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
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 the 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.