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Ancient Rome Catacombs

The Rome Catacombs are an interesting Rome attraction to add to your list of things to do in Rome.

The Catacombs of Rome were the burying place for Christians in ancient Rome. The law prohibited anyone to be buried within the walls of Rome.

There are around 40 Rome catacombs outside the ancient walls of Rome. The catacombs in Rome include over 350 miles of tunnel. "Rooms" with stone niches or "shelves" held the tombs...the bodies were wrapped in linen like Jesus. Some Saints and popes were buried here.

History of the Rome Catacombs

When Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313AD, the faithful would make pilgrimages to remember and honor the martyrs of their faith.

Invasions of the Goths in the 6th century and the Longobards in the 8th century damaged the Rome catacombs. This resulted in the bodies of the martyrs and saints being transferred into churches within the City by the Popes.

"The Martyrs in the Catacombs" by Jules Eugène Lenepveu (1819 -1898)

The 2 best catacombs in Rome to visit are Catacombe di San Callisto or St. Callisto Catacombs and St. Sebastian Catacombs or Catacombe di San Sebastiano.

Here are the highlights and details of these two important Roman Catacombs.

St. Callisto Catacombs or Catacombe di San Callisto

These Rome catacombs were once several seperate catacombs that were eventually combined together. Another name for these burial grounds for Christians is Catacombs of St. Callixtus, named after it's founder Calixtus who was martyred by being thrown out of the window of his Trastevere home.

Chapel of the Popes

Nine 3rd century popes were buried in the this chapel in the place of honor (behind the altar you see), many martyrs. St. Zephyrinus, St. Pontianus, St. Anteros, St. Fabian, St. Stephen I, St. Sixtus II, St. Dionysius, St. Eutychianus and St. Caius.

Over the altar is an inscription of Pope St. Damasus (366-384) who rediscovered the tombs.

Cubiculum of St. Cecilia

This is where the body of St. Cecelia, patron saint of musicians, was buried by Pope Urban after she was martyred in her house in Trastevere in 224AD.

Her body was rediscovered by Pope Paschal I in 1599 when it's location was revealed to him in a dream. Her incorrupt body was found to be just as she died and perfectly intact.

There is a reproduction here of the sculpture by Stefano Maderno which depicts the body as found by Pope Paschal I. The beautiful original can be found in front of the altar of the Basilica of Cecilia in Trastevere.

St Sebastian Catacombs and Basilica

These Rome catacombs were named after a martyr named Sebastian who was an officer of the Praetorian Guard. When he was discovered to be a Christian, St. Sebastian was tied to a tree on Palatine Hill and arrows were shot at him. Thinking he was dead, they untied him and Sebastian fell to the ground. A Christian woman named Irene was going to bury him and discovered he was still breathing. She brought him home to care for him. After he recovered, Diocletian found out and ordered Sebastian to be beaten to death. His body was buried in the catacombs at the place the bodies of Saints Peter and Paul had lain. The St. Sebastian Basilica was then built on this spot.

Basilica of St. Sebastian

The Basilica Church of St. Sebastian was built here by Constantine in the 4th century in honor of the Apostles. The current St. Sebastian Church was finished in 17th century by Cardinal Borghese (nephew of Paul V).

  • The first chapel on the left has the tomb of St. Sebastian.
  • The first chapel on the right contains several relics.
  • The High Altar has 4 ancient columns and beneath it the tomb of Pope St. Stephen (257AD) a martyr.
  • Church also contains the relics of Martyrs St. Eutychius and St. Eusebius.

Catacomb Symbols

The ancient Roman Catacombs contain many paintings with important symbols of the Christian faith. Be on the lookout for these on your visit to Rome's catacombs.
Rome Catacomb symbol Good Shepherd
Rome Catacombs painting baptism

Dove - Christian soul released from its earthly tabernacle, often found with an olive branch (sign of peace) in it's mouth (Noah and the Ark, Genesis 8:11)

Anchor - Hope in Christ, "We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure..." Hebrews 6:19

Sheep and Shepherd - "I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep." John 10:14-15

Phoenix - mythical Arabian bird, myth claims after a thousand years arises from its ashes so it is the symbol of the resurrection of the bodies

Fish - Greek name for "fish" is Ichthus, Greek characters formed an acrostic, "Jesus Christ God Son Savior" Ship - Represents the church tossed about in the the world, Clement of Alexandria said "Let the dove or the fish, the vessel flying before the wind or the marine anchor be our signets"

Bread - miracle of the loaves and fishes, Matthew 14:13?21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17 and John 6:5-15

Orante - figure praying with open arms, a symbol of the soul at peace in paradise and the church

Vine with grapes - Jesus is the vine and we are the branches (John 15:1-6)

Palm Branches - sign of victory and martyrdom "After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches 6 in their hands." Rev. 7:9

Rome Catacombs symbols fish and bread

Roman Catacombs Guide

  • Catacombs open to the public: St. Sebastian Catacombs (closed Sundays), St. Callisto Catacombs (closed Wednesdays), St. Agnes Catacombs (closed Sunday mornings and Monday afternoons), Priscilla Catacombs (closed Mondays) and Domotilla Catacombs (closed Tuesdays)
  • Hours: 900-1200 and 1400-1700
  • Admission: 8 euros currently
  • Catacomb Tours: Half hour tour included in admission
  • Transportation: Take metro line B to Piramide stop, then bus 118 heading South

Ancient Catacombs Guided Tours Rome

A Rome Catacombs small group tour is a great way to see the ancient catacombs and get the history behind them. The tour includes:
  • Catacombs of San Sebastiano
  • Unusal Crypt of the Capuccini with its bones of 4000 monks
  • Church of St. Clemente with its upper church built in the 12th century...built over the Temple of Mithras from the 3rd century...built over a Roman house from the 1st century.

Here is a complete listing of all tours that include the Catacombs.

Rome Capuccini Crypt
Capuccini Crypt by Tessier

Here are some other ancient Rome attractions that might be of interest to you:
Colosseum in Rome
The Roman Forum
Roman Pantheon
Arch of Constantine
Baths of Diocletian
Caracalla Baths

Enjoy your visit to the Rome Catacombs!

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