Catacombs, Basilica of St Clement and Francesca Romana

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. But our tour will only finish after visiting another little gem, a church that is as beautiful as most mass tour operators overlook it. The church of Santa Francesca Romana, so close to the Colosseum that nobody even notices it. Like the most delicate flower growing at the foot of a great oak.


The Catacombs of St Sebastian

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 most beautiful and best preserved of these catacombs is actually that of St. Sebastian. It gave us the term ‘catacomb,’ for this and for all the many other similar sites. The name 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. So, although there were other catacombs at that time, or places where the first Christians who believed in the resurrection of the body buried their dead (rather than cremate them), the catacombs of St. Sebastian* could rightly be said to be the world’s first catacombs, and the one that gives the name to all the others. During our tour of the catacombs, we will visit the Catacombs of St. Sebastian, or one of the equally beautiful catacombs that form the system of tunnels of the Appian Way, where the famous martyr saint (who is depicted with his body riddled by the arrows of Emperor Diocletian, like a hedgehog full of quills), was buried. But the Catacombs of St. Sebastian are also 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. The explicit inscriptions written by the faithful prove the special devotion for these two famous saints.

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.”  

Body of Santa Francesca Romana

who is The Goddess of Roma?

A visit to the Basilica of Santa Francesca Romana, also known as the Basilica of Santa Maria Nova, constitutes the perfect conclusion to our Underground Rome tour. The first Christians used to gather in the catacombs to pray and bury their dead. For a religion in which the idea of resurrection is so fully ingrained in the faith, it is not surprising that the body should gains such significance. The living and the dead alike await for the World to Come, the day of Revelation when all will be resurrected in flesh-and-blood to face divine justice and mercy— that Last Judgment, of which Michelangelo left one of the greatest artistic representation ever in the Sistine Chapel. But even Michelangelo’s masterpiece could not be understood, if not seen in the light of the Christian concept of death and its cult of the dead. Over the centuries this veneration of the dead, of which the catacombs represent one initial stage, developed in forms that are coherent to the premises. That is, the worship of the martyrs, the cult of relics, and the importance placed on the saints’ mortal remains are central not just in Christian spirituality but in Christian art, architecture and aesthetics as well. One need only see St. Francesca Romana’s dead body in the crypt underneath the main altar (another masterpiece of Bernini), for a very vibrant representation of the aforementioned concept. The skeleton of the female saint, placed here in 1440, is dressed in beautiful embroidered garments, like a bride ready to meet her spouse, and she holds an open book in her hand, as if reading. This is the exact opposite of stoic reflection, common to some streams of Christian spirituality, where we are all doomed to die: memento mori, “remember you have to die,” as the Latin phrase states. Here, the fundamental message that one might gather at the end of our unique Roman Catacombs tour is that we all live despite the appearance. Remember you are alive!

Besides St. Francesca Romana, this beautiful church also contains the spoils of the Martyr Saints Nemesio, Olimpio, Simpronio, Lucilla, Esusperia and Teodulo, all transported here under Pope Gregory V in the year 999 AD, just one year before the Apocalypse, or so it was believed by many. In itself the church is beautiful. Besides Bernini’s altar, it displays a stunning byzantine-like mosaic in the transept, representing Our Lady with the Child, and the Apostles John, Peter, Andrew and James dating back to the 11th century. But the real artistic gem is an image of the Virgin with Child that was believed lost, and has only recently been brought back to life during the restoration of another painting. This is one of the oldest images of the Virgin Mary in the world, and one made by a very refined artist working during the 5th century in Palestine. Her beauty is stunning, her skin is finely modeled, and her eyes are full of light and compassion. A real gem.

Francesca Romana 12.JPG

Curious facts About St Francesca Romana

Perhaps the most curious fact about the church of Santa Francesca Romana resides in the very reason of its oldest foundation, dating probably to 757 AD, when Pope Paul I erected and dedicated an oratory in honor of Saints Peter and Paul in memory of their prayer on Simon, the Magician. According to tradition, the traces of the knee marks left by the two apostles on the basalt rocks are still preserved in the wall of the transept, behind two grates, and are still visible today. But it is also very interesting to mention, on a last note, that the Basilica of Santa Maria Nova was built on the very site of the gigantic temple that Emperor Hadrian had erected in honor of the goddess Roma, the female deity that personified the city of Rome and the Roman State. It is thus striking that Santa Francesca Bussa de’ Leoni — the real name of Francesca — became Francesca Romana, i.e., “Roman,” almost as if the vanished cult of the goddess Roma somehow lingered in the name of the saint, in the same way that the Pagan temple was replaced by the Church, but both lie on the same foundation. Our tour of Underground Rome also aims at emphasizing the multilayered structure of Rome, a city made of layers rising over older layers, where it is still possible, with an expert guide who knows the secret passages to reach a different Rome that is frozen in time, a parallel dimension where Rome was and still is, perhaps, a very different one.

* Equally beautiful to the Catacombs of St. Sebastian are the nearby Catacombs of St. Domitilla and that of St. Callixtus. At times during our Rome Catacombs tour we might visit one of the last two catacombs, instead of St. Sebastian, due to unforeseen closures, strikes, holidays, maintenance and whatnot. St. Domitilla and St. Callixtus are in no way less beautiful and inspiring than the Catacombs of St Sebastian.

** 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