Maria Rainer is a freelance writer & backpacking enthusiast. She’s written a great article for the Travelblogue about catacombs and crypts in Rome. As photography is not allowed in the crypts, she’s included a few various photos of famous Roman sights nearby. Enjoy!
Originating from about the 2nd century AD, the Christian Catacombs of St. Callixtus (also known as St. Callisto) takes you to a whole new level of history—literally. It stretches nearly 90 acres twenty meters below the surface across 4 vertical levels. They’re named after the deacon Callixtus, who was appointed by Pope Zephyrinus as the administrator of the official cemetery of the Church of Rome.
When you arrive, you’ll have to wait to join another group of tourists before you go under (the ground, that is). The full price is 8 Euros, but the reduced rate (effective as of 2010) is 5 Euros.
Walking down into the catacombs is like being swallowed by darkness, to employ a tasteless but a very accurate metaphor. The air instantly cools and feels slightly thicker in your nose with moisture. It gives you a sense of uneasiness entirely separate from the fact that you’re entering a millennia-old crypt.
An unlikely story
Although one assumes that so many Christians buried underground means they were sent there by some form of prosecution, the tour guide surprises you with a little known fact: the tombs were never secret. Christians buried here were never “driven” underground. Instead, the tomb represents one of the most fundamental Christian beliefs: resurrection. Since pagan Romans preferred cremation, ancient Christians buried their dead (all 500,000 of them, including 16 popes and tens of martyrs) underground outside the city limits.
Boo, no photography
The tour guide lets you know before entering the catacombs that no flash photography is allowed, since such bright lights can over time damage the delicate frescoes representing early Christian art. This makes me a very sad photographer, but at this point I’m too numb to really care. It’s too dark for cameras, anyway, and flash photography in what’s basically a narrow cave is hardly artful. The wannabe archaeologist in me was just happy to let my palms run lightly against the cold walls.
Navigating the crypt
The first thing you see when your eyes adjust is the crypt of nine popes. Some of the marble tablets on their tombs are the originals. Later, you come across the crypt of St. Cecilia. She’s the patron saint of sacred music. How did she become a martyr, you ask? She took three axe blows to the neck. Ouch.
As you go on, the passages grow narrow. They wind, networking for almost 19km. You’d be here all day just trying to find your way out, but lucky for you, the tour guides know where they’re going (you hope). Occasionally, you glimpse stumbling tourists in the group behind you, but seemingly miles down a long passageway that you swear wasn’t there a moment ago.
Still later, you get to admire ancient frescoes that, admittedly, leave more to be desired if you’re used to the stuff in the Sistine Chapel. Much of the 3rdcentury art in the famed Cubicula of Sacraments is deteriorated, but you have to admire that it stuck around at all almost 2,000 years.
When the tour is done, you have the option of dropping by the gift shop. There’s nothing terribly fascinating there, so you might as well keep exploring the other catacombs in the area.
Also on the Appian Way, and another creepy place
If you’ve still got time but want to see something other than catacombs, consider strolling along the Appian Way. It boasts a beautiful countryside complete with stinky but adorable sheep and quaint houses as well as the Church of Domine Quo Vadis. Although you’d never think it by its exterior appearance, this tiny chapel houses the stone that supposedly shows the indentation of Jesus Christ’s foot [see top of article]. The church gets its name from the story that Peter, escaping Rome and persecution, met Christ along the Appian Way. “Domine,” Peter said to Christ, “quo vadis?” (Lord, where are you going?) Christ supposedly replied, “Rome, to be crucified.”
Not too impressed by the catacombs? No big deal. Once you get back to Rome, check out the Capuchin Crypt beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto (near Piazza Barberini). In the 17th century, Capuchin monks made use of the 300 cartloads of dead friars they’d brought along by making art with their skeletons in a series of underground rooms. Some of the bones are those of children, and don’t be surprised to find arches, altars, candelabras, and even entire walls of brown, oxidized skulls. The Catholic Church says it’s not meant to creep you out (are they kidding?). It’s meant to express the brevity of life. Unfortunately, no photography (flash or no flash) are allowed inside.
Catacombe di San Callisto (Catacombs of St. Callixtus)
Via Appia Antica, 126
00179 Rome, Italy
9:00 AM– 12:00PM, 2:00PM – 5:00PM
Closed on Wednesdays
How to get there:
From Roma Termini Station, take bus 714 to Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano. Next, take bus 218. Fosse Ardeatine is the 10th stop on this bus. The catacombs are just opposite it, so get off there. When you’re done crawling around catacombs, take bus 218 back along the Appian Way back into the city.
Thanks again for the fantastic article, Maria!