Beneath the finely tuned phraseology bigger things lay buried—and I had an idea what they were. I lived in Rome in the mid-1990s, and had researched and explored many of the hundreds of archaeological sites beneath the modern city. In the process I had learned of Ferrua's dramatic discovery of the pagan cemetery beneath St. Peter's, and of the resulting bitter controversy with the epigraphist Margherita Guarducci over the identity of bones found in Peter's supposed tomb. According to many Vatican sources, this quarrel had cost Ferrua a cardinalate.
I decided to revisit the necropolis, and with a guide and a small group of visitors, I once again descended into the underworld of St. Peter's that Antonio Ferrua had revealed. As we walked down a long, dark stairway, the air grew moist and deep-earth cool, pungent with mold. We found ourselves on a twilit roadway fronted by stately little mansions of the dead, with two-story façades of thin Roman brick. Within were walls of lush frescoes and stuccowork, and an exotic profusion of the old gods: falcon-headed Horus with his sacred ankh, Venus rising fair and perfumed from the waves, Dionysus and a drunken rout of nymphs and fauns brandishing phallic wands. Our guide, a young archaeologist with clear blue eyes, a blonde bob, and a patter polished by many tours, explained that these mausoleums had once stood beneath the open sky. Some had courtyards for graveside banquets, with terra-cotta pipes leading down into the graves, through which banqueters poured wine to slake the thirst of the dead. As we proceeded, grates overhead revealed a distant, luminous ceiling of coffered gold. I realized that we were directly beneath the nave of the basilica, approaching the high altar.
At the end of the roadway, under the altar itself, was a rough block of masonry. Through a crack in the brickwork a slender column of white marble could be seen, like a bone laid bare. "This is the tomb of the Apostle Peter," the guide announced, "marked by the so-called aedicula, a memorial to Peter with two marble columns, raised in the second century." The other side of the masonry block was covered with a web of ancient graffiti, she said, left by pious visitors to the tomb. She indicated the strata of stonework built up over the aedicula, a neat core sample of the site: the fourth-century masonry of Constantine the Great, who built the first church of St. Peter; an altar of the seventh century; another of the twelfth; and finally the present high altar, raised in 1594, after Constantine's original church had been demolished and New St. Peter's had been built in its place.
"We should not be surprised that Peter's grave is surrounded by pagan tombs," our guide said. "Remember that in 64 A.D., when Peter died, Rome's Christians were an obscure Eastern cult, a tiny enclave in a predominantly pagan population." In that year Nero, the reigning emperor, rounded them up in the Vatican circus. Striding among them dressed as a charioteer, he watched as some were wrapped in animal skins and savaged by dogs, others crucified and set alight, human torches to illuminate the spectacle. Peter, their leader, died that hellish night, she continued. He was buried on a slope of the adjoining Vatican Hill, which once rose where the basilica now stands; in time an extensive pagan necropolis grew up around his simple grave. Two hundred fifty years later, when Constantine decided to erect a basilica over Peter's grave, his workmen buried part of this necropolis in a million-cubic-meter landfill, to create a level foundation for the church. This was the area, preserved beneath a thick blanket of earth, that Ferrua's excavation had revealed.