The private circus of Caligula
Mausoleum of Hadrian
Vatican area was an unhealthy and uninhabited place. Itscondition
improved at the beginning of the 1st century, when the area closest
to the Tiber River was reclaimed. Following works
saw the creation ofgardens, large parks, villas and outstanding
buildings, such as Naumachia Vaticana, probably
used for water games and the Mausoleum of Hadrian,
today known as Castel Sant'Angelo, and the
private circus of Caligula.
Along via Cornelia there were tombs, altars and sepulchres, in total
respect of the Roman law that prescribed for all burial places to
be located outside of residential areas.
Built by Emperor Caligula between 37 and 40 AD,
the building was located onthe left side of the current basilica,
in the valley leading down to the river. The
circus was the stage
for the first persecution of the Christians by Nero.
The position of the circus has been known since at least the 1600's,
also due to the fact that the obelisk rising in the centre of the
circus stood in its original place until 1586, when it was moved to
the centre of St. Peter's square upon orders of Sixtus
The event is reported by Domenico
Fontana in his book, Della Trasportatione dell’Obelisco
Vaticano et delle Fabriche di Nostro Signore Papa Sisto V, Roma 1590
the transportation of the Vatican Obelisk and the works undertaken
by His Holiness Sixtus V").
The operation costed
40,000 scudi, 800 workers, 140 horses and 40 hoists; Sixtus V emanated
an order with the death penalty for anyone who obstructed works,
or even made noise: the lifting operations took place in absolute
silence and had to be accompanied only by the sound of a trumpet.
It is said that Fontana had his horse ready for the escape in case
the obelisk had fallen during the operation. Fontana succeeded in
his work also thanks to one of the workers, the sailor called Bresca,
who seeing that the supporting ropes were about to break, broke the
silence by shouting out "acqua alle funi!" (water to the ropes!).
The circus was already out of use one hundred and fifty years after its construction, at the time of the Emperor
Caracalla, when a large circular mausoleum was built above the circus not too far from the obelisk and later dedicated to St. Andrew.
radical transformation of the entire Vatican area took place in the
4thcentury, when Christianity rapidly took over pagan worship.
After the abdication of Diocletian, responsible for the last great
persecutions, the wars ofsuccession to conquer the power ended with
the nomination in 307 AD of Emperor Constantine.
Son of one of Diocletian’s
generals, Constantine was recognised as Emperor in 312, after the
defeat at Saxa Rubra, near Rome, of his rival Maxentius, on October
28th, who drowned in the Tiber river. The following year, the Emperor
established the liberalisation of the religion with the edict of Milan,
ensuring that Christianity was no longer obstructed and could be worshipped
From then on, political and religious powers were no longer unified
in the person of the Emperor, to the point where in 330 AD the capital
was transferred to the East, leading to the founding of a city named
after himself on the Bosphorus: Constantinople.
He made of Rome the religious centre of the Empire and for this purpose
started an intense building program that had to give to the rising
Church its worthyplaces of worship. The first building erected was
the Basilica, in order to assure an adequate celebration of the prince
of the apostles. The church of San Giovanni
in Laterano followed,
then the Papal residence and the Imperial palace; followed by Santa
Croce in Gerusalemme, San Pietro and Marcellino, San Sebastiano,
San Lorenzo outside the walls and finally the
church of Sant'Agnese.
St. Peter's Basilica grew also thanks to works and
donations made by princes and popes; in 800 Charles the Great was
crowned by the Pope Leo III, after him was Lotario, Ludovico II° and
Basilica of St. Peter - part III