Catacomba di Balbina is a 4th century set of catacombs known to have existed on the left hand (east) side of the Via Ardeatina in late Classical times. Over it was a funerary basilica founded in 336 by Pope St Mark -Basilica di San Marco Papa.
There is a persuasive but inconclusive identification with the Basilica Anonima della Via Ardeatina, and the catacombs associated with that complex.
This page will concentrate on the documented evidence. For an overview on the catacombs, see Catacombs of Rome.
The original name of the cemetery at this location is significant, as it is thought to preserve the name of the landowner or patroness under whose aegis the cemetery began. The name Balbina is unusual, meaning literally "little girl stammerer", and also occurs in the city church of Santa Balbina. The latter has a worthless legend attached to it, describing St Balbina as a virgin martyr, but actually the two localities might commemorate the same woman. If so, she would have been subsidising a worshipping congregation by providing a church and a burial place.
Two epigraphs have been transcribed containing the name: In Balbinis locum sub teglata, and In Cymiteriu Balbinae in crypta noba (sic).
Pope St Mark
The Depositio episcoporum in the Liberian Catalogue has a very important entry, reading: "On the Nones of October was [the burial] of Marcus in the cemetery of Balbina". This locates the basilica of that pope over this set of catacombs.
The Liber Pontificalis has this:
Ex hujus suggestione, obtulit Constantinus Augustus basilicae, quem cymiterium constituit via Ardeatina, fundum Rosarium cum omnes agrum campestrorum.
This preserves the original geographical name of the locality-"Farm of Roses".
His basilica features in the early mediaeaval pilgrimage itineraries. The Codex Salisburgensis has this for the Via Ardeatina:
Et dimittis viam Appiam et pervenies ad s. Marcum papam et martyrem, postea ad s. Damasum papam et martyrem via Ardeatina, et ibi in altera ecclesia invenies duos diaconos et martyres Marcum et Marcellianum fratres germanos cuius corpus quescit sursum sub magno altare.
(It should be noted that the popes Mark and Damasus were not martyrs.)
The basilica of Pope St Mark was restored by Pope Gregory III (731-41) and again by Pope Benedict III (855-8). The latter is significant, because the Church of Rome was in the process of stripping and abandoning its suburban shrines and bringing the relics of its catacomb martyrs within the city walls to be re-enshrined in its churches. This was simply because various marauders had made the countryside around Rome too dangerous for pilgrims. However, here the intention obviously was to keep the shrine functioning.
The ruins of a church having a central nave with aisles (or three naves, as the Italians describe such) was mentioned as being in the locality at the start of the 17th century. Also, the protagonist of catacomb exploration, Antonio Bosio, had discovered a set of catacombs just south of Domine Quo Vadis and identified it as the Catacomba di Balbina. So, this ruin was interpreted as that of the basilica of Pope St Mark.
Later in the 17th century, the entire area was cleared of ruins to create vineyards.
This identification lasted until 1991, when the Basilica Anonima della Via Ardeatina was discovered further along the modern Via Ardeatina. After some hesitation, a scholarly consensus seems to be emerging that this is the Basilica di San Marco and that the associated catacombs are the genuine Catacomba di Balbina. This leaves the catacombs discovered by Bosio as possibly identifiable with the Catacomba di Basileo. It remains uncertain whether the 17th century ruin was of the basilica of SS Mark and Marcellian, or of Pope St Mark.