The Catacombs of Rome: the dark side of the Eternal City

Going underground in Rome

Another city lies beneath your feet. The catacombs of Rome, along with subterranean churches, temples, houses and rivers, offer a glimpse into another world, and the fascinating history of the Eternal City. While some underground sites, such as the remains of the Ancient Roman sewer the Cloaca Maxima, have restricted access, there are plenty of places that don’t require a helmet and a degree in archaeology to visit.

To learn about the history of Rome and discover the dark side of the Eternal City, take a trip underground on a guided tour of the catacombs…

The history of the Catacombs

The best-known catacombs in Rome are those situated along the Appian Way, to the south east of the city centre – St Domitilla (Santa Domitilla), St Callixtus (San Callisto) and St Sebastian (San Sebastiano). These catacombs were essentially vast, underground graveyards for early Christians in Rome, who were not allowed to bury their dead within the city walls. While the majority of burials were ordinary Christians, some saints and popes were buried here too. The Catacombs of St Sebastian were the original burial place of St Sebastian, St Peter and St Paul, while St Cecilia was originally buried St Callixtus, before being moved to a church in Trastevere.

The catacombs were in use for several centuries, and it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of Christians were buried here. By the Middle Ages they had been abandoned, and they were not re-discovered until the 16th century, when the scholar Antonio Bosio set out to explore the subterranean passageways of Rome. Since the 18th century, the catacombs of Rome have been a tourist attraction for visitors curious to see another side of Rome, as well as a place of pilgrimage for many Christians

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Exploring the Catacombs of Rome

The best way to explore underground Rome is on a catacombs tour with Roads to Rome tours. An archaeologist tour guide can take you through these atmospheric subterranean labyrinths, telling you all about the catacombs and the early days of Christianity in Rome. A solitary visit to the catacombs can be an overwhelming experience, due to their sheer size, but a guide can help you to make sense of the catacombs, as well as pointing out interesting details you might otherwise have missed. In the Catacombs of St Domitilla, for example, there are some beautiful examples of both Christian and pagan art, including frescoes that were only revealed during recent restoration work.

St Callixtus is the largest and best-known of the catacombs, particularly popular with tour groups, and is definitely worth a visit for its evocative artwork and impressive tunnels. However, your catacomb tour should also include the oldest catacombs, St Domitilla, which is the only place where you’ll see bones on display. Although St Sebastian is arguably the least interesting of the three, the catacombs do have some artwork worth seeing, as well as a burial chamber containing Ancient Romantombs.

Finally, when planning your tour of the catacombs, keep these tips in mind:

  • If you’re claustrophobic, you should probably give them a miss! The catacombs are formed of narrow, underground tunnels that were dug out by hand.
  • Catacombs are sacred places, so dress appropriately, as if you were visiting a church. That means no shorts, short skirts or uncovered shoulders.
  • Although the catacombs have similar opening hours, don’t get caught out by the different opening days. St Callixtus is open every day, but St Sebastian is closed on Sundays, while St Domitilla is closed on Tuesdays.

Read more: The Catacombs of St Callixtus