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Exploring the Roman Catacombs, a Labyrinth of Ancient Burial Tunnels

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What are the Roman Catacombs?

The Roman Catacombs are a vast network of underground tunnels originally built by early Christians during the Roman Empire to bury their dead. With over 150,000 graves, the catacombs are a testament to the cultural and religious significance of Rome. Visitors can explore the labyrinth of tunnels, view the elaborate tombs and frescoes, and gain insight into the early Christian faith.

The catacombs hold the remains of many notable figures throughout history, including several popes. As one of the most significant burial sites in Rome, the catacombs offer a unique and fascinating experience for visitors interested in history, religion, or architecture.

Quick Facts about Rome Catacombs

Roman Catacombs

Location: Scattered across the city

Founded: Late antiquity

Type of attraction: Catacombs

Function: Originally used as burial sites during the Roman Empire 

No of graves: Over 150,000 graves

Why Visit the Catacombs in Rome?

Roman Catacombs - Christian art

What to See at Rome Catacombs?

Roman Catacombs Intricate Tunnels

Intricate Tunnels

The Catacombs are an ancient network of underground tunnels that are over 90 miles long. They provide a unique and fascinating perspective on the ancient burial practices of the early Christian and Jewish communities. Visitors can see firsthand the intricate designs of the burial chambers, including the niches that housed the remains of the deceased, and the intricate frescoes and carvings that adorned the walls.

Catacombs of Saint Sebastian

Catacombs of Saint Sebastian

Located on the Appian Way, this cemetery features impressive ancient Roman architecture and is the final resting place of Saint Sebastian, a Christian martyr. Visitors can view arches that once divided the nave of the original church, which was built in the 13th century, and sarcophagi, dating back to the 4th century. 

Grave of St. Cecilia - Catacombs of Callixtus

Catacombs of Callixtus

This is one of the largest and most important catacombs in Rome, known for its numerous underground galleries spread over 90 acres. Built after 150 AD, you will find tombs of 16 early popes, including Pope Sixtus II and Pope Pontian, and Christian martyrs here, earning it the name ‘Little Vatican’. 

Catacombs of Priscilla

Catacombs of Priscilla

The Catacombs of Priscilla are located on the Via Salaria across from the Villa Ada. They are famous for their early Christian art, including frescoes depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments and the earliest known image of the Virgin Mary. These catacombs likely derive their name from the landowner on whose property they were built and are now looked after by the Benedictine nuns of Priscilla.

Catacombs of Domitilla

The Catacombs of Domitilla

Located near the Catacombs of San Callisto, the Catacombs of Domitilla are a sprawling network of caves that span over 17 kilometers (11 miles). Named after Saint Domitilla, these catacombs are one of the largest and most impressive in Rome, featuring stunning frescoes and sculptures that depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Visitors can also see the remains of an early Christian basilica that was built in the 4th century and was one of the largest in Rome.

Catacomb of Saint Agnes

Catacomb of Saint Agnes

Named after the virgin and martyr Saint Agnes, the only martyr buried in the catacomb mentioned in the ancient documents. It is located at the second mile of via Nomentana, inside the monumental complex of Sant'Agnese fuori le mura, in the Quartiere Trieste. The complex is divided into four regions and is rich in epigraphic testimonies.

Catacombs of Praetextatus

Catacombs of Praetextatus

Located along the via Appia, these catacombs were built at the end of the 2nd century. They have a vast underground burial area, initially used for pagan burials and later for Christian martyrs. The complex contains various tombs of Christian martyrs, including the "cubiculum of the coronation," which depicts a rare image of Christ being crowned with thorns and a 4th-century painting of Susanna and the old men in the allegorical guise of a lamb and wolves.

Jewish Catacombs

Jewish Catacombs

There are six known Jewish catacombs in Rome, but only two, Vigna Randanini and Villa Torlonia, are open to the public. These catacombs were discovered in 1918 and span over 13,000 square meters. They date back to the period between the 2nd and 3rd centuries and possibly remained in use until the 5th century. Visitors can see rare frescoes depicting classic Jewish religious symbols, as well as parts of the Old Testament. 

History of the Catacombs in Rome

The Catacombs in Rome are a network of underground burial sites that date back to the second century AD.  The catacombs are believed to be the final resting place of tens of thousands of people, including martyrs, popes, and saints. These catacombs were used by early Christians and Jewish communities for burials, as well as for religious gatherings during times of persecution. 

Spanning over 90 miles with more than 150,000 graves, the planning and excavation of the catacombs began in the late 2nd century and were built using simple tools like pickaxes and shovels.

The decoration of the catacombs began in the 3rd century and continued until the 5th century, with frescoes painted on the walls and ceilings depicting scenes from the Bible and everyday life. The catacombs underwent several stages of expansion and renovation through the centuries, with additional tunnels decorated with elaborate marble facades.

Who Built the Catacombs in Rome?

Roman Catacombs

The Roman Catacombs were built by the ancient Romans, who used them as burial sites. Over time, these catacombs were expanded by Christian and Jewish communities, who used them for their own burials. There is no specific architect attributed to the catacombs as they were built gradually over time by different groups of people.

Architecture of the Catacombs in Rome

Roman Catacombs - Architecture

The Rome Catacombs do not have a specific architectural style or architect. The intricate network of tunnels and tombs was carved out of soft rock below the city's surface and expanded through various stages of renovation over the centuries. The catacombs are made up of various levels and are organized into different regions based on their location. 

The catacombs feature narrow passages, burial niches, and small chapels. Some of the catacombs contain inscriptions, frescoes, and artwork depicting early Christian symbols and religious scenes. Additionally, some catacombs featured chapels for worship or for private funerary ceremonies.

Purpose of the Catacombs in Rome

The Roman Catacombs served a variety of functions throughout their long history.

  • Burial ground: Originally, the Catacombs in Rome were used as a burial ground for Christians and pagans alike during the Roman Empire when it was illegal to practice Christianity in public. Later, persecuted religious groups and other oppressed communities used them for safe havens, as well as places of worship.
  • Places of learning: The Catacombs served as a space where early Christian scholars could study and teach.
  • Archaeological site: The many valuable artifacts that have been recovered from here have allowed us to better understand the daily lives of those who lived during this period, as well as provide insight into the political and religious systems in place at the time.
  • Cultural symbol: Today, the Catacombs are a popular tourist attraction that serves as a cultural marker for generations to come, providing evidence of a long-lost era in Roman history.
  • Spiritual site: Many Christians from around the world continue to make a pilgrimage to the catacombs to pay homage to their martyrs and Popes buried here. The catacombs contain many relics, including bones, cloth, and objects associated with the Christian martyrs.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Roman Catacombs

What are the Roman Catacombs?

The Roman Catacombs are a complex network of underground burial sites used by early Christians and Jews in ancient Rome. They were built to allow for the burial of large numbers of people in an area that was not suitable for a traditional cemetery.

What is the main purpose of the Catacombs?

The main purpose of the Catacombs was to provide burial sites for early Christians and Jews in a time when Roman law prohibited any form of non-Roman religious practices. The catacombs also served as places where people could meet in secret, away from the watchful eyes of the authorities.

Which Catacombs should I visit while in Rome?

The Catacombs of St. Callixtus, the Catacombs of San Sebastian, and the Catacombs of Priscilla are some of the most popular and well-preserved catacombs in Rome. All three of these sites are open to visitors and provide a fascinating glimpse into the religious beliefs and practices of early Christians in Rome. It is also possible to visit other catacombs located throughout Rome, such as the Catacombs of Domitilla and the Catacombs of San Gennaro.

How old are the Catacombs in Rome?

The Roman Catacombs date back to the 2nd century AD and were used until the 5th century AD.

Why were the Catacombs built?

The Catacombs of Rome were built as places of burial for early Christians who wanted to practice their religious beliefs away from the watchful eyes of Roman authorities. The Catacombs also served as underground rituals and meeting spaces, allowing early Christians and Jews to practice their religion without fear of persecution.

Who were buried in the Catacombs?

The earliest burials belonged to martyrs and other important figures in Christianity, Jewism and other pagan religions. Later burials included those of everyday citizens.

Which Catacombs are open to the public?

Several Catacombs are open to the public, including San Callisto, Domitilla, and Priscilla. You can visit them by opting for one of the many carefully curated experiences that allow you to explore the history and beauty of the Catacombs.

What can visitors expect to see when they visit?

Visitors can expect to see a variety of fascinating artifacts, including frescoes, mosaics, inscriptions, and even carvings on the walls. You can also expect to see a variety of religious art and symbols throughout the Catacombs, giving visitors a unique insight into how religion has shaped Rome over time.

How much does it cost to visit the Catacombs?

The price for visiting the Catacombs may fluctuate based on the selected tour and its duration. Starting at €20, ticket options include access to one or several Catacombs in the city.

Are there guided tours available for the Catacombs in Rome?

Yes, guided tours of Rome's Catacombs are available and are highly recommended, as they offer a comprehensive exploration of the site's history and architecture.