Vatican Museums Open Ancient Roman Necropolis

Vatican Museums Decided to Open an Ancient Roman Necropolis, That Lies Beneath the Vatican City, for the Public.

Nov 18, 2023By Angela Davic, News, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and Analysis
Pope Francis, Vatican Museums
St. Peter’s Square. Via archive.


Vatican Museums decided to open the Via Triumphalis Necropolis for visitors. Overall, this is the first time that something like this is happening. The Vatican unlocked an entrance along its walls to access the underground Roman cemetery adjacent to Vatican City. Roman mosaics and frescoes abound, as do open burial tombs and stone tombstones.


Vatican Museums Opened the Graveyard

Vatican Museums
Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis, Rome, 2017. COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS


The burial places are from the first to the fourth centuries CE. They contain the remains of “slaves, freedmen, artisans of the city of Rome”, Leonardo Di Blasi, an expert from the Vatican Museums, told Euro News. Some became even recognized as Emperor Nero’s sovereign possessions.


“We begin to learn about people we did not know, particularly about rituals that seem more related to family, neighborhood, town, or personal traditions than to official religion”, Di Blasi continued. There are also documents about cemeteries belonging to a caretaker assigned to maintain the set design of Pompeii’s theater. There is also another caretaker assigned to maintain the woods.


the Vatican Museums
The Vatican. Via archive.


The graveyard was previously exclusively accessible to authorized experts and intellectuals. Through the Saint Rose Gate entry, the general public can now explore the city of the dead as part of the exhibition “Life and Death in the Rome of the Caesars”. The Necropolis lies just outside of the city of Rome.

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The Necropolis’ History

school athens raphael heraclitus
The School of Athens by Raphael, c. 1509-11, via Musei Vaticani.


For reasons of safety and hygienic considerations, Roman law required that interment and cremations take place outside of cities. It was discovered in 1956 while the Vatican Autoparco was being built. The Santa Rosa portion came into light in 2003 while parking lot work was underway. The location has an area of about 10,764 square feet along a stretch of the historic Via Triumphalis.


This archaeological area is an outstanding example of an ancient Roman burial ground.
The word “necropolis”, from the Greek necròs (dead) and pòlis (city), denotes a “city of the dead”. Since Roman law forbade the cremation and burial of the dead within the city for safety and hygiene reasons, cemeteries were located along the roads outside the urban area.


fortuna statue vatican
Statue of Fortuna, the Vatican Museums. Via Wikimedia Commons.


The passing of travellers nurtured the memory of the dead, but it was above all the activity of the living that was clearly present in the ancient cemeteries: through particular practices and funerary rites the ancient Romans maintained a link with their departed loved ones and established contact with the Hereafter. All these activities are especially well documented in the necropolis that extends along the stretch of the Via Triumphalis near the city.


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By Angela DavicNews, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and AnalysisAngela is a journalism student at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade and received a scholarship for continued education in Prague. She completed her internship at the daily newspaper DANAS and worked as an executive editor at Talas.