Updated: Dec 17, 2021
The word “cemetery” comes from an Ancient Greek word which meant “place of rest”. The catacombs of Rome provided a resting place for the first generations of Christians, awaiting their resurrection and salvation in their tombs, deep beneath the ground on the outskirts of Rome. From martyrs to farmers, hundreds of thousands of early Christians ended up in the catacombs, buried close together in a maze of underground tunnels beside the Appian Way. The catacombs are so extensive that you could easily get lost and never find your way out again – a good reason to go with a tour guide! For many visitors to Rome, a trip to the catacombs is one of the most moving and memorable parts of their holiday. While a visit to the Appian Way is worthwhile in itself – as you walk along the ancient cobblestones past vast tombstones and spectacular countryside you feel as though you’ve been transported back in time – a tour of the catacombs is undoubtedly the main highlight. Venture deep underground to explore the incredible tunnels that were dug out by hand nearly 2,000 years ago and learn all about the very beginning of Christianity. This is a side of Rome you’ve never seen before.
WHAT ARE THE CATACOMBS
The catacombs of the Appian Way are essentially the underground graveyards of the first Christians in Rome, who had to bury their dead outside of the city. Even as early as the 5th century BC, burials within the city walls were forbidden, so tombs were built on the outskirts of Rome. As an important consular road connecting Rome with the south, the Appian Way was a popular spot for burials. While many Romans built elaborate tombs by the roadside, the Christians buried their dead in labyrinthine catacombs. Miles of underground tunnels were built by digging through the soft tufa stone, providing burial space for saints and martyrs as well as countless ordinary Christians. There are three catacombs along the Appian Way which can be visited on a Rome catacomb tour: The Catacombs of St Domitilla (Santa Domitilla) – the oldest and most extensive network of catacombs (though only a fraction is open to the public) and the only one with bones still on display The Catacombs of St Callixtus (San Callisto) – the largest catacombs, particularly popular with tour groups, with some evocative examples of early Christian art The Catacombs of St Sebastian (San Sebastiano) – once the burial place of Saints Peter and Paul, containing well-preserved Ancient Roman and Christian tombs.
History of the Catacombs in Rome
Walking along the Appian Way, you’ll see monumental tombs such as the Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella – a 1st century BC tomb resembling a decorated fortress, which was built to commemorate the daughter of a Roman Consul. The early Christians, of course, did not have the money to build such impressive tombs, so they were forced to bury their dead underground instead, beneath the land owned by Christians on the Appian Way. Hundreds of thousands of Christians were buried in these catacombs, piled up on shelves with spaces for two or three bodies. While some of the people buried here were recognised as early saints or martyrs, the vast majority of the burials were ordinary Christians. By the Middle Ages the catacombs were no longer in use, and had virtually been forgotten. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the catacombs became tourist attractions; visitors on the Grand Tour explored the catacombs by candlelight, captivated by their macabre atmosphere and the rumours of Christians hiding in the tunnels to escape persecution. Although the bones have all but disappeared, the tunnels can still be explored on a catacomb tour of Rome. They remain one of the most popular attractions for visitors interested in early Christian history, or for those looking for a more unusual tour.
Facts About Rome's Catacombs
The word “catacomb” was first used in relation to the catacombs of the Appian Way, and is believed to derive from Ancient Greek – kata (by/near) and kymbas (cave), which then became the Latin cata tumbas (among the graves).
The catacombs were rediscovered in the 16th century by Antonio Bosio, who nearly ended up among the dead himself when he got lost in the never-ending tunnels of St Domitilla. He published a book called Roma Sotterranea (“Underground Rome”) which contained valuable information for future archaeologists as a guide to accessing the catacombs.
The catacombs of St Domitilla take their name from a Christian woman who was a member of the Flavian family. Domitilla was exiled because of her faith, and when she died she was buried in a family mausoleum on the site of the catacombs that were later named after her.
Many saints were buried in the catacombs, although some of the most famous saints were later moved, such as St Cecilia. Once buried in St Callixtus, her body now lies in a cathedral in Trastevere. Similarly, St Sebastian, St Peter and St Paul are no longer in the catacombs of St Sebastian. Nevertheless, the bodies of other saints and martyrs still remain in the catacombs, which are important places of pilgrimage for many Christians.
The tunnels that are accessible today on catacomb tours are only a fraction of the total catacombs, which stretch for miles. And even then, archaeologists believe that there are parts of the catacombs which still remain hidden. The full extent of the catacombs may never be known.
VISITING ROME'S CATACOMBS
How to Get to the Catacombs
Most catacombs open to the public are located on the Appian Way (Via Appia Antica). It’s a little way out of the centre, but while in Ancient Roman times it was considered to be outside of Rome, these days it’s very much part of the city. These are your options for getting to the catacombs: Take the 118 bus. Assuming you don’t have to wait for ages for the bus (not unheard of in Rome), this is your best option. The 118 bus has a circular route, stopping in front of the Colosseum and Circus Maximus, continuing along the Appian Way – with stops right in front of the catacombs – and then going back to the centre. Check bus timetables or use a transport app such as Muoversi a Roma to avoid long waits for the bus. Cycling is a pleasant way to get to the catacombs; once you’ve visited the catacombs you can continue cycling along the Appian Way – a road which is mostly traffic-free on Sundays. There’s a bike hire place near the beginning of the Appian Way, located at the information point (Via Appia Antica 58). Walking to the catacombs is recommended for keen walkers only, or people starting from a point fairly close to the catacombs, such as Circus Maximus or the Baths of Caracalla. While the catacombs are walking distance – you’ll reach the catacombs of St Callixtus about 20 minutes after Porta San Sebastiano (the beginning of the Appian Way) – the first part of the road has no pavements, forcing you to walk right next to the cars. Even if you arrive by other means, consider having a taxi number saved on your phone. If the bus doesn’t show up and you’re too tired to walk, you’ll be glad to have a taxi number on hand. All transport is included on our Rome Catacombs Tour.
Tickets for the Catacombs
St Domitilla is open every day except Tuesday. Tickets cost €8 and can be bought online (via a slightly antiquated booking system) or at the ticket office. Opening hours: 9:00-12.00, 14.00-17.00. St Callixtus is open every day. Tickets cost €8 and can be bought online or at the ticket office. Opening hours: 9:00-12.00, 14.00-17.00. St Sebastian is open every day except Sunday, and is closed in December. Tickets cost €8 and can be bought at the ticket office; advance booking via phone or email is for groups only. Opening hours: 10.00-17.00. To make the most of your visit, we suggest joining our tour of the catacombs in Rome, which includes an in-depth visit to St Domitilla.
WHAT TO SEE AT THE CATACOMBS
The frescoes in the catacombs of St Domitilla were recently restored to stunning effect. Particularly impressive are a ceiling fresco of Christ and a richly decorated crypt known as “the room of the bakers”. These restored areas of the catacombs will soon be open to the public, along with a new museum. You’ll notice lots of Christian symbols, such as a dove carrying an olive branch and an anchor – the latter represents salvation in God and the soul’s arrival in the harbour of eternal life. These symbols are some of the earliest examples of Christian art in Rome. St Domitilla contains some beautiful examples of pagan art too. Look out for the painted cubiculum dating back to the 3rd century AD, which is decorated with the pagan myth of Cupid and Psyche.
The tunnels are extremely impressive – they stretch for miles and are up to 70 feet high in some parts. These catacombs contain an area dedicated to the popes nicknamed “the little Vatican”. Nine popes were buried here, and you can still see the original Greek inscriptions near the tombs. There are some evocative Christian frescoes containing traditional symbols such as the fish, the dove and the phoenix. Some of the most significant artworks are located in a small group of chambers which were once family tombs. Although the remains of St Cecilia are no longer here, you can see the crypt where she was once buried.
The highlight of a tour of the catacombs of St Sebastian is a chance to see some Ancient Roman tombs. These tombs were originally part of an overground pagan graveyard; the burial chamber contains some remarkably well-preserved stucco decoration. The crypt of St Sebastian no longer contains his body, but there’s a bust of the saint attributed to Bernini. There are many impressive examples of ancient art. Look out for the paintings in Jonah’s cubicle and the vivid frescoes in the three mausolea.
Catacombs are definitely not for the claustrophobic – keep in mind that you’re walking through narrow, underground tunnels which were dug out by hand. As Christian burial places, catacombs are considered sacred, so dress appropriately. Make sure your shoulders are covered, and avoid shorts or short skirts. The catacombs offer their own guided tours, but the quality is variable and in some cases you’ll get a sermon along with your tour – most of the guides are monks or priests. For a more objective and in-depth tour of the catacombs, join our group tour of San Domitilla. When visiting the catacombs of St Sebastian, make sure you also pay a visit to the church of the same name (San Sebastiano fuori le mure). There’s a statue of the saint as well one of the arrows that allegedly struck him, and part of the column which he was tied to during his martyrdom. Don’t miss the church of Domine Quo Vadis, which is just across the road from the church of St Sebastian. According to legend this 9th century church was built on the spot where St Peter had a vision of Christ. As he was on his way out of Rome, fleeing Nero’s persecution, Peter saw Christ and asked “Lord, where are you going?” (“Domine quo vadis”). Christ replied that he was returning to Rome to be crucified again, giving Peter the courage to return to Rome himself. The church contains footprints in marble that are believed to be those of Christ. There aren’t many places to eat near the catacombs, so you may want to bring a packed lunch and picnic in the nearby park. Alternatively, for a simple lunch go to the Appian Way Café (Via Appia Antica 175), which is just after the Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella. Just opposite the catacombs of St Sebastian is the restaurant L’Archeologia (Via Appia Antica 139) – it’s not cheap, but the food is excellent.
Before you head down the Appian Way, here’s some background reading on the catacombs: Rick Steves: Time Travel on Rome’s Ancient Appian Way The Catacombs of St Callixtus Atlas Obscura: The Catacombs of St Sebastian Daily Mail: Domitilla frescoes revealed after renovation