Episode 40: A War of Ideas in the Vatican Necropolis
Today we investigate two tombs under St. Peter’s Basilica, one of a saint, the other of a sinner, or so at least the saint would say. But this sinner defends himself.
Three weeks ago, we made a first visit to the Necropolis, or City of the Dead, under St. Peter’s Basilica. Our goal then was to describe the Necropolis in general terms and, since it was populated by both Christian and pagan tombs, to note some of the differences between them. The simplest point was not surprising: the art of the Christians, especially as seen in Tomb M, has a persistent and emphatic focus on Christ’s power to save us even from death. Some of the pagan tombs featured art that might allude to hopes of a life to come, but the pagans advanced this theme both more tentatively and less exclusively. Judging at least from funeral art, the early Christians were remarkably confident that they knew how to remove death’s sting. Not so the pagans, and this disagreement over death would seem to affect dramatically the way they looked at life. As compared with eternal bliss at the right hand of the Father, military victory, public honor, and sensual pleasures seem like small beans.
I’d like to return to the Necropolis today and to focus on two tombs in particular. One has been the center of attention ever since the building of the first St. Peter’s and perhaps before, namely, the tomb that might have been that of St. Peter himself, the Prince of the Apostles, the first pope, a martyr for his faith, and the namesake of the basilica. The other is the tomb of a pagan, a certain Flavius Agricola. His tomb was discovered by accident back in the 17th century and was banished from the Necropolis; but, surprise of surprises, you can visit it in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Both the first and second Vatican basilicas devoted to St. Peter claimed to be located over his tomb, but systematic archeological excavations to investigate this claim were undertaken only in the last century. Digging into the foundations of the papacy is a sensitive matter, for it claims that Peter was the first bishop of Rome and that popes—that is, bishops of Rome—remain authoritative over the Church today because they have inherited Peter’s authority. It is thus easy to imagine that some would just as soon not test the Church’s traditions against the findings of archeological science. This might seem the moment for a jab at the Catholic Church as having been uniquely afraid of science, whether Galileo’s, Darwin’s, or that of modern archeology, but it strikes me that examples abound in which subjects are left unstudied because of fears that the results of careful analysis might offend someone or challenge an attractive idea: we modern Westerners all embrace science in general terms, but I don’t think it’s only the Church that has sometimes worried that science might not bring the answers we want. However this may be, it’s not surprising if some opposed excavations might challenge the tradition that Peter’s tomb was under his church. Besides this, it might also be considered irreverent to go digging up burial places.
But the Church eventually undertook excavations starting in 1939, an unintended consequence of an effort made to accommodate the wish of Pope Pius XI to be buried near the traditional tomb of St. Peter, beneath the crossing of the church’s nave and transept. While digging down to make room for his grave and a simple chapel, some of the ancient mausolea below were discovered, and the new pope suddenly faced the decision of whether to explore further or not. The Catholic Church supported modern science to the point of having its own trained archeologists and astronomers, and, with whatever reservations, the pope gave the go ahead for Vatican archeologists to begin exploring, but he demanded strict secrecy, so digging was done only during the night and with only limited use of power tools.
Plan of Field P, directly under the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica (digitalisiert von Mogadir, CC BY 3.0)
A Jesuit, trained archeologist, and leading authority on the catacombs, Father Antonio Ferrua, led the excavations from the get-go, and in 1951, after 12 years of work in secret, he and his colleagues published their official report. It concerned not the entire Necropolis but its extreme western end, the part directly under the dome of the basilica. Called “Field P,” this area has a high concentration of Christian graves and includes findings that are older than the pagan mausolea, which are mostly from the second century. Field P also includes a rough block of red masonry, the so-called Red Wall, and a column of white marble, which was part of a little aedicula or shrine. In addition to the tradition that the first great basilica was built over his tomb, Eusebius of Caesarea, the first historian of the Church, quoted a certain Gaius as having said, QUOTE “But I can show the trophies of the apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of the church,” by which he meant Saints Peter and Paul. Since Gaius lived well over a century before St. Peter’s was built, he seems to have seen an open-air memorial to Peter in the area of Vatican Hill, which the church would later dominate. It was then possible to take the aedicula to be the trophy to which Gaius referred, which would align the literary with the archeological evidence.
Plan of Red Wall and Peter’s (Possible) Tomb (Vatican)
And then there is epigraphical evidence, or might be, for behind the Red Wall was another older and smaller wall that was so crowded with ancient graffiti that it was virtually impossible to read, but it did seem to list Christian names and refer to Christ. Could these suggest that there were Christians buried in close quarters around the tomb of a martyr and apostle? On top of all this, bones were found behind the red wall, so one could wonder whether Peter’s remains had been found along with his tomb.
But no part of this evidence speaks for itself, and Father Ferrua’s report did not read it as confirming that the researchers had found Peter’s remains. Beyond disappointing the expectations that the project had aroused, the report also gave rise to charges that Ferrua’s team had been careless and had either missed or even deliberately overlooked important evidence. It also came to light, for example, that there had long been feuding between the non-scientist who headed the project, a certain Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, and Ferrua’s team, with each sometimes acting behind the back of the other. So rather than settling the questions many wanted to be answered, it sparked harsh words about both the methods the researchers had used and the conclusions they reached.
Pius XII decided to authorize further research and selected Professor Margherita Guarducci to carry it out. Her expertise was in reading ancient inscriptions, and she claimed to be able to understand the graffiti and to see in it cryptic references to Peter. She also took a sort of abbreviated Greek on the Red Wall to mean “Peter is within,” and she added the accusation that Ferrua had recognized but deliberately suppressed this important evidence.
From inscriptions she moved on to bones, and she found a workman who showed her a wooden box of bones, which had previously been discovered inside the Red Wall to which the aedicula was attached. She charged that Ferrua’s team had overlooked this crucial evidence and explained that Monsignor Kaas had tucked them away for safekeeping. Guarducci arranged tests which revealed that the bones had been wrapped in a cloth of royal purple with gold stitching, that they had been buried in the dirt near the aedicula, and that they were those of a robust man of sixty or seventy years of age. This was enough for her to conclude that she had found the bones of St. Peter, and she presented her evidence in a series of articles and books. Among those she persuaded was Pope Paul VI, for he announced on June 26, 1968, that the relics of St. Peter had been “identified in a way we believe convincing.” One who clearly was not persuaded was Father Ferrua, who launched his own stream of attacks against the reliability of Guarducci’s claims. As he put it,
One can either commiserate with or admire the illustrious Authoress for her immense exertions, carried out with commendable passion and ingenuousness, and indeed with a faith that ought to move mountains, but all this cannot suffice to make us accept a work that is fundamentally wrong.
It appears that Pope John Paul II distanced himself from the professor, which earned him some bitter criticism from her, but Pope Francis brought the bones back into the limelight. He exposed them for veneration at a mass in 2013, and recently gave some of them as a gift to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the highest-ranking of the several leaders who preside over the Eastern Orthodox Church, which split away from Catholicism way back in 1054, five hundred years before the Protestants did likewise. As part of the effort to improve relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, the gift would have lost its value if it had been accompanied by openly stated doubts about the authenticity of the relics.
Such is a brief introduction to the most famous tomb that might be in the Necropolis beneath St. Peter’s. Since its importance is linked to the bones of the saint, we will at some point need to wonder why the Church holds the identification of relics to be so important. Since all of Rome’s churches are filled with relics, we will have plenty of opportunities in which to do this. For now, let me introduce a tomb that used to be in the Necropolis but now resides in Indianapolis.
Funerary Monument of Flavius Agricola reclining with his drinking cup (wikimedia commons)
Way back in 1626, workers had to dig deep foundations to support the huge bronze baldacchino that Bernini had built to tower over the high altar of the new St. Peters. In the course of so doing, they discovered a sarcophagus—that is, a coffin carved in stone. The sculpture on the lid is of a man holding a cup, putting on a wreath, and reclining on a couch. Though his face is that of an old man, his exposed chest and abdomen suggest youthful vigor. Scholars date it from the second century, like many other works in the necropolis, and they identify it as having been the monument of a certain Flavius Agricola.
When the sarcophagus was unearthed, the Vatican workmen also found a tablet with a carved epitaph of fifteen lines. The inscription was recorded and then the tablet was reportedly tossed into the Tiber, for its message was unwelcome in the Vatican. After a few words about his home, his pleasing wife, his son, and his fondness for reclining with a cup of wine and wreathing himself, as he is doing in the carving, he concludes with the following advice: “Friends who read this, do as I bid: mix wine, drink deep, wreath your head with flowers, and do not refuse Venus’s intercourse with pretty girls. After death, earth and fire devour all the rest.”
No serious Christian would leave behind an epitaph celebrating the joys of wine and sex and affirming the finality of death.
Although the inscribed tablet was destroyed, the sarcophagus was sold, and after passing through the hands of a couple other owners, Flavius Agricola’s sarcophagus now resides in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Its overtly pagan message makes for a sharp contrast with that of St. Peter’s Basilica, which later covered over this sarcophagus and many others. Perhaps its unwelcome message discouraged further excavations and postponed for three centuries the rediscovery of the rest of the necropolis.
As well as offering one example of a sharp difference between a pagan tomb and the Christian art of the Necropolis and catacombs, the Sarcophagus of Flavius Agricola is also a handy reminder that “the” pagan view admits of important variations, for the pagan heroes of the austere early republic, like Junius Brutus, Coriolanus, and Cincinnatus, were not advocates of the joys of sex and drinking. Neither were the Stoics, who held that moral virtue was the secret of happiness and protected its possessors against all harm, including the loss of loved ones and physical pain. Like Flavius, the high-minded Stoics were influenced directly or indirectly by Greek thought, but in Flavius’s case, it was Epicurus and his Roman student, Lucretius, who were the sources of the popular hedonism he expresses. Epicurus and Lucretius were the great students and diffusers of the view that pleasure alone is responsible for such happiness as we mortals can enjoy. Dedicating oneself to austere virtue is a mistake.
Flavius does not recommend simple pleasure-seeking as a mere preference; he also gives a reason for it: “After death, earth and fire devour all the rest.” This too is a point drawn from Epicurus’s teaching: nature is made up of nothing but atoms in motion. There are no gods, spirits, or immaterial substances; and, hence, death is final. If a hedonistic ethics seems liberating in one respect—for it poses no barriers to intelligent pleasure-seeking—it comes with a bitter pill. Death is the end. For this, the early Christians had an alternative. In a decisive respect, they promised much more than Flavius’s hedonism did.
It is easy for us to condemn the Church for destroying the inscription that accompanied Flavius’s tomb, for our modern liberal age stands for freedom of speech, freedom of moral choice (as long as you do not cause physical harm to another), and all sorts of sexual freedoms. And yet the French philosopher Montesquieu, a great early defender of individual freedom, held Epicureanism to be among the causes of the Romans’ moral and religious decline, which he associated with their political decline. He seemed to suggest that no one will be improved by promoting the view that the only good is pleasure. Even if Epicurus and Lucretius had thought that the greatest pleasure was something rarefied, like reading books and thinking, the word “pleasure” connotes other, more accessible pleasures to most people, as it did to Flavius. Is it possible that some ideas, even some attractive and plausible ideas, eat away at the moral foundations of good government?
Flavius’s funeral monument can also help us appreciate how Rome became “Greekified,” for his simple hedonism was clearly a Greek import. In the late Roman Republic and early imperial period, Greek schools of philosophy became commonplace in Rome, just as Greek architecture and sculpture provided Rome with its most esteemed models. But Cato had warned that this influence, exciting though it was, was better seen as a corruption, another Trojan Horse that looked like a great gift but arrived filled with dangers. The political decline of Rome clearly had many causes, and it would be superficial to try to pin the whole rap on Greekness or Hellenization, but it’s a good mental exercise to consider the impact of Greek ideas on Rome.