Digging into world’s oldest catacombs in Rome

Text & photographs: Claire Lessiau

The catacombs in Rome are subject to many myths. No, the early persecuted Christians did not take shelter inside these underground necropolises! With thousands of bodies, each wrapped in a linen clothe, simply covered in quicklime entombed waiting for resurrection, in deep galleries with hardly any ventilation nor light, the myth is quite easy to bust, just thinking of the stench…

Follow us deep underground into world’s first catacombs in Rome to dig into the real history of the early Christians, martyrs, popes, saints, and tomb raiders. A place of hope and resurrection for believers, a place to discover how early Christians defended their faith for others. In all cases, a deep, captivating and beautiful experience.

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With about a million inhabitants in Rome in the early 200’s, the Christian community kept growing, incorporating some well-off Romans who had converted, joining tens of thousands of believers in this new faith. They often donated their belongings and estates to live in communities. As it was forbidden for Romans to bury their deceased within the city walls for hygienic reasons, lands along roads leading to and out of Rome such as the Via Appia were used for burial purposes. The limited surface area called for underground excavations to allow bodies to be gathered awaiting resurrection.

To this day, many of the catacombs bear the names of the original land owners such as the Catacombs of Domitilla, named after the granddaughter of Emperor Vespasian. After converting to Christianity, she was exiled to an island for a long martyrdom before being burnt alive in 96 AD. After the Roman Emperor Constantine converted himself and legalized Christianity in 313 AD – shortly before it became the official religion of Rome in 380 AD -, the religious persecutions ended, and catacombs developed even deeper as believers wanted to be buried close to the many martyrs – and consequently paying the high price for it, even higher for a family sepulchre or should the tomb be decorated. Some catacombs reached dozens of kilometres of tunnels and were administered by the church, employing gravediggers and drawing detailed maps of the galleries. “In 1593, after being abandoned for almost 800 years after the barbarian raids, the archaeologist Antonio Bosio rediscovered the catacombs of Domitilla where he got lost underground for 3 days! So please, follow me closely,” warns Father Thomas Kallanchira, the director of the catacombs of Domitilla, as he walks us through a small part of the 17 kilometres (11 miles) of narrow galleries on five levels. After Bosio passed away, the catacombs were raided once more. Relic hunters opened the tombs, hoping for gold – but Christians were buried simply -, and instead stealing bones or frescoes to sell to the highest bidders. We pass by broken marble epitaphs, belonging to the richest Christians buried there, fragments of frescoes and open tombs. “The catacombs stopped being used after the sack of Rome. In the early 800’s, relics were transferred to the churches of the city to be protected from barbarian raids,” Father Thomas continues, explaining why the tombs are open and empty. Out of 150,000 sepulchres, 900 of them are still untouched at Domitilla, still sealed by terracotta tiles or marble markers.

“Tombs showed the name, age, a Christian symbol (often a lamb, dove, fish, or the Greek letters X and P) and sometimes a few words about the deceased” explains our guide. Next to the horizontal niches of various sizes and many small ones for children, small cavities still show. They were used to position a terracotta oil lamp, filled with perfume oil to try and cover the stench of decomposing bodies and as a symbol of eternity. “Christians believe in eternal life, so death is not the end,” states Father Thomas as we are looking at wine amphoras next to a water well. “Early Christians used to hold banquets underground for their dead” he says, giving us time to take it in.

A bit further down the road, in the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus – named after the martyred 3rd century pope -, we walk the earthen floor and pass by a glass protecting an ancient cement in which inscriptions are visible: “These devotional graffiti’s helped archaeologists understand that pilgrims, some of whom were coming all the way from Jerusalem, visited these tombs between the 4th and 8th centuries, before they got completely abandoned,” Father Paulino in charge of these catacombs explains as we penetrate deeper into the underground. About 20 kilometres (13 miles) of galleries were dug up to a depth of 20 meters (60 ft) on several levels in tufa rock, a soft and porous volcanic stone that hardens in contact with the air, explaining their relative structural stability despite the millennia and earthquakes. The oldest galleries were fairly shallow and most used to be about 1.5-meter high (4.5 ft). When the tufa rock allowed, galleries could get as high as 7 meters (21 ft) as we notice ourselves, being towered by walls of graves. “Half a million people were buried in the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus,” our guide states. “Amongst them, martyrs, 9 popes and Saint Cecilia, the Saint patron of musicians,” he finishes as we stand in the crypt of the popes. We pass by another crypt which was turned into an underground chapel: a group is praying, led by a priest. The catacombs are a holy place for many pilgrims and believers.

Inside the catacombs of Domitilla, a basilica was built underground in the 4th century and dedicated to holy martyrs entombed in its apse. It still in use today by many groups who celebrate mass with their priest after visiting the catacombs, making it unique.

As we are back under the Roman sun, Father Thomas Kallanchira, concludes: “The catacombs speak of the early Christian life in Rome, and how they offered their life to Christ and for many visitors, it allows them to rejuvenate their own faith.”

In total, about 7 million were buried in the hundreds of kilometres of galleries in the 66 catacombs under Rome from the second century for about 250 to 300 years. Today, only 6 are open to the public and each is special, such as Domitilla and Saint Callixtus.

Travel tips:

  • Make sure to check the opening hours of both the Catacombs of Domitilla and the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus.
  • To explore these catacombs, the best way is to rent a Vespa or a bike. For bicycle, including mountain bikes and e-bikes, and scooter rentals, including Vespas, refer to Easy Bike Rent Rome.
  • These catacombs can easily be visited while touring the Via Appia by bicycle.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

For more in Italy, click on these images:

2 thoughts on “Digging into world’s oldest catacombs in Rome

  1. Sounds like a fascinating place to visit and explore especially accompanied by a knowledgeable guide that can separate fact from fiction. Rome is a city I am yet to have a wander through and I would definitely find the time to visit some of the catacombs. The underground basilica is absolutely fantastic.

    • Thanks for your comment. The catacombs are visited with guides who are onsite and are very knowledgeable. It makes it a lot easier and more interesting. I wish you to make it to Rome soon! More to come about Rome soon on our website – you may enjoy it!

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