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Circus of Nero
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Circus of Nero

The Circus of Nero in ancient Rome is often confused with the older and larger Circus Maximus. The Circus begun by Caligula and finished by Nero was the site of the first organized, state-sponsored martyrdoms of Christians in 65 CE. Two years later, Saint Peter among many less famous Christians shared their fate. The circumstances were described in detail by Tacitus in a well-known passage of the Annals, (xv.45), while Nero competed in the races

The plans of the Circus of Nero superposed with the old and the new St Peter's Basilica (see link), show that the tomb of Peter, now beneath the High Altar, also formed the center of the apse of the old Basilica of St Peter: the axis on which the basilicas have been built has remained unchanged.

The Circus of Nero lay in the same axis as St Peter's to the left as you look at the western front from the Piazza. The site for crucifixions in the Circus lay along the spina ("spine"), the central division of the track round which the races occurred. Early Acts of Peter describe the spot as inter duas metas ("between the two metae or turning-post"), that is, in the spina or middle line of Nero's circus, at an equal distance from the two end goals. Such a traumatic event for the Christian community is likely to have been correctly recalled. At the center of the pina stood the obelisk which was re-erected in the 16th century by the architect Domenico Fontana, a feat of engineering memorialized in a series of fine engravings.

Some time in the 5th century the exact spot was marked by a chapel "of the Crucifixion." The origin and meaning of the name were confused in the course of time with Christ Crucified and the chapel itself was lost.

The burial place of Peter

The line of the Via Cornelia, which ran parallel with the north side of the Circus, can be traced with precision, for pagan tombs have been discovered at various times along its edges. Sante Bartoli's memoirs record that when Alexander VII was building the left wing of Bernini's colonnade and the lefthand fountain, a tomb was discovered with a bas-relief above the door representing a marriage-scene ("vi era un bellissimo bassorilievo di un matrimonio antico"). Others were soon found. The best discovery, that of pagan tombs exactly on the line with that of S. Peter was made in the presence of Grimaldi, November 9, 1616:
" "On that day, I entered a square sepulchral room the ceiling of which was ornamented with designs in painted stucco. There was a medallion in the centre, with a figure in high relief. The door opened on the Via Cornelia, which was on the same level. This tomb is located under the seventh step in front of the middle door of the church. I am told that the sarcophagus now used as a fountain, in the court of the Swiss Guards, was discovered at the time of Gregory XIII in the same place, and that it contained the body of a pagan."

The basilica erected by Constantine over the tomb of Peter used some of the existing walling of the Circus of Nero.

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