The Martyrdoms of Peter and Paul the Roman Apostles

Damasus must have learned the story of the concurrent martyrdoms of Peter and Paul under Nero from oral tradition and from the Depositions of the Martyrs, because these events are not reported in the Acts of Peter. According to the Acts (35), Jesus and Peter met on the Appian Way near the modern church of San Sebastian during the persecution of Nero. Peter was fleeing the city at the urging of his congregation, which feared for his life. As Peter went out of the gate he saw Jesus entering Rome and asked him, in the lines made famous by the historical novel written by Henry Sienkiewicz and the 1951 film of the same name: Quo vadis, Domine?, "Where are you going, Lord?" Jesus answered that he was going to Rome to be crucified. At this response, Peter suddenly realized that he should not be fleeing the persecutors in Rome but, instead, embracing his opportunity to imitate Jesus. He instantly returned to Rome, impatient to suffer martyrdom. At his own request he was crucified upside down to reflect his sinful state and so that his death would not be compared to that of Jesus. The narration in the Acts relates Peter's careful reasoning. He wanted to be crucified upside down, he explained, because it was a true reflection of man's sinful state. Jesus, however, had been crucified right side up to indicate his repentant state. The Acts of Peter include other events in Peter's life, but not the detail that both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome on the same day and at the same time.

Many other accounts of their martyrdoms, however, have Peter and Paul martyred in Rome on the same day and at the same time but in different places: Peter was crucified upside down in the area of the modern Basilica of Saint Peter, and Paul was beheaded (since he was a Roman citizen and therefore could not be crucified) in the area of the modern Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, on the road to Ostia. The Depositions of the Martyrs records the date as June 29, during the reign of Nero. As early as 258 C.E., a memoria apostolorum, "shrine of the apostles," appeared on the Appian Way, dedicated to their cult. By the early fourth century, a cemetery basilica had been built for the apostles at the memoria, called the Basilica Apostolorum in Catacumbas, the "Basilica of the Apostles at the Catacombs." Based upon the evidence for the construction and location of this basilica, scholars have suggested that the martyrs were buried, at least for a time, on the Appian Way, at the very place where the Acts of Peter described Jesus and Peter meeting.

The most famous inscription for Peter and Paul was composed and inscribed by the Damasus-Filocalus team sometime around 370 C.E. and placed in this Basilica of the Apostles on the Appian Way (see Primary Document 4.1). The inscription underscores the argument Damasus made in the document from the church council in 382 C.E., that the primacy of Rome was legitimated by the martyrdoms of both apostles in Rome—Petri pariter Paulique, "Peter equal with Paul."

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