In addition to being assisted by the Roman Curia in his spiritual responsibilities as the Successor of St. Peter, the Supreme Pontiff is assisted in the government of the temporal territories of the Holy See by a Governorate. Principal among these territories is the Vatican City State.
The Mons Vaticanus is a small hill across the Tiber River from the center of Rome. In the first century it contained a palace and a circus (an oblong racecourse), belonging to the Emperor Nero. It was in Nero’s Circus that St. Peter was martyred, crucified upside-down, because he had said he was unworthy to die as Christ died. He was buried in a near-by garden containing other graves. A shrine indicating Peter’s presence was erected over the grave around 150 AD during a relative period of peace for the Church, and Peter’s bones were hidden in a wall to protect them from desecration.
The first, or Constantinian, Basilica of St. Peter was built on the site after the Emperor legalized Christianity in 313 A.D. and then gave the land to Pope Silvester (314-335). Over the course of the centuries offices and a residence were built to accommodate the pope and his court. In the 16th century this basilica was torn down and the current Renaissance basilica was erected. Excavations under the main altar in the 1940s to 1960s have revealed the 1st century pagan graveyard, the shrine over Peter’s grave, as well as discovered bones suggestive of St. Peter, along with the ancient graffiti “Petrus ibi est” (Peter is here). These excavations are today open to the pubic for tours, scheduled well in advance due to their popularity.
Despite the close association of Peter and the popes with Vatican Hill, until the 1870s the Vatican was not the principal residence of the popes. Rather it was the Lateran Palace, also built on property given to Pope Sylvester by the Emperor Constantine. Here the Pope constructed the cathedral of Rome, dedicating it to the Holy Savior, to St. John the Baptist and to the Apostle St. John, though it is commonly called the Lateran Basilica.
From the early Middle Ages (700s), the Pope possessed other territory in central Italy. Known as the Papal States, in which he had both spiritual authority as pope and civil authority as ruler. Beginning in 1859 Giuseppe Garibaldi, fighting on behalf of King Victor Emmanuelle II of Italy, progressively unified the states on the Italian peninsula. By 1861 the Pope had lost all but Rome and Lazio, the region around the city. Then in 1871, Italian forces entered Rome and the Pope retreated to the Vatican, where his residence has remained ever since.
In 1929, Vatican City was formally established by concordat with Italy as the territorial seat of the Roman Pontiff, a treaty updated in 1985. The Vatican City State is the smallest sovereign state in the world (109.7 acres). It has its own diplomatic corps, passport, laws, police, stamps, and money, as well as a parish church, St. Anne, a pharmacy, supermarket and other services needed by its almost 1000 permanent residents.
Pontifical Commission for the State of Vatican City and President of the Governorate of Vatican City State: Archbishop Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, L.C.