The catacombs of Rome are ancient underground labyrinths, necropolises where pagans and early Christians buried their dead. Cities of the dead can tell a lot about the living, as they have remained virtually untouched from the outside for centuries, while the city of the living (Rome) has been rebuilt several times and has changed a lot.
The catacombs will take you back to the beginnings of Christianity (from the 2nd to the 5th century A.D.) and transport you to the time of the first popes, starting with the apostle Peter, when this religion was just beginning to win over minds and hearts and form its own artistic language.
When in the 5th century. BC, even in pre-Christian times, a ban on burial was introduced in Rome, a tradition of burying the dead outside the city appeared. The Roman nobility built magnificent tombs – mausoleums and columbarii (deposits of urns with ashes), which can be seen today, for example, on the Via Appia.
The others, who could not afford a separate tomb on the surface, went underground. There is a hypothesis that tunnels, caves and quarries from which soft bush (travertine) was extracted were used for burials. Roman buildings such as the Colosseum were built from this material. It is quite symbolic that this stone followed the Romans both in life and after death.
Starting in the 2nd century AD, early Christians began to bury their dead, including Mucians and saints, who were persecuted and executed on the orders of pagan emperors, in the catacombs. Thus, near Rome, entire underground cities – necropolises – developed, where Christians and pagans found eternal peace, some 500,000 people in all.
Along the corridors of the catacombs, along the walls of the narrow, branching tunnels, multi-level rectangular niches (loculi – literally “places”) were dug, where the remains of most of the dead (both pagans and Christians) were deposited. The remains of saints and martyrs were given a separate tomb, with a hole at the top and an arch at the bottom, usually decorated with frescoes and Christian symbols.
The arch is a low arch in the wall, under which the remains of the deceased, most often saints and martyrs, were placed in the tomb, and the tombstone served as an altar during the liturgy.
A visit to the catacombs will allow you to touch the origins of modern Christian Rome and the Vatican – the center of the Catholic world – and learn more about the history of Christianity. In the catacombs, the first masses were celebrated on the tombs of the Mucians (the Christian tradition of liturgy at the relics of the saints comes from there), and the walls and ceilings of the tunnels were decorated with frescos.
Pagan drawings rub shoulders with frescoes depicting scenes from the Bible and drawings of symbols characteristic of the early Christians – a fish, a lamb, a dove with an olive branch in its beak, an anchor, the Chrysism (monogram of the name of Christ, composed of two Greek letters, chi and ro) . Thus, in the catacombs you can see some of the oldest evidence of an artistic understanding of the image of Jesus Christ and all Christian doctrines.
The cubicles (literally “silence”) are small chambers located on the sides of the main passages. The cubicles contain the graves of several people, often serving as family crypts.
Early Christians were persecuted by the Roman state as offenders of the majesty (majestatis rei), apostates of the state deities (sacrileges), practitioners of forbidden magic (evil magicians), confessors of illegal religion. However, for the Christians, and this does not coincide with the frequently expressed opinion, the catacombs did not serve as a refuge during the persecution, at least not for long, because there was very little space and air in the underground galleries. The Roman authorities knew about the existence of the burial sites, but did not touch them because these spaces, regardless of the religious representations of the dead, were considered protected and inviolable.
In any case, the catacombs were used by early Christians not only for burial (many Christians wanted to be buried next to martyrs and saints), but also for worship and prayer at a time when Christianity was forbidden by the pagan emperors.
In the fifth century, burials in the catacombs ceased, but from that time onwards, they became more popular with pilgrims who wished to visit the tombs of Christian martyrs and saints.
The catacombs of Rome on the Via Appia
The Appian Way (Via Appia Antica) is one of the 7 main roads connecting the capital of the empire to the seaport of Brindisi (now Brindisi), located on the “heel” of the Apennine “boot”. Today, this road will lead you to a unique park, where there are hardly any tourists, but which is very busy on weekends. The Romans like to relax here: picnicking, playing ball or just sitting in the sun. In fact, scenes from films such as “The Sweet Life”, “Mother Rome”, “The Great Beauty” and the TV series “Rome” were filmed in this park.
Along the Appian Way are mausoleums and columbaria of the Roman nobility, as well as the largest catacombs in Rome, with unique frescoes and paintings on the walls and ceilings. The most interesting and famous catacombs that are open to visitors on the Appian Way are: the catacombs of San Callisto, the catacombs of San Sebastiano and the catacombs of Santa Domitilla. The visits to the catacombs are made in organized groups. The guide is usually a priest or a monk, who has a good knowledge of the history and understands the symbolism of these underground Christian necropolises.
The Catacombs of St. Callisto, the Catacombs of St. Domitilla, and the Catacombs of St. Sebastian are close to each other, so they can be visited at the same time. Plan your day carefully using the catacombs access time information if you want to visit all three attractions at once.
How do I get to the catacombs on the Via Appia?
ROMA ATAC bus: 660 from Colli Albani metro station (red line A) No. 118 from Colosseo metro station or Circo Massimo metro station (blue line B) To No. 218 from San Giovanni metro station (red line A)
Catacombs of St. Callixtus (San Callisto)
The catacombs of San Callisto are the most popular with tourists (and therefore the most frequented), but also the most interesting. They are also considered the oldest and longest (over 20 km, 4 levels, extending to 20 meters deep). There are the remains of 16 popes, as well as more than 50 Christians. The catacombs were named in honor of the deacon and future pope Callistus, who in the third century B.C. considerably enlarged and improved them.
The underground necropolis includes several important areas made up of crypts and lodges. The Pope’s Crypt is the most important and revered crypt in the cemetery, called the “Little Vatican” because it is where the official tombs of nine popes and perhaps eight high dignitaries of the Roman Church in the third century are located.
In the crypt of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of church music, who died mute – the remains were preserved for several centuries, until 821, when they were transferred to the church in Trastevere, built in her honor.
Next to the pope’s crypt are the sacrament cubes – 5 small rooms that serve as a family crypt. They are precious for their early 3rd century frescoes depicting the first Christian symbols and scenes of the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist.
Opening hours: 9.00 – 12.00, 14.00 – 17.00. Closed on Wednesday, December 25, January 1, Easter Sunday.
Cost: adults – 8 €, children between 7 and 15 years – 5 €, free for children under 6 years. The price includes a visit with a guide.
Address: Via Appia Antica, 110/126, 00179 Roma RM, Italy
Catacombs of San Sebastiano
These catacombs are named after St. Sebastian, a Roman legionary who professed Christianity and was martyred. The Romans did not use the word “catacombs” in the modern sense. Their cemeteries and graves were called “cimiterii” (tombs). The tomb of St. Sebastian was located in a place called ad catacumbas, which means “near the cavities (pits)”, because of the tuff (travertine) mines, used for the construction of Roman buildings. Since then, it has been customary to call the catacombs places of underground burial.
At the entrance to the catacombs, a chamber called the triclia has been preserved. Many scholars believe that the remains of the apostles Peter and Paul were temporarily buried here, which can be evidenced by symbols and inscriptions dedicated to the most venerated saints of Catholicism. In these catacombs is also the crypt of St. Sebastian, where his relics were placed before being transferred to the church. The crypt has been restored and on the side of the old column there is a bust of St. Sebastian by Bernini.
Opening hours: 10 am – 5 pm. Closed on Sundays, December 25 and January 1.
Cost: adults – 8 €, children between 7 and 15 years – 5 €, free for children under 6 years. The price includes a guided tour.
Address: Via Appia Antica, 136, 00179 Roma RM, Italy
Catacombs of St. Domitilla
The Catacombs of St. Domitilla are among the largest in Rome and are quite well preserved. They are 17 km long, have 4 levels and 150,000 graves dating from the 2nd-5th centuries BC. The catacombs are located under the Roman basilica of the saints Nereus and Achilleos, on the site of the family burial place of Flavius (Roman imperial dynasty, at the origin of the construction of the Colosseum, also called Flavian amphitheater).
According to one version, the site belonged to Domicilla, niece of the emperor Vespasian and wife of the consul Titus Flavius Clemens. On the orders of Emperor Domitian, at whose time the widespread persecution of Christians began, Titus Flavius was executed and Domicilla was exiled to a remote island. The official accusation is that they were punished for “atheism” – the couple allegedly practiced Judaism or converted to Christianity, abandoning the dominant worship of the Roman gods and the deification of the emperor. In one way or another, Domitilla, who allowed the burial of Christians in her galleries, was canonized by the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches.
The greatest interest of these catacombs of St. Domitilla are the frescoes – the first attempts to represent Jesus, the apostles and scenes from the Bible, which gave impetus to the development of Christian artistic thought. One of the most priceless drawings is that of Jesus in the image of the good shepherd with a lamb on his shoulders, illustrating the words of the gospel of John “I am the good shepherd”.
In 2014, the images in the catacombs of St. Domitilla, partially hidden under a layer of dirt, mold, and calcium carbonate deposits, were cleaned by a group of restorers using a laser, and new, unknown sections of ancient frescoes were brought to light. For example, there is an illustration of the story of how Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. There is also an image of a baker with a grain measure and a series of frescoes showing how grain is delivered from Egypt to the seaport of Ostia in Rome (the “bakers’ room”).
“The bakers’ room.” Bosio inscription left by Antonio Bosio, who discovered the catacombs in the 16th century and studied them for 36 years.
Visitors can also see the exhibits in a small museum, which displays statues, parts of sarcophagi and other objects from the tombs.
Opening hours: 9:00 am – 12:00 pm; 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm. Closed on Tuesday, December 25, January 1
Cost: adults – 8 €, children between 6 and 15 years – 5 €, free for children under 6 years. The price includes a guided tour.
ROMA ATAC buses 714, 716, 160, 670, 30
Address :Via delle Sette Chiese, 282, 00147 Roma RM, Italy