Bones And Catacombs

A Rome Catacombs Tour with Christian Crypts and pagan Temples

Rome Catacombs

Descend into the underworld

Imagine descending into the deepest heart of Rome and discovering the mysterious heart that still palpitates after thousands of years, where there are layers upon layers of history, facts, art, political upheavals, revolutions and a great deal else. Sometimes, there are places that just don’t change. Even in Rome, you only need take the time to look below your feet. Rome’s Undergrounds are an intact and unending reservoir of marvels that astonish visitors, historians and archeologists, as well as art experts. It is an intricate labyrinth that extends for miles underneath Rome, and it is, at times, still unexplored. These tunnels noiselessly preserve the authenticity of a city that has been molded by the dust of the millennia. To many, this is the real Rome. A parallel world that is at once very close and very far from the hustle-and-bustle of our modern life sprouting on the surface—the realm of flesh-and-blood humans that spend their days running, working, building, restlessly doing a thousand things. Descend into the dark of Underground Rome and breathe. Just allow yourself be transported into a different dimension, to a Rome that is unexpected and unheard of. Take a break from the noise. Rest your soul and your eyes. Touch history. Hear the silence. Learn about the first Christians and gain first-hand experience of the life of the ancient Romans. Our expert tour guides will take you through the deepest levels of the Eternal City, on a bones and Catacombs tour that will leave you as speechless as you are inspired. Rather than a descent into the Underground Rome, this will turn out to be a descent into oneself, a spiritual/emotional journey that will touch the heartstrings of even the most experienced travelers.

lamps used in the catacombs in Rome

Rome Catacombs Tours

The mysterious places that we are going to see on our Rome Catacombs Tour have preserved their amazing treasures over the centuries, treasures that are still only partially unearthed. Together with your guide, you will walk through the intricate mazes of the catacombs, where the first Christians buried their dead; you will discover the tombs of the first followers of Jesus and those of early popes and martyrs. You will see frescoes painted 2,000 years ago on old subterranean walls that vividly express the first dogmas of faith and you will learn the esoteric symbolism of early Christianity. But this Underground Rome Tour is also designed to connect Christian culture to the one that preceded it and that, for long time, ran concurrently with it, namely, Roman and Pagan culture, at its acme during the first century after Christ, which was soon to be overwhelmed by the unstoppable wave of the new faith. One important stop of our Tour of Underground Rome will be an incredibly beautiful gem hidden in the heart of Rome, the Basilica of St. Clement, a 12th basilica situated just five minutes from the Colosseum (for more Underground experience check out also Roma Experience’s original Colosseum Underground Tour with max 12 people). The Basilica of St. Clement is a church of incomparable beauty that is unjustly overlooked by the distracted tourist, maybe for the very same reason that makes it unique—nobody can even imagine what is to be found once entering. Visitors can walk three levels underground, right under the basilica. The more you descend into the bowels of the earth, the more you have the feeling that you’re traveling in time, right back to the origin of Western civilization. It is an unforgettable experience.

symbol-peace-catacombs-of-rome

The Catacombs of St Domitilla

The Roman catacombs extend on multiple levels; sometimes they have even six or seven levels. It is an unending web that runs under the Eternal City. Every floor is an intricate labyrinth of tunnels excavated into the tuff stone, a kind of porous rock that is quite abundant in the region of Lazio. Many catacombs have been explored only on some levels, without ever coming to an end to all of the tunnels, as some are still buried under tons of earth. There is still a great deal to be done by archeologists. What is really behind these walls in the deepest circles of the inferno, only God knows. Artifacts, art works, frescoes, inscriptions, tombs of martyrs... Only a small fraction of the treasures of the catacombs is known today. And only five out of circa sixty catacombs that are known to us are open to the public. One of the widest, most beautiful, and best preserved of Rome's catacombs is that of St. Domitilla. The term ‘catacomb,’ comes from the Greek kata, which means ‘by/near,’ and kymbas, ‘cave,’ because in this area just outside of Rome, on the Appian Way, they had started digging the tombs into the relatively soft tuff stone of existing caves. It was in these caves that the first Christians buried their dead (rather than cremate them). The term particularly refer to the nearby catacombs of St. Sebastian, that therefore could rightly be said to be the world’s first catacombs.

catacombs-of-domitilla

But the catacombs of St Domitilla are among the oldest Christian burial sites, and probably the most extensive Catacombs in Rome. While the nearby catacombs of St Sebastian are famous for having hosted the bodies of two of the most famous saints of Christianity, no less than St Peter and St Paul (before their mortal remains were transferred to St Paul Outside the Walls and St Peter’s Basilica), St Domitilla's catacombs extend underneath a real estate that once belonged to the imperial family of the Flavians, whose founder Vespasian is the emperor who started the building of the Colosseum. The youngest of Vespasian's son, Domitian, had a niece, whose name wasDomitilla, who became a Christian. The sources are not clear about his fate, but during one of the many persecutions held against the Christians, Domitilla had been apparently sent to exile because of her faith, by his uncle, Emperor Domitian. At her death, Domitilla, was buried in the family's mausoleum on the sites that we now call Catacombs of Domitilla. The site also hosts the bodies of the saint martyrs Petronilla, and the soldier martyrs Nereus and Achilleus, and it is famous for the stunning underground basilica dedicated to them. Beautiful frescoes, Christian inscriptions, bones, sarcophagi, tombs, stairs, crypts, and even dining rooms were found — and are still found in the Catacombs of Domitilla as the work of the archaeologists proceed — that make these catacombs one of the most beautiful and worth visiting catacombs in Rome. Join our group tour of the Roman Catacombs today!

The medieval basilica of St Clement, built on the top of a 4th century basilica and a I century temple of Mithras.

The medieval basilica of St Clement, built on the top of a 4th century basilica and a I century temple of Mithras.

Basilica of St Clement

The medieval Basilica of St. Clement (the fourth pope, to whom the church is dedicated) is built on top of the remains of a 4th century basilica, which is in turn built on top of a private Roman house that displays beautiful decorated rooms, with intact floors and still functioning running water. Right next to it, and perhaps part of the same building, is one of the best-preserved still extant temples of Mithras, dating back to the 1st century AD. Mithraism was an initiatory sectarian religion or system of beliefs that was widely spread amongst ancient Romans and especially Roman soldiers who had served in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. It is a sun cult that shared, with the incipient faith in Jesus Christ, the powerful symbolism of light as a metaphor of inner enlightenment. The struggle and the competition between these two emerging religions, both in competition with the pantheon of gods and goddesses promoted by Roman society and Hellenistic culture, came to a final battle with the death of the last Pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate (ruling from 361-363). Julian had attempted to suppress the growth of Christianity, after Constantine, his predecessor, had defeated Maxentius at Ponte Milvio (a local bridge on the Tiber just outside Rome), and had conceded freedom to the cult. However, before this struggle came to the surface in the early 4th century, both Mithraism and Christianity had the strong symbolism of light in common but, paradoxically, celebrated their rituals in dark underground spaces consecrated to their religious practices. There is a line of continuity between the Pagan world, which eventually perished, and the Christian world that triumphed in the end. And by going down to the secret tunnels beneath the basilica of St. Clement it is possible to actually experience first-hand the moment in which this transition happened. It happens again before our eyes every time we go down to visit the Mithras temple under the Basilica of St Clement.

Temple of Mithras under St Clement's basilica in Rome

Curious facts About St. Clement’s Basilica

This incredible church is also of great interest for the history of literature as it hosts the tomb of St. Cyril († 862 AD), the inventor of Slavonic or Cyrillic alphabet. Furthermore, it contains the first example, or one of the very first examples of written Italian—although, we should better say, the vernacular, i.e., the language that developed from Latin and was to become the Italian tongue as we know it. In one of the frescoes of the ancient Basilica dedicated to St. Clement, the artist represents one of the miracles of the saint. A Roman officer, Sisinnio, tries to kick the pope out of his house, where the Christian had gone to heal the man of blindness. Sisinnio orders his servants to tie the priest and drag him out of the building. But St. Clement remains untouched and free, as the servants, also blinded by their lack of judgment, find themselves pulling an unmovable marble column! They pull and pull but the column does not move. The dialogue that follows, that the artist painted as if in a comic stripe, is hilarious:  Sisinnio: “Fili de le pute, traite!” Gosmarius: “Albertel, trai!” Albertellus: “Falite dereto co lo palo, Carvoncelle!” St. Clement: “Duritiam cordis vestris, saxa traere meruistis.” Which means: Sisinnio: “Sons of bitches, pull!” Gosmarius: “Albert, pull!” Albert: “Lift it from behind with the pole, Carboncello!” St. Clement: “Because of the hardness of your heart, you deserved to be pulling stones.”  

bones-and-catacombs-rome

The Crypt of the Capuchin Friars

The Capuchins is a religious order that has been around for almost 500 years and a branch of the larger family of Franciscan friars, founded by St Francis in 1206. In fact, the Capuchins asked the pope to approve a separate rule for them in 1528 AD because they wanted to follow St Francis' teaching in a more radical way. The Franciscan order has always been divided between factions with completely opposite interpretation of Francis' rule: some demanded a stricter adherence to the vow of poverty, others objected that poverty is a spiritual quality and cannot be, so to speak, measured. The Franciscan Order grew so fast in the early 13th century to not only attract thousands of followers and would be friars, but also many sponsors and donors, and thus a great wealth. Was it conflicting with the vow of poverty to build such amazing churches like the St Francis' Basilica in Assisi, or was it against the vow of poverty to possess books, build convents and even wear sandals? What is the border between strict necessity and coziness? And where does coziness end and begins wealth? This was the frame within which a peculiar reflection on the meaning of death arose. For the Capuchin friars, who had decided to create their own order, but always in the steps of St Francis' spirituality, in order to live the vow of poverty with greater radicality, it was particularly important to be reminded at all time that this mortal life is not forever. Nobody can bring the smallest possession with himself or herself in the afterlife, so there is no point in being attached to this mortal life. From this spiritual perspective, life is joy because we can leave behind the obsession of hoarding material wealth for ourselves or those who outlive us, and instead we can dedicate ourselves to be better people and have a spiritual life. The way the Capuchin monks rendered this whole reflection on death and the real meaning of life could appear gruesome and horrifying to us today, but their explicit way was meant to communicate a spiritual urgency, rather than a sense of macabre on which many tour operators build their itinerary. We at Roma Experience believe that a visit to the Capuchin crypts connects with the other two steps of this Rome Catacombs Tour (the Catacombs of Domitilla and the Basilica of St Clement) because the Franciscan reflection on death actually is a continuation, in some ways, of the first Christians' attention to the worship of the martyrs, the cult of the relics, the importance placed on on the saints mortal remains, and the very concept of burying the dead instead of cremating their bodies. For a cult so deeply hinged on the idea of the resurrection of the body, in a moment when the pagan religion went in the opposite direction, these manifestation of the macabre are but a reminder that there is a greater life after life. This final part of our guided tour will include a visit to the museums and the crypt of the Capuchin friars of Rome, an experience that leave many guests shocked at the sight of how entire walls, ceiling, objects, and even art works were made of with the bones and the skulls of the past friars. This is a bones and catacombs tour that you will remember forever. Join our group today. Transportation and admission tickets are included.

** Due to the uneven formation of the terrain, the narrow and steep tunnels, and the lack of elevators, this Rome catacombs itinerary is not recommended to the mobility impaired, or to those who need to use a wheelchair.

Symbol of Christ in the Catacombs of Rome

tour Summary

  • The tour is in English
  • Price: €89 per person
  • All entry fees are included in the price.
  • Transportation is included in the price.
  • Food and drinks are not included.
  • Meeting Time 8:45
  • Length of the tour: 3 hours.
  • Tour runs on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
  • Meeting Point: Provided after the booking in your confirmation email

 

 

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