The Catacombs of Rome

No other part of the world has such a sophisticated network of underground corridors as Rome. Only Paris comes close but the catacombs in Paris in reality are more of abandoned lime stone quarries turned into burial grounds during the french revolution of the late 18th century.

There are approximately 60 catacombs in Rome and only several are open for visits. An estimate states that if all the corridors of the catacombs in Rome were to be aligned it would form a tunnel as long as 250 miles (400 km). The first documentation of the catacombs dates back to the beginning of the 2nd century and proceeded for almost 4 centuries after. A common belief remains that the catacombs in Rome were used as a secret hide out by the Christian communities.

A subterranean Rome

That actual underground cities formed during the Roman persecutions against the Christians.

This never happened for multiple reasons one being the poor hygiene standards living underground next to deteriorating corpses and the other being the constant humidity of nearly 90% all year round. Also because the Roman authorities at that time had perfect knowledge of where the catacombs were located. The only example world wide that we know of today, where early Christians escaping persecutions lived in catacombs is at Cappadocia, Turkey.

The patron saints of Rome, Saint Peter and Paul, were buried and hidden in Pagan cemeteries call “Necropolis” hence the reason why their Basilicas are located where they are today. Christian or Pagan the ancient Roman law allowed burial sites only beyond the city walls.

By the early 2nd century, wealthy Romans started converting into Christianity and upon their death, donated their vast possessions to the Christian community. Again by Roman law anything written on a testament or will had to be fulfilled. That is why today we can understand that the major catacombs of Rome are all located away form the city center and that most of them bear the names of the wealthy Roman patrons that donated their land to the early Christians.

Here’s a Quick list of the best preserved catacombs in Rome and what to look out for:

Santa Domitilla via delle Sette Chiese 282, Rome

  • The catacombs bear the name of Santa Domitilla of the Flavian dynasty.
  • An underground ancient basilica that housed the tombs of 2 Roman solider martyrs,
    Achileus and Nereus. Also the tomb of the daughter of Saint Peter, Saint Petronilla.
  • Has the oldest afresco of the last supper dating to the mid 5th century.

Santa Priscilla via Salaria 430, Rome

  • Named after Priscilla the wife of Manius Achilius Glabrio that most likely harbored Christians in her family villa.
  • Has a very elaborate afrescoed “Greek chamber” with the life episodes of Saint Susanne.
  • Has probably the oldest afresco of the Virgin Mary known to date.

San Callisto via Appia Antica 110, Rome

  • The largest of the catacombs in Rome stretching roughly over 12.5 miles (20km) containing approximately 400,000 tombs.
  • Important catacomb where several early popes were buried including Saint Callixtus.
  • Saint Cecilia was also buried here, now a statue recalls her original tomb.

San Sebastiano via Appia Antica 136, Rome

  • Catacombs built around a preexisting Pagan Necropolis.
  • The passage from Pagan cemetery to Christain catacomb are perfectly still visible.
  • Seats the tombs of Saint Sebastian and Ambrose.

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