Vatican to open poignant ancient Roman cemetery

Digital reconstruction of site (Pic: Musei Vaticani)
Image caption This digital reconstruction gives an impression of the ancient cemetery

An ancient Roman cemetery discovered under a Vatican City car park 60 years ago is to be opened to the public early in 2014.

I was given a sneak preview - details of group visits will be available on the Vatican museums website.

You enter the ancient Roman world of the dead through a small unmarked steel door next to the Vatican's telephone exchange. Descending a short flight of steps, you find yourself in a well-lit basement area, on a narrow metal walkway which zigzags above the remains of hundreds of individual tombs and tiny stone mausoleums.

They date back to the period between the 1st Century AD, during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, and the 4th Century AD, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity.

Constantine built the first church on the site where Saint Peter's Basilica now stands. Saint Peter himself, the first pope, was buried - according to tradition - in the vicinity of the Basilica.

A few whitened skeletons lie in hollow open graves, but most of the people buried here were cremated, and their bones and ashes were placed inside terracotta jars and urns.

Image caption An architect called Alcimus is depicted with the tools of his trade

Individual features

This is emphatically not a Christian burial ground. In fact archaeologists found none of the Christian symbols - the anchor, or the cross or the dove commonly seen in the Roman Catacombs, the tunnelled caverns which honeycomb parts of Rome's outskirts, and which are visited by tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims every year.

Today's Vatican City was an area where middle-class people - many of them freed slaves in the service of the emperor - chose to be buried. Tomb inscriptions in Latin or occasional portraits in stone give us a vivid idea of how they looked and sometimes what they did for a living.

Alcimus was an architect employed as a set designer at Pompey's theatre. He is depicted on his tomb with his tools - a set square and a plumb line.

One Tiberius Claudius Optatus looked after the private office of the emperor.

A famous local jockey called Clemente rode for the "Blues" team in one of the many Roman stadiums where horse and chariot races were held.

A sculptor, Tiberius Claudius Thesmus, had a portrait of himself sculpting a bust on his tomb with his dog watching by his side.

One of the most touching funerary sculptures is that of a nameless small boy slave lying asleep, a lantern by his side, waiting to accompany his master through the dark alleys of Rome. He was a servus lanternarus, one of the lantern carriers employed by many well-to-do families to light their way when they went out at night.

Image caption This sculpture adorned the grave of a slave boy who carried a lantern for his master

Shorter lives

Average life span in ancient Rome was short. Scientific tests on the human remains found in the cemetery, carried out by Vatican technicians, reveal that few of the people buried here reached the age of 40. They usually had bad teeth, indicating poverty and a diet with insufficient protein.

There are tombs of many children who died in infancy. One, belonging to a well-to-do family called the Natronii, lived exactly four years, four months and 10 days. He was given the nickname Venustus ("pretty boy") by his grieving mother Natronia Symphyle and his portrait shows a beautiful, sad face.

The cemetery lay outside Rome's city walls, at the junction of two important roads, the Via Triumphalis and Via Clodia, leading north and west out of the city. Romans used to bury their dead alongside the main exit roads.

Wealthy Romans built massive private tombs, some of which still survive today. along the Via Appia, the road leading south towards Naples and Brindisi.

It was an area full of parks and gardens, not unlike those inside Vatican City today. A nearby racetrack was built by an emperor for training charioteers.

After the conversion of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, to Christianity at the beginning of the 4th Century AD, the Vatican cemetery appears to have been abandoned. Much of it was covered by mudslides, which accounts for its excellent state of preservation after so many centuries.

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