The Circus of Roman Emperor Nero: Where St. Peter was martyred

The Piazza San Pietro at Vatican City as seen from the steps of the St. Peter’s Basilica. Could part of Nero’s circus have run along the left side of this photo. At the center and at the top is the Egyptian obelisk that was at the center of the circuses spina.

In my post on the Colosseum of Rome I stated that it wasn’t there that St. Peter and most of the other Christians met their deaths, but rather in another location in Rome. Most, including myself, were raised believing that it was within the Colosseum that the early Christians met their deaths. Now after visiting the Colosseum I found that story to be false. In fact most of the martyring was done before the Colosseum was actually built. So how did this story get started in the first place?

 What I’ve found is that this legend of Christians being martyred in the Colosseum had begun with Pope Benedict XIV in 1749; almost seventeen hundred years after those events took place. And over the centuries this decree by Benedict became taken as fact, even though it wasn’t.  

Today historians say that most Christians were martyred, including St. Peter and St. Paul, under the reign of Emperor Nero (Emperor from 54 AD – 68 AD), who committed suicide twelve years before the Colosseum was built. So if it wasn’t the Colosseum, then where were the Saints martyred? That place, most historian agree, was in the Circus of Nero.

Roman Circuses where built very differently from arenas such as the Colosseum. They were oblong rectangle building with a track for racing on its floor. A long dividing wall, called a Spina, ran down the center. This Spina created two tracks running down each side. The ends of Spina were open to provide turning points at each end. The Spina was decorated with ornate statures, columns and obelisks. Seating for the audiences was along the outside length and ends of the track ascending up several rows. To visualize what a Roman Circus would have looked like think of the chariot race scene in the movies Ben Hur. Racing, both horse and chariot, was what these circuses were mostly used for. Also at times other performances and presentations would take place there.

These Circuses were a major staple for entertainment in the lives of Roman citizens throughout the world. Rome itself had six that we know of in the city’s history: Circus Flaminius, Circus Maxentius, Circus Maximus, Circus Varianus, Circus Agonalis, and the Circus of Nero. Because of their large size and seating the Emperors would hold public events and presentations there as well as races. And it was this use as a place for public presentations that brings us to…

The Circus of Nero

Artist rendering of how the Circus of Nero looked.
Art taken from Pinterest

It is believed that the Emperor Caligula started construction of this circus in Rome at around 40AD, and then finished later by the Emperor Nero. At first this circus was used as a private race course for both Caligula and Nero, but became a public venue so that Nero could show off his racing abilities. And it was within this circus that Nero conducted the most horrific displays of murder and cruelty ever in human history. So how did these mass killings start, and what caused them?

On the evening of July 18, 64 AD, Rome experienced one of the greatest fires in history. For over six days the city burned. Beginning in the slums near the Palatine Hill the fire spread, fueled by the wooden buildings and the summer’s high winds. Three of Rome’s districts were wiped out. Hundreds of Roman citizens died and thousands found themselves homeless.  Legend has it that the fire was started by Nero himself so that he could rebuild the city; however the emperor was 35 miles away at Antium when the fire broke out.  

What it did do was give cause for Nero to suppress the growing Christian movement in the city that he felt was disrupting the Empire. Using Christians as his scapegoat for the fire he began arresting them. Nero used his Circus for the public execution of hundreds of Christians, including St. Peter. On the circuses track Christians were tortured, torn apart by wild dogs, and burned alive. Along the Spina Christians were placed up on poles and set on fire as human torches. It was also there, along the Spina, where the Crucifixions took place, including that of St. Peter.

So where was the location of the Circus of Nero? Ancient Rome records show that Caligula built the circus on the property of his mother Agrippina, and here comes the surprise, on the Ager Vaticanus (Vatican Hill). Yes, the place where the early Christians and St. Peter were martyred is the site of the center of the Catholic Church, Vatican City and St. Peter’s Basilica.

Today most of the remains of Nero’s Circus are gone. Although it was moved, only the Egyptian obelisk that once stood in the center of the circus’s spina remains. It now sits in the center of Piazza San Pietro in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. Looking out from the steps of St. Peter the circuses wall and track could have run along the right side of plaza and the Basilica. The drawings below give two examples of where the Circus of Nero may have sat in relationship to the Basilica and the Piazza San Pietro.

One theory has Nero’s circus running through the left side of St. Peter’s Basilica and then across its Piazza. Image is listed as public domain taken from Wikipedia
This example has the circus running along the left side and through the Basilica, and not in the piazza at all. Image is listed as public domain taken from Wikipedia.

When you go to Rome and visit the Vatican, and as you walk through St. Peter’s and the Piazza San Petro remember that you are walking were early Christians and St. Peter died to spread the faith of church you are standing in front of.




16 thoughts on “The Circus of Roman Emperor Nero: Where St. Peter was martyred

  1. According to the Bible Peter was never at Rome. On top o fthat peter was married. Matthew 8:14 ¶ And when Jesus was come into Peter’s house, he saw his wife’s mother laid, and sick of a fever. 1 Peter 5:13 The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Marcus my son. Thank you.


    1. Lonnie, thank you so much for your comment on my Circus of Nero post. I would like to point out that the purpose of my post was to point out that it wasn’t the Colosseum, but the Circus of Nero where the early Christians were martyred by Nero in 65AD. You are correct that the Bible does not mention St. Peter being in Rome, however many Christian denominations, especially the Catholic Church, has this as a traditional belief. Although not included in the Bible, there are many writings by the early Christian Church that supports this tradition.


    2. The church fathers, Clement in particular, write extensively about Peter being in Rome. Clement was a Roman citizen and was baptized by Peter in Rome, and worked with Paul. The Bible isn’t a history book. It always amazes me when Protestants deny facts to support beliefs instead of looking at facts that will challenge beliefs.


      1. Greetings WJB,

        Here are some more facts. While I was very interested in the scavi tour (under the basilica) St. Peters was funded at least partially by indulgences. For a fee, bereaved relatives could get a deceased loved one out of Purgatory.


  2. Thank you for this information. I was at the Vatican this summer. I saw the obelisk, which has a dedication to Caesar still visibly marked about 20′ up. I didn’t realize this was where the early Christians were martyred. I also got within a few feet of where the spina would have been, originally. Now I know what happened there. Thank you.


    1. Thank you for reading my post Gage. I love finding these little bits of history that many us are unaware of. We had a fantastic tour guide in Rome that enlighten me on this fact.
      Since you enjoyed this post read my posts on Julius Caesar’s assassination.


    1. Hi Robert, my posts title pulled you in, but you missed its point. What I was telling is that the early persecution of Christians by Nero happened at his circus on Vatican Hill, not the Colosseum. In fact, as I state, the Colosseum wouldn’t be built for a few decades later.
      I use the terms “tradition,” “legend,” or “myth” when there’s a thought or belief, but no historical records to back them up. Yes, there is a tradition that says Peter was in Rome, and martyred by Nero. However, it’s also a historical fact that Nero persecuted Christians, and it was done at his circus.
      Thank you so much for reading my post and your comment.


  3. Fantastic post. I loved reading it. St Peter’s death is a quandry. Was he in Rome or not. I think he was there and gone and back and gone and somewhere else. After all the Roman empire allowed Christ’s disciples to travel to the ends of the known world. Galleys and Roads. So St Peter could have been in Rome for a visit with Paul who was there. And included unfortunately in the executions of Christians. His bones were found there as well. Yes they could have been brought in and buried. I have learned that St Basilia and St Anastasia were later executed because these women were caught burying the Christian bodies. Could they have buried St Peter and later St Paul?
    Again, great post and love your work


    1. Thank you so much JF. I wrote that post back in 2016, and it was one of my first. It’s a little rough, for that I apologize. However, I am in the process of updating and rewriting it. I’ve found so much more information over the last four years. One of my additions is addressing Saint Peter being it Rome. You’ll be surprised what started the movement of denying that he was in Rome. Just a hint, it’s likely he was in Rome twice.


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