St. Peter's Basilica
The largest and perhaps most impressive basilica in the world rises over the pagan cemetery that extended from the Via Cornelia, the road that connected the Tiber to the Via Aurelia, and flanked Nero's Circus. It was exactly here, that around 67 A.D., during the first persecution of Christians launched by Nero that the Apostle Peter was crucified during a spectacle that included battles between slaves, gladiators and wild beasts. The Christians immediately took Peter's body and buried it in the cemetery near the Circus. The remains of that cemetery can still be seen today beneath the basilica. Excavations between 1939 and 1950 unearthed both the tomb and the relics of the apostle.
Pope Anacletus (76-88), Peter's immediate successor, built a small chapel over the Apostle's tomb. It immediately became a place of worship and pilgrimage for the early Christians, later popes and those who came to Rome in spite of the risks of the ferocious persecutions, so that could pray at the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles. The persecutions came to an end under Constantine, the emperor who had a vision of the Cross as a sign of victory. Under his reign the church's spiritual leadership was officially recognized with the famous Edict of Milan in 313. It was Constantine who, in 324, built a lavish basilica over the entire cemetery and part of the circus. The main altar was to stand over Peter's simple tomb. Legend tells us that the emperor removed his rich robes and began digging the foundations with his own hands. He personally filled and carried away twelve baskets of earth: one for each apostle.
The circus had to be destroyed to build the church (much of the circus structures were made of wood) and many tombs had to be removed and reburied. According to Roman law, only the the Emperor, the supreme authority , could give permission to tamper with grave sites.. Then, to position the main altar over St. Peter's tomb, half the hillside sloping down towards the circus had to be excavated. The cuts in the hill are still visible to this day on the northern side, outside the Basilica.
Plan of St. Peter's Basilica