Catacombs are large underground cemeteries used by Christian and Jewish communities between the 2nd and the first half of the 5th century.The largest complex of catacombs is found in Rome, hosting approximately 60 excavations. Visiting these ancient cemeteries through their long tunnels and passages, allows tourists and locals to explore the rituals, customs, and traditions of the ancient Romans.
The ancient term to designate these monuments is “coemeterium”, which derives from Greek and means “dormitory”, as for Christians the burial of the corpses is a temporary moment awaiting the final resurrection. In fact, while the pagans used to cremate the bodies of the dead, the Christians chose to be buried believing in Christ’s resurrection and the day of judgement.
In Ancient Rome, a law prohibited burying the dead inside the city for architectural and health reasons. Therefore, the construction of the first catacombs began when Pope Zephyrinus, in charge between 199 A.D and 217 A.D, entrusted deacon Callisto with the task of supervising the cemetery of the Via Appia, marked as the location where the most important pontiffs of the 3rd century were buried.
These underground structures were excavated into tuff, a fragmental rock easy to dig into, as it consists of the smaller volcanic detritus which is usually less stratified than solid grounds. For this reason, catacombs are mostly found in central Italy, as well as in its islands, as there is a high concentration of tuffaceous soils. The access to the catacombs consists of stairs that lead to enclosed galleries with vaulted ceilings that extend to a vast network of corridors and chambers.The burials of the ordinary Christian bodies are found in niches along the walls of the galleries called “loculi”, that are covered with marble slabs or bricks. There are also various spaces designed to host kids, due to the high infant mortality at the time, as well as some large loculi to bury entire families.
Furthermore, the catacombs are decorated with narrative and symbolic art such as paintings, mosaics, and engravings on the loculi recalling the stories of the Old and New Testament. In fact, the marble plates covering the loculi are often engraved with symbols related to the life of the deceased, such as the tool used for their profession, or the food consumed in their remembrance. In addition, most of the symbols refer to eternal salvation, such as the doves, palms, peacocks, phoenix, and lambs.
Catacombs of San CallistoThey are considered the most beautiful, imposing, and famous catacombs in Rome. It is the first burial place of Christians and considered an archaeological treasure in the heart of Appia Antica. It houses a network of tunnels that extends for more than 20 kilometers including the burial places of 16 popes and dozens of Christian martyrs. Two important crypts characterize these catacombs: the crypt of the Popes, preserving the remains of five martyred and then sanctified Popes, as well as the crypt of Santa Cecilia. To reach these catacombs you can take the metro B to the Colosseo stop and then take the 118 bus to the Catacombe S. Callisto stop.
Address: Via Appia Antica, 110
Opening hours: Every day except for Wednesday (9am to 12pm) - (2pm to 5pm)
Catacombs of San SebastianoIt was the first underground cemetery to be called “catacomb”, as it was initially named “ad catacumbas”, which means “near the hollows”. It was later dedicated to the martyr and saint Sebastian, a soldier persecuted by Roman Emperor Diocletian after discovering he had been converting many soldiers to Christianity and who is buried in these catacombs.
The galleries extend for 12 kilometers and are filled with decorations that distinguish the deceased corpses from one another using different symbols and marks of red paint. Here you will find the Baroque Basilica of Saint Sebastian, one of the seven pilgrimage destinations in Rome. In the first chapel on the left there is a marble statue of St. Sebastian and next to it there is the crypt where his remains are kept. In the chapel of the right apse, other sacred relics are kept: a stone with an imprint attributed to Jesus Christ; some of the arrows that pierced St. Sebastian, the column to which the Saint was tied, and finally the hands of St. Callisto and St. Andrea. To reach these catacombs you can take the metro B to the Colosseo stop and then take the 118 bus to the Basilica S. Sebastiano stop.
Address: Via Appia Antica, 136
Opening hours: From Monday to Sunday (9:30am to 5pm)
Catacombs of Santa PriscillaKnown in all the ancient topographical and liturgical documents, its entrance is next to the convent of the Benedictine Sisters of Priscilla. Due to the number of martyrs buried here, this cemetery was called “regina catacumbarum”, meaning “the queen of the catacombs”. In fact, they are located 35 meters below the ground level and house about 40 thousand burials, including six Popes: St. Marcello I, St. Sylvester I, St. Liberio, St. Siricio, St. Celestino I and Vigilio.
Some of the most important spaces in these catacombs are the Cubicle of the Velata, depicting redemption scenes from the Old Testament, the Greek Chapel, representing the “franctio panis”, which is the act of breaking bread and a sacred gesture alluding to Eucharistic food, as well as the most ancient depiction of the Virigin Mary with baby Jesus, found on the ceiling of a niche that housed a venerated tomb. To reach these catacombs you can take the 63 bus to the Priscilla stop, then you’ll only have to walk 5 minutes until the destination.
Address: Via Salaria, 430
Opening hours: From Tuesday to Sunday (9am to 12pm) - (2pm to 5pm)
Catacombs of PraetextatusThey are the most famous from an artistic and iconographic point of view and can only be visited through appointment. The main gallery composing the catacombs is called “Spelunca Magna”, which means “large cave”and is believed to having been an abandoned cistern later adapted as an underground burial ground.
In the cubicle of Coronatio, there is the depiction of Jesus’ crowning with thorns, as well as the Resurrection of Lazarus. In addition, the entrance of the gallery presents the famous sarcophagus of Emperor Balbino, depiction of the myth of Achilles, and other scenes from the Old and New Testament. To reach these catacombs you can take the metro B to the Colosseo stop and then take the 118 bus to the Catacombe di S. Callisto stop. Once there you will only have to walk for 5 minutes until destination.
Address: Via Appia Pignatelli, 11
Opening hours : Every day (8am to 8pm)
Catacombs of Santa TeclaThey are located near the Basilica of San Paolo and are famous for the frescos depicting Jesus with two apostles on his sides. In 2010, the oldest depictions of apostles Peter, Andrew and John were found, being at least 1,700 years old.
Although they are not among the largest in Rome, these catacombs are very important from an archaeological point of view. In fact, there are only 22 rooms, but they are almost all entirely covered in beautiful frescoes. If you want to visit, you’ll need to request an appointment. To reach these catacombs you can take the 75 bus to the Marmorata/Vanvitelli stop and then switch to the 23 bus until the Ostiense/Valco S. Paolo stop. At this point, you will only have to walk for 4 minutes before reaching the destination.
Address: Via Silvio D'Amico, 42
Opening hours: Visit available under request
If you think you’ve explored all of Rome, there is even more to see beneath the surface, where the ancient world is still preserved to this day. When walking through the dark and humid corridors, the loculi and inscriptions with the names of the deceased will make you think about the life of the past and will offer you an unforgettable experience.
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