The Rome Catacombs
The Rome Catacombs are a series of subterranean tunnels outside the walls of Rome where early Christians were buried. Plunging up to seven stories beneath the ground, they are vast hives lined with burial niches. Each niche is capped with a stone slab called a tegula that sealed off some of the stench of the putrefying body behind it. The oldest of these giant burial complexes date back to the 2nd century AD when there were strict Roman prohibitions on burying anyone inside the city limits (for fear of spreading disease). Unless you were being cremated, which was the pagan custom, you had to be interred beyond the walls. The tombs were forgotten once Christianity became the official religion of Rome then rediscovered in the 16th century when relic hunters went in search of saintly remains to adorn their churches. Today the Roman Catacombs function as eerie reminders of the birth of one of the world’s great religions.
Visiting the Roman Catacombs: What to see
There are 13 known Christian Catacombs in Rome and a further 6 Jewish Catacombs. Long a source of fascination for archeologists, they were first explored (after falling out of use) in the 16th century by the antiquarian Antonio Bosio. Among his many adventures, he nearly perished after losing his way while exploring the Catacombs of Domitilla. Bosio’s lifework remained mostly unrecognized until the publication of his book, Roma Sotterranea, three years after his death. By describing how to access many of the known catacombs of Rome, he paved the way for archeologists and more than a few treasure hunters to explore Roman catacombs in his footsteps in search of ancient artifacts.
The treasure hunters bent on profit often came back disappointed as early Christians were rarely buried with valuables. But with more and more churches being built, relic hunters sanctioned by the Vatican were also sent into the catacombs of Rome. They brought back relics, or supposed relics, of whichever patron saint was being honored in a newly-completed church. Despite the fact that Christians were, at times, terribly persecuted in pagan Rome, the Catacombs were not secret nor were they hiding places for Christians. In fact, the Roman government was happy to tax Christians for the land in which the tombs were dug.
Of the known catacombs, the most popular are the Catacombs of Domitilla (the only catacombs still containing human remains) and the Catacombs of Callixtus. Although they are each quite large they tend to get very crowded during high season. The other catacombs are the Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, the Catacombs of Commodilla, the Catacombs of Generosa, the Catacombs of Praetextatus, the Catacombs of San Pancrazio, the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, the Catacombs of San Valentino, the Catacombs of St. Agnes, the Catacombs of via Anapo, and the Catacombs of St. Priscilla.
The Bone Chapel (aka the Capuchin Crypt)
Although not technically a catacomb, the Bone Chapel is a must-see for anyone interested in the more esoteric end of Christian burial practices. The Capuchin monks, after whose brown habits the cappuccino is named, have some rather unique beliefs about life and death. In short, they celebrate human mortality and exalt death as a natural part of life. With this in mind they have established a crypt in the basement of Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome that is festooned with the bones and mummified remains of some 4,000 Capuchin friars. Among all the bones there is a plaque that reads:
“What you are now, we once were. What we are now, you will be.”
Not exactly the most uplifting of thoughts, but certainly one to ponder. Each of the five rooms in the crypt is dedicated to different biblical tableaus designed with skeletons, mummies, and bones. It is certainly one of the more affecting religious displays you will ever see.
The Basilica of San Clemente
According to the oft-told story, one evening in the mid-1850s Father Joseph Mullooly was sitting in the Basilica of San Clemente (Irish Dominicans had been its caretakers for years) when he heard the sound of running water. Of course, there shouldn’t have been any running water because he was sitting in a church. So he went looking for it. His search eventually lead him down through the floor of the church in an excavation that would reveal one of the most astonishing archeological sites in all of Rome.
It turned out that the Basilica, located just a few blocks away from the Colosseum and built in the 12th century, was built on top of a 4th-century church, which in turn was built on top of a 1st-century pagan temple. Its excavation revealed, perhaps more obviously than anywhere else in Rome, the way the city was constructed on top of itself, layer after layer. If you want to reach the 1st-century ground level from the bottom floor of the present day church you have to descend nearly 60 feet!
The modern church’s main draw is its 12th-century apse mosaic showing Jesus on a cross that turns into a living tree. The 4th-century church below still has beautiful frescoes and an impressive, if somewhat damper architecture. Below that is a mithraeum, a shrine dedicated to the mysterious pagan god Mithras, whose cult came from Persia to Rome in the 2nd and 3rd centuries before it was stamped out by Roman Christians.
There is no more tangible way to experience the religious history of Rome than by descending through these levels of different architecture, each representing a different era of the Eternal City.
You can visit all three of the attractions above on Walks of Italy’s Crypts, Bones, and Catacombs tour.
Tips for Visiting the Catacombs of Rome
The major Catacombs of Rome are all open daily from 9:00am to 12:00pm and from 2:00pm to 5:00pm. However, they all close on different days of the week, and during one or two months of the year (often between November and February). For a comprehensive list of opening times check out the Vatican website.
The Capuchin Crypt is open every day except Thursdays from 9:00am to 12:00pm and 3:00pm to 6:00pm.
The excavations of the Basilica of San Clemente are open Monday to Saturday, 9:00am to 12:30pm and 3:00pm to 6:00pm. The last entrance is at 12:00pm and 5:30pm. On Sundays and holidays the excavations are open from 12:15pm to 6:00pm, with last entrance at 5:30pm.
You are not allowed to enter the Rome Catacombs on your own because it would be very easy to get very lost and/or hurt yourself by falling down a shaft, some of which plunge six stories or more. You can, however, take guided catacomb tours at most of them. You can also buy your tickets at the door when visiting the most frequented catacombs like the Catacomb of Callixtus. However, to visit one of the less frequented you will need to contact them and book in advance.
Tickets to the Roman Catacombs cost €8.00 or €5.00 for children.
Tickets to the Capuchin Crypt cost €6.00
It’s free to enter the Basilica of San Clemente but to go into the excavations tickets cost €10.00 per person. Children under 16 can visit free IF they are accompanied by their parents. If they are alone they must pay €5.00 per person. Students under 26 with valid student IDs also pay €5.00.
Catacombs are considered holy places and so visitors are expected to dress appropriately. This means both men and women must cover their shoulders and the tops of their legs (to the knee). It’s also important to remember that catacombs are underground, sometimes quite far underground, and so are always a bit chilly. A sweatshirt and long trousers are usually the best way to go, even in the height for summer.
Catacombs are, by nature, tight spaces – the word is derived from the latin catacumbae, meaning “recesses” or “holes”. Although you can expect at least 5 feet of clearance overhead, you are still passing through underground tunnels dug by hand. If you suffer from claustrophobia a Rome Catacomb tour is not the most advisable thing to do in Rome.
The Best Time to Visit the Rome Catacombs
Because catacombs tend to be quite cool, a Roman catacomb tour is the perfect excursion for a hot summer afternoon when the temperatures in Rome hover between sizzling and boiling. That said, the more popular and easily-accessed Catacombs of Rome, like the Catacombs of Callixtus, tend to get very crowded. This means long lines and traffic jams, something like you might experience in a particularly busy ant mound. If you are on the fence about your claustrophobia this won’t help. You can expect much smaller crowds in the winter but be sure to check their schedules before you go – as stated above, many will close at some point between November and February.
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