There are only five Catacombs in Rome that are open to the public. They can only be visited by means of a guided tour, which takes about 30 minutes. All five are closed one day per week and one month out of the year. The ticket price is 8 Euros per person.
A brief history of the Catacombs
The catacombs are underground cemeteries, used by the Jewish, but especially the Christian communities. The first Christian Catacombs in Rome were built in the 2nd century and the practice of using underground burial places was continued until the 5th. Christians used to gather in the cemeteries to celebrate their martyrs, but also for their personal loved ones’ anniversaries.
It is a persistent, but untrue, myth that during the persecutions the Catacombs were used as hiding places. They were used, but rarely, as places of refuge in order to be able to peacefully celebrate the Eucharist. When the persecutions stopped the Catacombs became shrines and many Christians from all over the Roman empire undertook pilgrimages there.
Roman law forbade burial inside the city walls, therefore all catacombs are outside the city, along the consular roads.
One of the main reasons for the existence of the catacombs is lack of space. Since the Christians preferred burial to cremation, the cemeteries above ground filled up quickly and the catacombs created a lot more space. It was also cheaper for the Christians, who were generally not among the richer Romans, to dig deeper into land already owned than to buy vaster stretches of land.
Another reason for the underground burial places is the sense of community the Christians had. The existence of the catacombs allowed them to meet and to display their religious symbols without being disturbed.
The first Roman Christians did not have their own cemeteries, but, unless they owned land, were buried in normal “pagan” burial places, which is why Saint Peter was buried in the necropolis, the city of the dead, on the Vatican Hill, and Saint Paul in another one alongside the Via Ostiense.
When the Christians became richer, they started burying their dead underground. Many of the fist catacombs started out as family tombs, in the first half of the second century. Gradually also Christian non-family members were admitted to those tombs. Through donations, purchases of new land and even direct initiatives by the Church itself, some of the catacombs grew rapidly in size. The Catacombs of Saint Callixtus were organized by the church and its administration as well was in the hands of the church.
In 313, when the edict of Milan was issued by the emperors Constantine and Licinius, this put an end to religious persecution. Although, the Christians became free to worship as they pleased, the catacombs did not stop functioning as cemeteries until the beginning of the fifth century. From then on normal people were buried in regular cemeteries and martyrs in basilicas.
Over the years the Goths and the Longobards sacked Rome multiple times. They destroyed many monuments and looted and pillaged the catacombs. The Popes decided to remove the martyrs’ and saints’ relics from the catacombs and place them inside various churches inside Rome itself. As a result, the catacombs themselves were abandoned and left to decay. The entrances gradually disappeared and by the end of the Middle Ages most of them were completely forgotten. The exceptions were the catacombs of Saint Sebastian, Saint Lawrence and Saint Pancratius.
Two people, Antonio Bosio (1575-1629), the “Columbus of Subterranean Rome”, and Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894) are responsible for the rediscovery of the catacombs.
The intricate, labyrinthine system of underground tunnels that constitute the catacombs can stretch out over many miles. The actual burial places are niches cut out in the tunnel-walls.
These niches are called loculi and can also contain more than one person at the time. For the first burials, the bodies were simply wrapped in a shroud and there was no coffin. The loculi were closed off with a marble plate or, more often, simple tiles. An inscription would sometimes give a name and oil lamps and perfumed vases were placed next to the tombs.
The tombs were arranged in rows on top of each other. The word “cemetery” was take from Greek: Its meaning, resting place, indicated the Christians’ faith in the body’s resurrection.
Other types of tombs beside the loculi were:
- Arcosolium: A larger niche, with an arch over it and an horizontal tomb-covering. Usually these contained entire families. More popular in the 3rd and 4th centuries.’
- Sarcophagus: A coffin made of stone or marble and adorned with reliefs and inscriptions.
- Forma: Tomb dug into the floor of a cubiculum, gallery or crypt, often to be found near the tombs of martyrs.
- Cubiculum: Small rooms serving as family tombs, often decorated with frescoes.
- Crypt: Bigger rooms, that were converted into small underground churches. These martyrs’ tombs were adorned with paintings and mosaics.
The catacombs were dug by the so-called fossores (a guild of gravediggers). The earth was carried away through sky-lights called lucemaria. After the completion of a hallway, the lucemaria were kept open and served as a means of ventilation.
Facts and curiosities
The first catacombs to be called catacombs were those of Saint Sebastian, to be found near the Appian Way, in the vicinity of caves where tuff blocks were cut out. The original Greek meaning of the word catacomb is “near the hollow”. From the 9th century onward all underground cemeteries came to be called catacombs.
The Christians did not invent the catacombs, but perfected an existing technique by creating an immense, labyrinthine network of underground hallways on different levels. The rapid expansion was caused by many Christians’ desire to be buried close to a martyr.
Especially during the persecutions by Emperor Nero, the Christians could not profess their faith openly and resorted to the use of symbols, which were often depicted on the walls of the catacombs and on the marble sealing the tombs. The most important of these symbols were the Good Shepherd, the so-called Orante, the fish and the monogram of Christ:
- The Good Shepherd and his lamb represent Christ and the soul he saved.
- The orante is a praying figure with open arms symbolizing the soul living in divine peace.
- The Greek letters X (chi) and P (ro) interlaced and placed on a tombstone meant that a Christian was buried there.
- IXTHYS (ichtus) in Greek is an acrostic: Iesus Christus Theuu Uiis Sotur (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour).
- A dove with an olive branch stands for the soul having reached divine peace.
- Alpha and Omega, being the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet, signify that Christ is the beginning and end of everything.
- Through the anchor the soul’s arrival at the port of eternity was symbolized.
- As Harry Potter readers will know, the phoenix was a mythical bird rising from its ashes after one thousand years. It is the symbol of the resurrection of the body.
Visiting the Catacombs
The first Catacombs listed are the ones that can be visited without a reservation.
- Catacombs of Saint Agnes – Via Nomentana, 349 – 00162 Rome – Sunday momings on Monday afternoons closed – Phone: +39 068610840
- Catacombs of Priscilla – Via Salaria, 430 – 00199 Rome – Mondays closed – Phone: +39 0686206272
- Catacombs of Domitilla – Via delle Sette Chiese, 282/0 00147 Rome – Tuesdays closed – +39 065135461
- Catacombs of Saint Sebastian – Via Appia Antica, 136 00179 Rome – Sundays closed – +39 067843745
- Catacombs of Saint Callixtus – Via Appia Antica, 126 00179 Rome (closed on Wednesdays) +39 065130151
On January 1st, Easter and December 25th the Catacombs are also closed.
The opening hours of the Catacombs of Saint Agnes are 9-12am and 4-6pm, whereas the other ones are open from 9-12am and from 2-4pm.
The Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology is in charge of visits to the other catacombs. Their ofice is in the Via Napoleone III, 1 00185 Rome (Phone: +39 064465610 ; e-mail: email@example.com). Generally speaking only archaeologists are allowed to visit these catacombs.