Tourist Guide Rome

The Catacombs – tombs of early Christians

If the hustle and bustle above ground becomes too much then for a change, a trip to the famous catacombs is certainly worthwhile. Currently there are more than 60 in and around Rome. The oldest catacombs are from pre-Christian times. There are for example also Jewish Catacombs. These underground grave systems were developed due to urgent need as according to the ‘Twelve Table’ rule in Roman law, the burial of the dead was prohibited within the city walls. As a result the catacombs originated as niches and burial caves outside of the city.

The most well known are the catacombs along the ‘Via Appia Antica’. The early Christians adopted the custom of the pagan Romans of burying their dead in the catacombs and expanded it more and more in late antiquity. This development was also encouraged by the fact that Christians were prohibited from owning land and were thus forced to bury their dead underground.

In particular the mortal remains of many martyrs were buried in the catacombs. As many Christians wished to have their final resting place in the vicinity of these martyrs, the grave complexes grew more and more over time that to end with they consisted of passages with a total length of over 100km.

In the walls of the passages there are carved out niches that were used for the burial of the dead. After the conquest of Rome by the Germans the catacombs were largely destroyed or forgotten. During the 8th and 9th centuries the reigning Popes recovered many of the bones of the martyrs and buried them in churches above ground. As the Christian faith was no longer under persecution and the Christians were now permitted to own land, burials were generally carried out in cemeteries. Only in recent times have the catacombs been rediscovered and researched.

However, only a few of the catacombs are open to the public. Contrary to popular belief they are not the places that we imagine from horror movies, rather they are real religious sites. Many pilgrims from all over the world visit the catacombs as they bear witness to the life and works of the early Christian communities in Imperial Rome. The frescoes, paintings and inscriptions found there are also of great historical interest. Currently 5 catacombs are open to the public: the St. Agnes Catacomb, the Priscilla Catacomb, the Domitilla Catacomb, St Sebastian’s Catacomb and St. Callixtus Catacomb. The last of the two are located on the ‘Via Appia Antica’. All the catacombs are closed on one day of the week- this varies from catacomb to catacomb. In January/February they are usually completely closed for maintenance and repairs. The visit comes only with guided tours and lasts approximately 30 minutes.