Postcards from Italy

Rome’s Cities of the Dead: The Top Catacombs in the Eternal City

As Halloween approaches, thoughts turn to the spooky and Italy has plenty of bone-chilling sights to mark the season (though, of course, Halloween is an American import…in Italy, the traditional holidays are All Souls and All Saints). Among the most macabre attractions in Italy are the many catacombs hidden beneath its historic cities, especially Rome. Home to at least 40 different catacombs that together make up a sprawling warren of kilometers of tunnels and burial chambers hosting the dead under the modern city streets, the Italian capital is the perfect spot to head underground to take a unique journey into the past.

Catacombs of San Sebastiano
Photo by Sakena Ali via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Rome has been continuously inhabited for three millennia (there’s a reason it’s known as the Eternal City) and residents have been burying their dead under the city for just about as long. Vestiges of the modern Italian capital’s ancient glory are still visible on ground level (the Colosseum and Pantheon, for example), but you can also get a fascinating glimpse of the city’s history as far back as ancient Rome in the lesser-known but equally captivating catacombs located beneath many of its oldest churches, a few of which are open to the public. Each is unique, some housing ancient frescoes and others the tombs of early Christian martyrs and popes. 

Here are the most important Roman catacombs to bookmark for your next visit:

Catacombs of San Callisto

Photo by Dnalor 01 via Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Located along the ancient Appian way and spanning more than 12 miles, this complex is the largest and most visited in Rome. Its tunnels and chambers were once crowded with the remains of early Christian martyrs and popes, plus about 500,000 Christians, though many have been since removed and transported to other churches or the Vatican grottoes. Only a small fraction of the complex is open to the public, but the earliest accessible area dates back to the beginning of the 3rd century AD. The itinerary (these catacombs can only be visited as part of a guided tour) includes the Crypt of the Nine Popes (also known as the “Little Vatican”) and Crypt of St. Cecilia, and you can also spot early Christian symbols carved into the stone walls. 

Catacombs of San Sebastiano

IMG_2967 Catacombs, San Sebastiano
Photo by Patrick Denker via Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0

This complex spans four underground levels and is also located along the ancient Appian Way, one of the principal highways in Imperial Rome, so can easily be combined with a tour of the Catacombs of San Callisto. The term “catacomb” was coined here and the underground network still houses the remains of St. Sebastian, which you will view as part of the (mandatory) guided tour. In addition, the complex is decorated with fragments of ancient frescoes and stucco work and includes a number of intact mausoleums. 

Catacombs of Priscilla

Hidden beneath the convent of the Benedictine Sisters of Priscilla, these catacombs are housed in an underground network that was formerly a Roman quarry. Though there are two papal tombs and the remains of a number of saints, the most important element is a small painting believed to be the oldest known image of the Virgin Mary. Other treasures included in the mandatory guided tour include part of the 8 miles of tunnels lined in loculi, the Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman, and the Greek Chapel.

Catacombs of St. Domitilla

Italy-0714 - Catacombs of St. Domitilla
Photo by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Rome’s oldest catacombs, this network of tunnels and chambers are home to unique examples of early Christian art, including frescoes dating from the 2nd century AD. You must join a guided tour to visit, but the itinerary includes all the highlights: four levels of tunnels that once housed the remains of an estimated 15,000 Christians; an ancient rendering of The Last Supper; and the underground Basilica of the SS. Nereus and Achilleus from the 4th century AD dedicated to two Roman soldiers martyred by the Roman emperor Diocletian.

Basilica of San Clemente

San Clemente, Rome
Photo by Brad Hostetler via Flickr licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

There are no catacombs underneath the Basilica of San Clemente, but this 12th-century church is set above a series of underground levels that cover 2,000 years of Roman history. After admiring the basilica on street level, head downstairs (you don’t need to visit with the guided tour, though we recommend taking in the underground treasures with a guide for more context) to explore the remains of a 4th-century Christian church first, then a temple dedicated to Mithras from the 2nd century one level below, and finally a 1st-century Roman house on the deepest level.

Capuchin Crypt

Capuchin Crypt
Photo by Jeroen van Luin via Flickr licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This crypt is located on swanky Veneto and is not strictly a catacomb, but its six chapels decorated with the bones of roughly 4,000 monks who were buried between the 16th and 19th centuries are both macabre and moving. Unline other catacombs that have since been emptied, here you will see real human remains so the crypt may not be suitable for children or impressionable visitors. You don’t need to visit with a guided tour to access the crypt or the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione and museum above, though we suggest taking in the fascinating site with a historian guide to better understand its significance.

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Travel Specialists

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