Thinking of visiting the catacombs of Rome? Wondering if it's worth it?
If you love Ancient Roman history, art, and off-the-beaten-path sightseeing, add the catacombs to your Rome itinerary!
On this page, we'll go over:
So read on for some fascinating Roman catacombs facts!
So whats a catacomb? The catacombs of Rome are a network of underground burial chambers located around the city of Rome.
There are probably 50-60 catacombs underground Rome, but only a handful have been excavated and only 6 are open regularly.
The catacombs began being used as burial sites for centuries, starting in the 2nd century CE. They were used by people of varying faiths - Christian, Jewish, and pagan, but fell out of use around the 5th century.
In the 9th century, Rome was often vandalized by Germanic tribes from the north, and many catacombs were plundered for their valuables. As a result, popes began moving Christian martyrs and saints remains and relics to churches in Rome where they can be found today. The popes then blocked the entrances and they were forgotten for over 500 years.
In 1578, Maltese-born archaeologist, Antonio Bosio (1576 – 1629 CE), stumbled upon an entryway to a catacomb along the Via Salaria.
In 1593, he rediscovered the Catacombs of Domitilla, nearly getting lost in the labyrinth as he delved further in.
Nick-named “Columbus of the Catacombs” because he was the first to systematically explore and document the Roman catacombs, Bosio published Roma Sotterranea, which became an essential guide to future archeologists and those studying the catacombs.
From the earliest days of the Roman Republic (6th century BCE), it was forbidden to bury the dead inside city walls.
This was likely to prevent the spread of disease, but also to prevent overcrowding in rapidly growing cities.
Before Christianity became popular, Ancient Romans cremated their dead and placed them in urns which in turn were placed in honeycomb-like structures called a colombario.
Christians and Jews did not want to be cremated, preferring "inhumation", which kept the body intact.
The earliest underground tunnels near Rome were dug by the Etruscans and primitive Romans, who were looking for minerals and other useful underground substances such as sandstone and limestone. These tunnels were dug out of the soft earth we have around Rome, called "tuff" or tufo in Italian.
As the idea to bury people in inexpensive mass graves outside the city limits began to take hold, these same underground tunnels were repurposed as catacombs. This began in around the 1st century, making them the oldest catacombs ever built.
The wealthy sometimes built impressive tombs for themselves and their families above ground, and you can see some of these if you visit the Appia Antica.
One of the largest and most famous of these is the tomb of Cecilia Metella, a 1st century BCE tomb of a daughter of a Roman Consul.
But the tunnels were a convenient way to bury a lot of people in a relatively safe way, far from the city limits. The bodies were usually wrapped in 2 layers of linen, sprinkled with lime to help mask the smell, and placed in loculi, or small niches cut into the walls of the tunnels. When you visit the catacombs, you will also notice smaller loculi for children.
The catacombs were built over the course of several centuries, with the majority built during the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.
The Rome catacombs were used as a place to bury the dead.
This included people of all faiths, Christian, Jewish, and pagan.
The word "cemetery" derives from the Greek word for "sleeping place", and this is exactly what the catacombs were - a place for the dead to rest.
The word "catacomb" also derives from Ancient Greek. "Kata" meant "near" and "kymbas" meant "cave". This in turn became the Latin "cata cumbas", in English catacombs meaning "among the graves".
Contrary to popular belief, they were likely not used as a place for Christians to meet in secret to avoid persecution.
As the tunnels go for miles and miles (much of this has not been excavated), and as the dead were often piled on top of each other, thousands upon thousands of people were buried in the Roman catacombs.
There are no longer any visible bodies buried in the catacombs of Rome. The catacombs are now mostly empty. Some of the bodies that were once buried there have been moved to other burial sites, and in many cases, the remains have simply disintegrated over time.
There are several catacombs around Rome, and some of them have not even been excavated yet. But of those that have been, there are miles and miles of them. One could easily get lost in there, which is one reason you must visit as part of a guided tour.
Christianity began to spread through Rome in the mid-1st century CE, and by the 2nd century CE there was a large and thriving Christian community in Rome.
The catacombs were an important part of early Christian life in Rome. They provided a place for Christians to bury their dead.
This tradition continued until around the 5th century CE.
The idea that the catacombs were used by Christians as a place to meet in secret because they were being persecuted has largely been discredited - most scholars today debunk this urban myth.
First of all, the persecution of Christians was sporadic and inconsistent, happening over long stretches of time.
Second of all, the catacomb locations were well-known, so it would be hard to hold secret meetings there.
It is more likely that when people, Christian or otherwise, met in the catacombs, it was to celebrate their dead family members.
They're home to a wealth of early Christian art.
This includes examples of early Christian symbol like the Good Shepherd, as well as depictions of scenes from the Old Testament.
You will also find many examples of early Christian inscriptions or graffiti in the catacombs. This writing often contains the names of the dead which helps us to understand who was buried there.
One of my favorite catacombs is the catacomb of Santa Priscilla. There you can see the earliest known depiction of Mary as mother of God.
The function of the cubicula was to provide small, private burial chambers for wealthy families, something like a family crypt.
Each cubiculum consisted of a number of small rooms that were used to bury the dead. The rooms were often decorated with Christian symbols and inscriptions.
The catacombs also contain arched recesses called arcosolia. The word derives from Latin arcus, "arch", and solium, "throne".
There are a few more that you can visit only upon request, such as the catacombs of Comodilla or San Pancrazio.
There are six known Jewish catacombs in Rome. Only two are open for visits - the tombs at Vigna Randanini and at Villa Torlonia (these are currently being restored, so as of 2022 are not open to visitors). These catacombs, while sometimes available for visits, are not regularly open. The only way to see them is with a guided visit upon special request. Some tour companies offer these visits - take a look at the following options:
Other examples of burial places or tombs in or near Rome you may want to visit include:
No, you must go with a guide. You cannot buy Roman catacombs tickets and walk around on your own inside.
In some cases, you can go with a guide working for the site. In many cases, you can book a tour with a tour company. This can be convenient because with a tour company you can usually see more than one site, and transportation is often included.
No, you cannot take pictures or film inside the catacombs.
You can, however, take a tour on Google. Just visit Google maps, enter the name of the catacombs you want to see, and when the results come up, choose image mode. Here is Santa Priscilla for example.
You should wear comfortable shoes as you will be doing lots of walking. You may want to bring a sweater or jacket as it can be chilly underground Rome - this is a great way to keep cool in the summer!
Finally, because these are considered holy sites, you should make sure to cover knees and shoulders, as you would when visiting the Vatican or other holy site.
For more tips about what to pack for a trip to Rome, visit our page here.
The guided tours generally last around 1-2 hours.
If you are very claustrophobic, you may not enjoy a visit to Rome's catacombs. Some of them are quite small and cramped. In some cases, the tunnels lead to larger openings but overall, it can be a claustrophobic visit.
The catacombs of Rome are all over the Eternal city.
If you do not take a guided tour that includes transportation, you could take a taxi, but you'll want to have a way to call or order a taxi for the return trip.
One nice way to visit the Appian Way catacombs is to go by bike - you can rent bicycles in the area and cycle in the Caffarella Park nearby.
Here's how to get to the main Rome catacombs:
Three of Rome's best-known catacombs are near each other, on or near the Appian Way in the southern part of Rome.
While all the catacombs in Rome were the burial place for ancient Romans, they all have different things for you to see.
Some, such as the Catacombs of San Callisto were home to the final resting place of prominent individuals - these catacombs are nicknamed “the little Vatican”, because 9 popes were buried here.
The Catacomb of Santa Domitilla is the only location you can visit that still has human remains. It also has a 4th century basilica inside where you can worship, with vividly restored frescoes.
The Catacomb of Santa Priscilla is inside a monastery. You will see stunning intact frescoes, including the earliest known depiction of Mary with the baby Jesus, and because there were so many martyrs and popes buried here, they're nicknamed the regina catacumbarum, the queen of the catacombs.
The catacombs of Sant'Agnese are under the basilica of the same name, and next to the Mausoleum of Santa Costanza. It's worth taking a tour of the entire complex.
The catacombs of Saints Marcellinus and Peter are under the Mausoleum of Saint Helen, today a museum.
They definitely are worth visiting for these reasons:
Many people would say that the catacombs of San Callisto are the best catacombs to visit in Rome. They are the largest and most well-known.
My favorite is the catacomb of Priscilla, not only for its beautiful frescoes, but also because it is lesser known, and therefore not as crowded as some of the others.
No matter which catacombs you visit, you are sure to have an interesting and educational experience.
For more information, visit the website of the commission responsible for the catacombs for opening hours, catacombs Rome map and more.
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