Many have seen the awe-inspiring beauty of the Vatican but few can imagine the Vatican before Christianity. When we talk about the ‘Vatican’, we all think about the hill on which stands the Vatican City, the headquarters of the Catholic Church – and the most recent pope on the spot of the burial of the first pope – St Peter. Therefore, automatically, we associate the name ‘Vatican’ with the Catholic Church, the world famous Museums, and the Sistine Chapel. However, in pre-Christian times, which means before the second half of the I century AD, ‘Vatican’ indicated an area on the right bank of the Tiber which extended from the Janiculum hill to Monte Mario, with the Vatican hill itself at its centre.
This territory was called ‘Ager Vaticanus’ and was farmed since the early period. According to Cicero though, it was considered very poor land, and apparently the wine that came from it was greatly disparaged! The area was not surrounded by the city walls, therefore it was considered part of Rome’s suburbs. As the centuries went by, it was occupied by private villas which were gradually acquired by various emperors, together with funeral monuments, mausoleums, small tombs as well as altars to pagan gods of all kinds of polytheistic religions.
In the year 40 AD, Emperor Caligula (see post most evil Roman Emperor?), on the left side of the hill, started construction of a circus which, later, was completed by Nero, his nephew. The Circus Gaii et Neronis, as it was officially called, was known commonly as the Circus of Nero. The Vatican obelisk, today standing at the centre of St. Peter Square, was originally taken by Caligula from Heliopolis, Egypt, to decorate the spina of his circus. In Nero’s time, this area became the site of martyrdom of many Christians after the great fire of Rome, which occurred in 64 AD. According to an ancient tradition, it was in this circus that Saint Peter was crucified upside down.
Let’s look at the etymology of the name ‘Vaticanus’. Varro, in the I century BC, believed that ‘Vaticanus’ came from the name of a god, Deus Vaticanus, protector of the lands, inspirer of prophetic powers (hence ‘vaticinium’= prophecy). Originally, this word probably derived from the Etruscan name of a pre-Roman settlement on the hill, which must have been ‘Vatica’, or ‘Vaticum’, of which all trace is lost.
By looking at the history of this hill, we cannot fail to notice the fact that since the early days of Rome it has been a place connected with the divine in all its aspects: the god Vaticanus, the emperors, who considered themselves as living gods, and later the Christian martyrs such as Saint Peter witnessing to the One True God. It is rather amusing to see how times change, but geographic culture and traditions have remained the same. The Vatican hill for millennia has been, and still is, one of those special places in this world where the divine ‘mingles’ and interacts with humanity. Again fitting that this is the home of the religion that professes the Divine Essence and the human essence being in the one person of Jesus Christ. Rome is privileged enough to include many of these special ‘meeting points’. Not without reason it was called the ‘Eternal City’. ‘Eternal’, because chosen by ‘the gods’ to rule over the world for the eternity!