Reviews of

The Vatican Necropoles. Rome’s City of the Dead

In Alexandra Ion, Archaeology, Brepols, Giandomenico SPINOLA, Paolo LIVERANI, Pietro ZANDER, Vatican Necropoles on February 16, 2013 at 5:44 pm


2013.02.01 | Paolo Liverani, Giandomenico Spinola and Pietro Zander, The Vatican Necropoles. Rome’s City of the Dead. Turhout: Brepols Publishers, 2010. 352 pp., 292 figs., hbk, ISBN 978-2-503-53578-4.

Reviewed by Alexandra Ion, University of Bucharest.

Many thanks to Brepols Publishers for kindly providing us with a review copy.

This book is the most updated synthesis of the funerary discoveries from the Vatican Hill. It continues and completes the wide range of literature on the topic (e.g.: Liverani 1999; Liverani and Spinola 2006; Nicolai 1999; Nicolai et al. 2009), by presenting the results of the excavations carried on the Vatican Hill during the years of 1940-1947, 1953-1958, and from 2001 to 2006. It examines 3 areas with funerary vestiges: the so called Vatican necropolis under St. Peter’s basilica, the Autoparco and the Santa Rosa sections along Via Triumphalis (8).

Based on extensive archaeological evidence, historical and literary sources, the volume is designed as a repertoire of discoveries, rather descriptive than synthetic.

Referring to the Romans who erected these funerary monuments, Buranelli (2010, 9) writes in the Introduction: “[…] they wanted to remind the visitors and people passing by – in that moment and for the centuries to come – that right there, on that particular spot, was buried Tiberius Natronius Venustus 4 years old, whose face with the finest features was sculpted in marble”. This phrase not only summarises very well what a visitor can expect while wondering through the corridors of this fascinating city of the dead, but also how the authors of this book chose to approach the topic. It is an approach that starts from the literal sense of “monumentum”, as a memory of the deceased, and understands the cemetery as a place where social relations are represented and negotiated, through the use of material culture. Therefore, it can be best described as a work of ancient history and classical archaeology, with influences from the social history and the archaeology of memory (see for example the works that explore Roman burial practices, from the classical book of Jocelyn Toynbee (1971), to the latest research, such as the one of Maureen Caroll and Jane Rempel (2011) ).

The book comprises of an Introduction, five chapters, notes, bibliography and an index of names, places and subjects. It starts from placing the necropoles in their topographical setting, then it looks at the rituals (anthropological and religious aspects), and continues by focussing on the different necropoles. In each case, the authors examine the monuments and their succession (in time and space), explain the decorations, and the associated material culture.

The introduction, written by Francesco Buranelli, is an overview of the history of the excavations of the 400 tombs, dated between the 1-4th centuries. Some topographic considerations, a summary of the demographic information for ancient Rome (which needed for example to accommodate in death a population up to 1.5 mil in the time of the catacombs, 7), and issues of conservation and protection of the area place the necropoles in a wider context.

The first chapter, Topographic setting, presents a history of Ager Vaticanus, from the mentioning of Pliny the Elder, to the times of Nero and through the Middle ages. Furthermore, by presenting a brief history of the land properties and of their owners, including some representative late Republican and early Imperial funerary monuments (such as the Sepulcrum Scipionis, Hadrian’s tomb, or the burials from Circus of Caligula and Nero), the reader gets a better understanding of how the cemeteries came into being. The chapter concludes with Constantin’s St.Peters basilica erected in the 4th century.

Chapter two, The rituals: Anthropological and religious aspects, examines the archaeological data regarding the funerary customs, being “synthetic rather than systematic” (36). It is an introduction in the topic, illustrated by examples. Masonry triclinium beds, jugs for pouring libations or terracotta tubes, wicker baskets for the poor versus marble monuments for the rich – all these material remains are explained as evidence of Ancient Roman’s beliefs and attitudes towards death, commemoration and social order. The chapter dwells on methodological considerations on the limitations of the archaeological documentation and the specificity of various types of sources that come into play in such a complex analysis (archaeological, epigraphical and literary).

In the next chapter, The necropolis under St. Peter’s basilica, are presented the results of the researches done in the most famous of these Roman necropoles, where the tomb of St. Peter has been identified. The extensive literature on this topic is discussed, from the excavations during Pope Pius XII, to the identification of the Trophy of Galus, Guarducci’s interpretation of the “Peter is here” graffito and to the criticism met by this circumstantial evidence for identifying the tomb of the apostle. Then, the authors offer a detailed description of each monument, by looking at: history, topography, architecture and decoration, chronology, and grave goods. Therefore, the readers can browse through a series of examples of Roman funerary images and paraphernalia, from pictorial decorations with bucolic scenes to Egyptian gods, from columbaria to marble sarcophagi, from alabaster vases with Medusa heads to infant’s funerary masks.

Chapter 4 is focused on The Vatican Necropolis on the Via Triumphalis. After a short introduction in the history of the Via Triumphalis, the chapter is divided in four parts, each dealing with an area of the necropolis: the Galea area, the Autoparco necropolis, the Annona area and the Santa rosa area. Each of these areas is studied following the model from the previous chapter.

The last chapter, The Necropolis underneath St. Peter’s Basilica. Conservation and Restauration is written by Pietro Zander and aims at highlighting some of the main issues with respect to the conservation and restorations work carried in this part of the necropoles. This can be a very interesting analysis even for a non-specialist, as it introduces key themes relevant for such an endeavour: the specificity of an underground environment, the type of analysis that were conducted and the solutions taken to prevent degradation and to restore what was needed.

The book throughout is well documented and rests on extensive archaeological evidence. All chapters are illustrated with lavish images, plans and maps (292 figures in 352 pages) – for this reason the book can also be seen as being album-like. Through presenting extensive architectural, epigraphic, historical, and archaeological evidence, the book charts the Vatican necropoles.

When one considers the history of the Roman catacombs one needs to take into account that it is intertwined with the history of Roman funerary beliefs and rituals, as well as with the shaping of the Christian funerary practices and iconography, or with the history of the Catholic Church. From a methodological point of view, other issues come together, such as the problems of excavating and interpreting funerary remains, as well as conservation issues. In this respect, the volume is rather a repertoire of discoveries with occasional critical comments, than a themed oriented synthesis of the results. The discussions on re-presenting and preserving the memory of a person are placed only as commentaries to the various tombs. From the point of view of archaeology, even though the monuments and inscriptions are widely described, the other material remains play a smaller role in the narrative. Moreover, being an overview of research done in cemeteries, it would have been interesting to see anthropological analysis of the human remains. However, there are very few remarks on the actual bodies of the deceased.

Even though it is based on extensive scholarly research, it is a general public-friendly book, being also suitable for specialists less familiar with the period. The authors take their time to explain the topics. Therefore, it can be a good choice for somebody who wants to get familiarised with the scientific research from the Vatican necropoles, while also getting a grasp of the language and code of representations, funerary practices, beliefs and myths about afterlife in ancient Rome. In the same time, professionals will be pleased too, as it elaborates on the archaeological documentation, as well as literary and epigraphic sources. At times, the narrative can be a little hard to follow, going back and forth, due to the intention of the authors to place the data in a broader context. Even so, all throughout the book it transpires their passion for this topic and the desire to bring the scientific inquiry to the scale of human life, and death. After all, the Vatican necropoles are Rome’s City of the Dead.

Alexandra Ion
University of Bucharest


Buranelli F 2010. Introduction. In: Liverani P, Spinola G, Zander P, The Vatican Necropoles. Rome’s City of the Dead. Turhout: Brepols Publishers.

Caroll M and Rempel J (eds.) 2011. Living through the Dead: Burial and Commemoration in the Classical World (Studies in Funerary Archaeology). Oxford: Oxbow Books

Liverani P 1999. La topografia antica del Vaticano. Vatican: Monumenti musei e gallerie pontificie.

Liverani P and Spinola G 2006. La necropoli vaticana lungo la via Trionfale. Roma: De Luca Editori d’Arte.

Nicolai V F, Bisconti F, Mazzoleni D 2009. The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions. Regensburg: Schnell und Steiner.

Toynbee J M C 1971. Death and Burial in the Roman World. Baltimore: JHU Press.


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