On Sunday, the bishop of Rome and leader of the Catholic Church, also known as Pope Francis, displayed the bones of the apostle Peter at a mass celebrated on the steps of St Peter’s basilica in the Vatican. This was a momentous occasion. No pope before Francis had ever displayed these relics. What is more, no pope has ever officially declared that these human remains held in the Vatican are indeed the bones of the apostle. To be sure, none has denied it either. The closest we come to a declaration of the bones’ authenticity before Francis is Paul VI’s careful statement on 26 June 1968 that they ‘have been identified in a way we can consider convincing’.

The bones were found during excavations carried out between 1939 and 1957 of a Roman necropolis on the ancient Via Cornelia, which is now under the current church of St Peter’s. Immediately a fierce debate ensued between archaeologists whether they could be identified as those of St. Peter, despite the presence of an ancient graffito proudly proclaiming (in Greek) ‘Peter is here!’.[1] Yet there were apparently too many uncertainties surrounding the find for a pope to firmly come down on one side of the debate.

This modern debate mirrored a much earlier one about the location of Peter’s bones, and one much closer to the time of Peter’s death. Simply put, 300 years after the apostle had been supposedly martyred in Rome, already no one seemed to know for certain where his bones actually were.

By the early third century, people were telling the story that on Emperor Nero’s order, in 64 or 65, Peter had been crucified upside down in a circus that was part of an imperial villa in the Vatican area. Textual and material evidence suggest that around the same time, a particular tomb in the necropolis on the Via Cornelia, just a short way away from the circus, was being worshipped as the place where Peter’s body had been brought after execution and put to rest. So far so good. Yet a hundred years later, a fourth-century bishop of Rome called Damasus was sure of Peter’s entombment in a crypt underneath the church now called St Sebastian, on the Via Appia: on the opposite side of the city. Intriguingly he put up an inscription proudly proclaiming ‘Peter was here!’ (this time in Latin).

By Damasus’s time, however, the bones were gone from the Via Appia, although he did not say where. Only in the sixth century did the Roman bishop firmly establish that the bones had come back to the Vatican, at the same time of course acknowledging that they had indeed been transferred elsewhere in the meantime.

What was behind the Roman bishop’s appropriation, at least in rhetorical form, of the bones of Peter at this moment was the fact that, for the first time in history, he was in full control of the Vatican area. Until the collapse of the Western empire in 476, the Vatican, and the predecessor of the church of what is now S. Pietro (St Peter’s) built here by the first Christian emperor Constantine in the early fourth century in the area of the imperial villa, may have remained imperial property. Over the fifth century the role of Peter in fashioning the identity of the bishop of Rome had steadily grown in importance, and it is certainly no coincidence that Roman bishops appropriated not only the man but also the place where he was buried as soon as they could. With the place should have come the bones; yet, the Roman bishop’s proclamation in the sixth century that the bones were at the Vatican was almost certainly made to counter any claims to the bones by other Christian cult places in Rome, which at the time were not yet under the overarching supervision of the bishop.[2] Who held the bones in the sixth century and before, then, must remain a mystery, which raises all sorts of question about their whereabouts thereafter. The early ecclesiastical sources certainly did not make it easy for 20th-century archaeologists to locate them.

It is striking that Pope Francis has decided to wade into the debate about relics that can only be described as controversial and has blessed them with a ritual, their public display, which can only be interpreted as a wish to assert their authenticity. Perhaps, as so many popes before him, he wants to emphasise the special connection Roman bishops have with the ‘prince of the apostles’, who is of course also represented as the first Roman bishop (even though Peter probably was nothing of the sort). Yet it is perhaps more in tune with Francis’ forward rather than backward-looking attitude to church leadership to see the display as a statement not about the church as an institution, but about the people who built it (or on whom it is built), like the humble fisherman from Galilea.

Julia Hillner is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. She is co-editor of Religion, Dynasty and Patronage in Early Christian Rome (300-900) (CUP, 2007). Her book on Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity is forthcoming with CUP. You can read all of her History Matters blogs here.

Image: Statue of St Paul in front of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican [Wikicommons]

[1] The archaeologist and epigrapher leading the later period of the excavation was Margherita Guarducci, who put much emphasis on the graffito. Her work can be accessed here: An assessment of the debate can be found here:

[2] For an excellent analysis of competition over and reburial of Christian relics in sixth-century Rome, including those of Peter, see K. Cooper, “The Martyr, the Matrona, and the Bishop: Gender and the rhetoric of allegiance in the Roman ‘gesta martyrum’.” Early Medieval Europe 8 (1999) : 297 – 317.

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Julia Hillner

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