Catacombs of Rome are among the most mysterious and enigmatic landmarks of the Eternal City. Here, in these long underground labyrinths among the tombs of the first Christians, we can find the very beginning of the Christian traditions. Today we know about 70 catacombs with about 200 km of total length and presumably 6 000 000 buried Christians. This data is not final, each year more and more new labyrinths are discovered, which can’t stop surprising us - this space underneath Rome is really gigantic! has always existed there together with the Eternal City.
All the catacombs of Rome are located outside the walls of the city, along once main arteries of Rome - Via Appia, Ostiense, Labicana, Tiburtina, and Nomentana. Only 5 catacombs are available for the public today with the biggest concentration on the Via Appia Attica.
Underground the catacombs look as vaulted tunnels with niches in the walls, once filled with tombs. Most niches are unfortunately empty, but intact family crypts can still be found as well. The reason for such devastation was constant gradual looting that happened for centuries. The catacombs were massively raided during the Barbarian invasion and only because of the confusing labyrinths some of the catacombs managed to stay completely untouched.
The catacombs of Rome have a long history with lots of secrets and dark spots in it. For centuries these ancient structures were abandoned and then reopened again. And thus happened quite a couple of times. Since the 19th century the catacombs got the attention of scientists and became truly explored. Everybody would like to know what purpose the catacombs were built for and why.
Brief history of catacombs can be divided into three main periods. The earliest period dates back to the antique times. In fact, before Christianity Roman and Jewish catacombs had already existed, so it happened much later that Christianity started to be associated with catacombs in the way we know them today.
Many say that the true origin of the catacombs stays a secret. However, if we do not overthink, we will understand that catacombs were built due to the high price of the land and because Roman law prohibited burials inside the city for sanitary reasons yet in the first century BC. Many catacombs were created as burial places under the premises that belonged to specific families, and at that time it was the only option.
When Christianity started to spread, many executed Christians were buried in the underground labyrinths as well. Unlike Romans, Christians did not cremate their people. They started to visit the tombs of the executed people, who were revered as martyrs and since then venerating the relics became a Christian tradition. When Romans started to oppress Christians the latter had to hide themselves and their symbols. In the catacombs they could write not only the names of the dead, but they also could leave freely Christian signs and inscriptions on the tombs of the dead.
The persecution of Christians ceased in 313 and though churches started to be built around Rome freely, Christians still continued to bury the dead in the catacombs until the 5th century. Not only did they widen these underground labyrinths but also arranged prayer services there. Liturgies on the relics, too, date back to those times when Christians conducted services in the catacombs on their martyrs’ tombs.
Then for some time in IV - V centuries the catacombs became the place of pilgrimage. People came here to pray on the tombs of apostles, sacred martyrs and confessors. However, Christianity slowly separated itself from the catacombs. A lessening interest in them was caused by gradual extraction of the Christian relics and transferring them to churches. This was done in order to save the relics first from the Barbarians, then from future invaders and tomb robbers. In 609 twenty eight carts with catacomb relics were taken to the Pantheon to consecrate the first pagan temple, which was converted into the St. Mary and the Martyrs Church. Another example is the Church of San Prassede. In 807 about 2300 tombs were withdrawn from the catacombs and transported to it.
After the VI-VII centuries the catacombs were left forgotten for about 600 years. Some historians say that it happened due to the change in belief about the tombs The desire to stay close to the relics of martyrs was changed with the fear to disturb the dead. This way or another, today we know nothing about the catacombs of the medieval period, which for a reason is considered to be the darkest ages for the whole city of Rome.
In fact, it happened many times through the centuries that farmers and villagers found this or that catacomb while working the land or digging quarries. Therefore, it was a regular occurrence for usual workers to come up with the catacombs. And then forget about them completely again. In fact, it still happens and the ancient artefacts under Rome can’t allow to Roman metropolitan system to develop fast.
Catacombs are not about lines (usually you won’t
find crowds there) but it would be very practical to reserve a ticket for a guided tour. The thing
is you can’t visit this place on your own, because all of the catacombs belong
to different Christian Orders, and only guided groups are allowed into their premises.
Although they are situated underground, some of the catacombs are not open in certain months and on certain dates. All of the catacombs have winter closures, but the dates are different. Please, don’t forget to check the time-tables, so that you wouldn’t miss out on this special Rome attraction.
Here is a number of tours that you can take along the Appian Way visiting the famous crypts and catacombs