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
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.
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.