The tombs of the apostles
“I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what I have entrusted to him”
by Lorenzo Bianchi
Paul (Saul), a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia and Roman citizen, called by Jesus among the apostles as he was going to Damascus to organize the persecution against the Christians, is buried in Rome. He had arrived in the capital city of the Empire in the Spring of ’61, a prisoner, to be submitted to the judgment of Nero to whom he had appealed, as a Roman citizen, after his arrest in Jerusalem in 58, accused by certain Jews of having outraged the law of Moses. Paul’s journey is described by Luke, who accompanied him, in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 27, 1-44): by sea to Malta, landing first on the islands of Cyprus and of Crete, then to Syracuse, Reggio, Pozzuoli, then up the Via Appia to Forum Appi (near Terracina) and to the Tres Tabernae (Pizzo Cardinale, a few kilometers from the present Cisterna), where Christians from Rome came to meet him, to arrive finally in the City. There he remained under custodia militaris (that is free to live at home but under the surveillance of a soldier) while awaiting his trial, that very likely didn’t take place because his accusers didn’t present themselves in Rome. Tradition indicates a building close to the Tiber as Paul’s home, where the church of San Paolo alla Regola now stands (archeological investigation has so far found Roman structures from the end of the 1st century A.D.); and a second later abode of the apostle is indicated as having being close to the domus of Aquila and Prisca, on the Aventine, in the place where the church dedicated to Santa Prisca now stands. Freed from captivity, Paul was perhaps no longer in Rome in 64, the year Nero’s persecution broke out. He returned there immediately afterwards, however, again as a prisoner and this time was kept in jail, in 66 or 67, the year in which he underwent trial and martyrdom by decapitation. The passage from Pope Clement, already quoted in regard to Peter, allows one to guess that Paul’s arrest and conviction resulted from denunciation by Christians; and some words addressed to Timothy testify to his feelings of abandonment and loneliness: “Demas has deserted me for love of this life and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tm 4, 10); “Only Luke is with me” (2 Tm 4, 11); “The first time I had to present my defense, no one came into court. Every one of them deserted me – may they not be held accountable for it” (2 Tm 4, 16).
Varied traditions bring together Peter and Paul in the circumstances of their martyrdom: from the detention both suffered in the Mamertine Prison to that of their last meeting on the Via Ostiense, not far out of Rome, also if, as already said, the more recent and accepted studies tend to date the martyrdom of Peter and that of Paul to different years. But a very early and constant tradition, going back to the 2nd century, sets Paul’s martyrdom in a place called Ad Aquas Salvias, immediately out of the built-up area, where archeological investigation at the end of the 19th century found remains dating back to the 1st century, and where in the 5th century the church of San Paolo Ad Tres Fontes was built, currently incorporated in the abbey of Tre Fontane. His burial occurred instead in a cemetery area along the Via Ostiense, on an estate belonging, according to tradition, to a certain Lucina (praedium Lucinae). It is first mentioned in the passage from Gaius, already quoted in regard to Peter, who at the end of the 2nd century, during the pontificate of Pope Zephirinus (198-217), tells us: “I can show you the trophies of the apostles. If you want to go to the Vatican or on the way to Ostia, you will find the trophies of those who founded this Church” (in Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, II, 25). It is worth repeating here that in using the Greek word trópaion Gaius was not alluding primarily to the architectural structure, that must doubtless have been there, but, in the proper sense, to its content, that is to the body of the martyr, in which the victory of Christ had been shown: that is the “trophy of the victory”. Traces of part of the necropolis where Paul was buried, which developed from the 1st century B.C. up to the end of the 4th century, uncovered and fenced, can still be seen along the Via Ostiense, beside the present Basilica of Saint Paul. The Liber pontificalis, in which are collected the biographies of the bishops of Rome up to the late Middle Ages, tells us that Constantine built a Basilica over Paul’s burial place, which must therefore date to the years preceding 337, the year of Constantine’s death. No certain trace has been found of this first construction, despite various hypotheses again recently reproposed about a small apse (that logically could belong to any mausoleum in the necropolis where Paul was buried) that emerged before the altar of the Basilica during excavations in 1850, and would be evidence of a very much smaller building than the present one and orientated in the opposite direction. Around 384-386, in a rescript to Sallust, the praefectus Urbi, the three emperors Valentinian II, Theodosius and Arcadius decreed decorating (ornare), widening (amplificare) and raising, or rather making larger and more magnificent (attollere) the church built over the tomb of the apostle, in function also of the notable numbers of pilgrims. The result was a Basilica with five naves, of notable size, with a very wide transept. That Basilica remained largely intact up to the 19th century when a devastating fire broke out on 26 July 1823 which brought most of it down in ruins, without harming Paul’s burial place however. What remains to us, reconstructed in the three following decades, is thus only a copy of the 4th century Basilica. The Liber pontificalis already mentioned (drafted in the 6th century, but using sources that undoubtedly come from much earlier times) tells us that Constantine had enclosed Paul’s body in a bronze coffin, contained and protected by a walled surrounding, similar to Peter’s repository. The coffin, on which was set a large gold cross weighing 150 pounds, should (lack of knowledge imposes the use of the conditional) be under the level of the floor of Constantine’s Basilica, lower than the later one of the three emperors Valentinian II, Theodosius and Arcadius. Now, above, the central altar corresponds with the site of the tomb. The arrangement of the Pauline confession, as described above, was never substantially altered in the course of the centuries, except internally, once in the time of Pope Leo the Great (440-461), who raised the transept, and a second time when Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), after a further raising of the level of the paving, dug a crypt that ran round the tomb of the apostle, allowing believers to access and visit. Part of this crypt, the section in front of the altar, still survives while the rest was destroyed in the course of restoration work in the 16th century that prevented direct access to the place where the mortal remains of Paul are kept. On the present level of the presbytery, below the altar, there is a marble slab, formed by the joining of two different pieces, with the inscription “PAULO APOSTOLO MART(YRI)” (“to Paul apostle and martyr”), presumably dating to the 5th century. Three holes in the slab, one circular and two rectangular, lead to three interconnecting wells (cataractae), used throughout the Middle Ages for procuring relics by contact inserting brandea (strips of cloth). Paul’s burial place has remained practically intact down to our day without anybody ever touching it. While the Basilica was being reconstructed, excavations in the area of the confessional were also undertaken, in January 1838. However, by the explicit prohibition of Pope Gregory XVI, no one was allowed to examine the tomb of the apostle in depth. But the architect Virginio Vespignani (who oversaw the rebuilding of the Basilica in the form we see today) got a close look at what had been hidden from the eyes of everyone for centuries, and made sketches to document a chance viewing that didn’t go so far as to opening the coffin. The study of that documentation, along with some test excavation in the altar area, has made it possible to show the depths of the more recent pavement levels down to the Basilica of the Three Emperors. Between that and the altar part of the long side of what has been interpreted as a marble coffin has been freed. A circular hole (now blocked) on its lid matches up with the circular hole on the overlying slab with the “PAULO APOSTOLO MART(YRI)” epigraph. No investigation has yet been made of the inside of the supposed coffin. Given the level, however, it is not the original tomb of Paul, that lies surely at a lower level (below it must come the Constantine level and again under that the one corresponding to the trópaion mentioned by Gaius), but a “vertical” translation at the end of the 4th century of Paul’s body to a higher place, as happened (in a different period) for that of Peter cannot be excluded. Since 2006 the modern altar dedicated to a Saint Timothy, a 4th century martyr, has been removed and part of the area below the altar and the slab with the epigraph are visible.
Mention should be made, as in regard to Peter, of the epigraph of Pope Damasus (366-384) at the Memoria Apostolorum ad catacumbas on the Appia Way (today the Basilica of Saint Sebastian), which says: “Whoever you are who seeks the conjoint names of Peter and of Paul, know that these saints rested (habitasse) here a time. The East sent the disciples – they affirm it gladly – and they, thanks to the blood of martyrdom and to the sublime following of Christ, reached the celestial regions and the kingdom of the just. Rome, instead, has deserved to claim them as citizens. This Damasus sings in your praise, O new luminaries”. On the basis of this text, and of the presence in the catacomb of numerous inscriptions invoking Peter and Paul jointly, the hypothesis of a temporary translation here of the relics of the two founders of the Church of Rome in the period of the persecution by the emperor Valerian (258) has been put forward. But we are in the field of academic hypotheses.
Pope Benedict XVI observes the location of Saint Paul’s tomb underneath the central altar of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls from the window recently opened in the crypt
Finally, a medieval tradition has it that the heads of Paul and Peter were preserved since the 8th century in the Sancta Sanctorum and from there transferred by Pope Urban V, on 16 April 1369, in the two silver reliquary busts in the ciborium of the Lateran Basilica. An investigation was made on 23 July 1823 by Cardinal Antonelli; while scientific investigations that ended in uncertainty were conducted some decades ago in the context of the researches on Peter.