Roman art in the Vatican Museum explained.



Tombs of 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 Roman slaves.


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 reports,

"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 CE).


Funeral altars,

dating to the time of Emperor Nero,

which were dedicated to Flora and Passiena Prima

by the freedman Tiberius Claudius Optatus.

Credit: Vatican Museum

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 the inscription.

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 mother.

"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 55 BCE.

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.




Magnificent 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 Vatican.

"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 of entombment.


Here the 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.

"Victorinus was buried at a time when Christianity was spreading in the Roman Empire.


Interestingly, the iconography of the sarcophagi displays both pagan and Christian elements.


For instance, the figures of the dolphins are symbolically transformed into Christ, who leads the dead to the "safest shores" of the sky.

The archaeological 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.

"The 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 Blasi concluded.

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 often.

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.