The Vatican was an area around one of the seven hills of Rome. Located just outside the city, it lay on the right bank of the Tiber River. In the early years of the Roman Empire, the Vatican contained an imperial* park and various structures for public entertainments. Today the area is the site of Vatican City, an independent state controlled by the Roman Catholic Church.
Under the Roman emperors, the Vatican became an entertainment area for presenting lavish games. The site contained an artificial lake for holding mock sea battles and a circus for chariot races. The area also had gardens, an important shrine to the goddess Cybele, and several cemeteries. The emperor Hadrian built a large mausoleum* for himself and his descendants in the Vatican.
Early Christians considered the Vatican area sacred because it was thought to be the place where the Romans crucified St. Peter, one of the apostles*. After the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, he built a large church at the Vatican and dedicated it to St. Peter. The altar of the church was located directly above an early Christian shrine thought to mark the burial place of the saint. Many other buildings grew up around this church, which was linked to the center of Rome by a street lined with columns. This street became a “sacred way” for Christians.
Constantine’s church was restored and enlarged several times over the centuries. A new church—one of the largest and most magnificent in the world—was built during the Renaissance*. This church, called St. Peter’s Basilica, is now the center of the Roman Catholic religion. (See also Churches and Basilicas.)
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire
* mausoleum large stone tomb
* apostles early followers of Jesus who traveled and spread his teachings
* Renaissance period of the rebirth of interest in classical art, literature, and learning that occurred in Europe from the late 1300s through the 1500s