Catacomba di Trasone is a late 3rd century set of catacombs at a location given as Via Yser 1 in the Parioli quarter. This is at the junction with the Via Salaria, at number 223 (the Banca Mediolanum).
There is a serious historical confusion between this set of catacombs and the Catacomba dei Giordani at Via Salaria 334 (Via Taro junction), and this is persisting in modern publications.
The latter catacombs are, in turn, confused with the Catacomba anonima di Via Anapo further up the road. The proper identification of these three catacombs was only established in 1969, so beware of descriptions based on material published before then.
The muddle is also continuing in contemporary writings, including online.
The problem arises because, before the 20th century, it was believed that Giordani and Traso referred to the same vast set of catacombs on the left hand side of the Via Salaria. So, Mariano Armellini at the end of the 19th century wrote about the Cimitero di Trasone e Saturnino e dei Giordani. This was believed to lie under the southern tier of the present Via Ada, extending south-westwards to under the Villa Grazioli.
This view persisted until 1921, when the catacombs on the Via Anapo (on the right hand side of the Via Salaria) were discovered and identified as Giordani, leaving the previously known galleries under the Via Ada (on the left hand side) to be labelled as Trasone.
Finally galleries to the south-west of the Villa Grazioli were explored as a result of commercial development in the Sixties, and identified as Trasone in 1969. The Villa Ada set was then re-identified as Giordani, and the Via Anapo set labelled as anonimo.
The identification of these three separate sites is that followed by the Pontificia commissione di archeologia sacra.
These catacombs were begun in the 3rd century, apparently by using an abandoned quarry for sand or (more likely pozzolana) as several others were. This is hinted at in the legend of SS Chrysanthus and Daria (see below).
Traso (or Thraso) was almost certainly the original proprietor of the catacombs. He occurs in the fictional legend of St Susanna as a wealthy benefactor of the Church, but was never liturgically venerated as a saint himself. He is listed as a martyr in the old Roman Martyrology on 11 December, but was deleted in the 2001 revision. One major motivation for this deletion was the alleged date of his martyrdom -the early 4th century, much too late for the founder of the catacombs.
According to the revised Roman Martyrology (2001), there were four martyrs venerated in these catacombs: St Saturninus of Carthage, SS Chrysanthus and Daria and St Maurus. To this may be added the alleged sixty-two victims of a massacre, who have not been listed but who had an early veneration here.
The first named is unambiguously located here. However the location of the shrine of the latter pair is entwined with the confusion elucidated above, and historically has been looked for in Giordiani. The confusion was rendered almost impossible by the fact that no location of any saint's shrine has ever been found in either Trasone or Giordani.
The Martyrologium hieronymianum puts SS Chrysanthus and Daria in Trasone, and this is supported by a careful reading of the surviving pilgrimage itineraries. The so-called Excerpta topographica especially makes a distinction between their place of burial and Giordani.
Pope St Damasus (366-84) remodelled the shrines of these saints, and provided epitaphs for them. The transcriptions made of these in the early Middle Ages are of the highest historical importance (the originals have perished).
The catacombs had two separate churches built over them for these martyrs, probably by Damasus. The Itinerarium Salisburgensis (one of the early mediaeval pilgrimage itineraries) says this:
Pervenies ad ecclesiam s. Saturnini papae [sic] et martyris; in altera ecclesia Daria virgo et martyr pausat et Crisanti martyr.
The popular but false belief that local Christians celebrated Mass in the catacombs from early times has produced the claim that the church of SS Chrysanthus and Daria was underground, but there is no support for this from the itineraries.
St Saturninus of Carthage Edit
The revised Roman Martyrology for 29 November reads:
"At Rome in the cemetery of Traso on the Via Salaria Nova, St Saturninus of Carthage, a martyr who, as Pope St Damasus relates, was tortured with the rack in his native city under the emperor Decius. Then he was set as an exile to Rome where, overcoming other torments, he converted the judge Gratian to the faith and obtained the crown of martyrdom through beheading. c. AD 250."
The epigraph of Pope St Damasus, on which this relies, reads:
Beatissimorum martyrum cultor, incola nunc Christi, fuerat Carthaginis ante. Tempore quo gladius secuit pia viscera matris, sanguine mutavit patriam nomenque genusque. Romanum civem sanctorum fecit origo. Mira fides rerum: docuit post exitum ingens. Cum lacerat pia membra, fremit Gratianus ut hostis; postea quam fellis vomuit concepta venena. Cogere non potuit Christum te, sancte, negare. Ipse tuis precibus meruit confessus abire. Supplicis haec Damasi vox est: Venerare sepulchrum. Solvere vota licet, castaque effundet preces, sancti Saturnini tumulus quia martyris hic est. Saturnine tibi martyr mea vota rependo. Damasus episcopus, servus Dei.
("Venerator of the blessed martyrs, now a resident of Christ's and beforehand of Carthage. At the time when the sword cut the entrails of the sacred mother [the Church], with his blood he changed his fatherland and name and clan. The source of saints [martyrdom] made him a Roman citizen. A wonderful reality of things: The mighty one taught after his exit. When he had lacerated his members, Gratian raged as an enemy. Afterwards vomited his imagined poison like bile. He was not able to force you, O saint, to deny Christ. He himself, by your prayers, deserved to go away a cofessor [of Christ]. This is the voice of Damasus the suppliant: Venerate the tomb. It is licit to discharge vows and to pour out chaste prayers for this is the tomb of St Saturninus the martyr. Saturninus the martyr, I am repaying my vows to you. Damasus the bishop, servant of God".)
The old Roman martyrology had him tortured and martyred in the reign of Maximian (286-305) with a companion called Sisinnius, without making any reference to Carthage. This entry depended on the legend of St Susanna, which is pure romantic fiction written in the early Middle Ages.
The editors of the revision obviously preferred the authority of Pope St Damasus -SS Saturninus and Sisinnius might have been completely separate early 4th century martyrs, but there is no means of discerning this now (Saturninus was a common name).
St Saturninus had a basilica built for him over the catacombs perhaps in the mid 4th century, but St Sisinnus has no mention in the early mediaeval pilgrimage itineraries and this is the main reason why he was deleted from the martyrology. His alleged relics are at San Martino ai Monti, and he seems to have brought there from the Catacombe di Santa Priscilla further up the road.
In the early Middle Ages, the identity of St Saturninus became confused and the pilgrimage itineraries listed him (falsely) as a pope.
When the catacombs were abandoned, he was taken to Santi Giovanni e Paolo where he has a side-chapel.
SS Chrysanthus and Daria Edit
The martyrology for 25 October reads:
"At Rome in the cemetery of Traso on the Via Salaria Nova, the holy martyrs Chrysanthus and Daria whom Pope St Damasus praised. c. AD 253."
Their legend is also unfortunately fictional but is actually quite old, dating from the 5th century. It was first written in Greek, from which a shorter Latin version was translated. The author was obviously unfamiliar with pagan Roman attitudes when he confected his narrative. The fairly stupid allegation that Daria, as a lapsed Vestal virgin, was enslaved in a brothel has caused unease among scholars for centuries -such a thing simply would not have happened. (However, Christian girls of low or no status did suffer this fate.)
The legend does includes an interesting detail that the couple (allegedly husband and wife) were buried alive in a "sand-pit" (arenarium -fairly certainly a pozzolana quarry) on the Via Salaria. This reference to the context of the burial is probably historical, and theirs might have been one of the earliest burials here.
Pope St Damasus produced this epitaph (there is some doubt about his authorship, and the Latin is "wobbly"):
Hic votis paribus tumulum duo nomina servant Crisanti Dariae. Nunc venerandus honor, effera[?vit] quem rabies. Neglecto iure sepulchri, sanctorum in tumulos praeda furentis erat. Pauperis ex censu melius nunc ista resurgunt, divite sed voto plus placitura Deo. Plange tuum, gens saeva, nefas; perire furores. Crevit in his templis, per tua damna, decus.
("Here two names occupy a tomb with equal vows. Now the honour of Chrysanthus and Daria is venerable, which savage fury exasperated. It was the plunder of those raging in the tombs of the saints, to the neglect of the law of burial. By the property of a poor man it now rises better, this being preferable to a rich man's votive offering. Mourn your wickedness, savage race, fury has perished. In these temples beauty has grown by your condemnations.")
The developed legends of Roman martyrs almost always present those being killed as being the victims of due legal processes on the part of authority figures. However, this seems to be a trope and the sources hint at a reality involving lynching and communal violence as well. This seems to be the case here.
St Gregory of Tours wrote about these martyrs in his De gloria martyrum, mentioning that they were buried alive in what the legend describes as a cuniculum. This literally means "rabbit hole", and in Classical times referred to an excavation for mining and quarrying purposes. This could be a bell-pit if vertical, or a cave-adit if horizontal. Published descriptions of the tomb have automatically presumed the former, but the latter (an artificial cave in the side of the quarry) fits the description better (see the 62 martyrs below). The importance of this point is, then it is not necessary to presume that the shrine church was underground.
When the catacombs were abandoned, the relics of the two saints were originally taken to Santi Apostoli. They are now claimed to be enshrined in several locations, most notably at the cathedral of Reggio Emilia where a 2011 analysis found the human remains of an age and makeup corresponding to the documented origins (see a National Geographic page here).
St Maurus Edit
The revised Roman Martyrology for 10 December lists St Maurus at Trasone, for whom Pope St Damasus composed an epigraph. His shrine has not been located, and there is some doubt as to where he was buried. He is not listed in the old Roman Martyrology.
The Notitia portarum of William of Malmesbury reads: In altera ecclesia sunt Crisantus et Daria et Saturninus et Maurus et Jason et mater eorum Hilaria et alii innumerabiles. This places him in Trasone. His putative brother Jason is otherwise unknown.
His alleged mother Hilaria is a problem. A martyr of the same name is associated with a small set of catacombs further up the road opposite Catacomba dei Giordani, and another is listed as one of the "Seven Virgins" with a shrine at the latter. It is impossible now to say if there were originally three martyrs with this name, or two or even just one.
Maurus's transcribed epigraph, as given by Armellini, reads:
Martyris hic Mauri tumulus pia membra retentat, quem Damasus papa, longo post tempore plebis ornavit supplex cultu meliore decorans. Insontem puerum in cui poena nulla delicti.
("This is the tomb which holds the pious members of the martyr Maurus, which suppliant Pope Damasus beautified after a long time, decorating it for a better veneration of the people. An innocent youth who did not lapse under torture".)
Sixty-two martyrs Edit
The Martyrologium hieronymianum mentions two massacres of soldiers at these catacombs, one of seventy and one of seventy-two.
The Epitome of the early pilgrimage itineraries has an editorial addition mentioning 62 martyrs with SS Chrysanthus and Daria. There are two separate stories associated with these, which might refer to the two separate massacres just mentioned.
The received legend concerning the saints, which is unreliable, describes them as a squad of Christian soldiers which was marched into the cuniculum of the two saints and immured.
However, St Gregory of Tours describes a more interesting and (possibly) historical event, involving Pope St Damasus when he had the cuniculum cleared from its fill of earth and rubble. According to this, at the floor level were found several skeletons strewn about at random (that is, not formally buried). Further, some of these were in the possession of silver vessels "for the saying of Mass". The conclusion described was that this was a group of Christians venerating the martyrs, who had been themselves martyred.
St Gregory was writing in the late 6th century, so this remark is itself a valuable witness to the process whereby the Roman Eucharist was being separated from a necessary connection with the overall worshipping assembly, and evolving in the direction of the private Mass. However, what was possibly found were the remains of a group of Christians holding a refrigerium or funerary meal in celebration of the martyrs, who had been ambushed and killed by enemies of their religion. This hypothetical scenario continues by surmising that the murderers filled the cuniculum with quarrying waste, in order to conceal their crime.
Pope St Damasus was describes as being so affected by the discovery, that he ordered the bones to be undisturbed. Rather, he had the cuniculum or shrine-grotto sequestrated by the erection of a screen of transennae (vertical stone slabs) with a viewing aperture or fenestella confessionis. The idea was that pilgrims were not allowed to enter, but could look at the remains through the fenestalla.
He composed the following two epigraphs, which support the thesis that there were two separate massacre events. Note that the first specifies a number, and the second avoids doing so:
Tempore quo gladius secuit pia viscera matris, sexaginta duo capti feritate tyranni extemplo ducibus missis tunc colla dedere; confessi Christum, superato principe mundi, aetherium petiere domum regnaque piorum.
("During the time when the sword was cutting the entrails of the holy mother [the church], sixty two, who had been captured by the rage of the tyrant, immediately then offered their necks to the leaders who had been sent. Confessors of Christ sought the heavenly house and the kingdom of the pious, the prince of the world [Satan] having been overcome.")
Sanctorum, quicumque legis, venerare sepulchrum. Nomina nec numerum potuit retinere vetustas. Ornavit Damasus titulum, cognoscite, rector. Pro reditu cleri, Christo praestante, triumphans martyribus sanctis reddit sua vota sacerdos.
("Whoever you are who reads, venerate the tomb of the saints. Antiquity was not able to preserve their names nor number. Know that Damasus the rector embellished the inscription. For the return of the clergy, Christ being present, the triumphant priest repays his vows to the martyrs.")
If we accept the possibility that the shrine-grotto was in the side of a quarry instead of underground, then the 4th century church would have been in the open air but with its shrine end abutting the quarry side so as to include the grotto. The latter could not have ben in the open because vegetation would have grown over the bones, but neither could the transennae screen of Pope St Damasus have sealed it off completely. Otherwise, the grotto could not have been lit for pilgrims to see into it.
The date of abandonment of the complex is unknown, but after the reign of Pope Gregory IV (827-44) who is on record as having restored the church of St Saturninus.
Antonio Bosio went looking for catacombs up the Via Salaria at the end of the 16th century, after the fortuitous discovery of the Catacomba anonima di Via Anapo in 1578. He reported finding the ruins of a church then called Santa Citronina, and the entrance to underground passages, at "eight hundred paces" from the city gate. His plausible surmise was that Citronina was a corruption of Saturnino.
Francesco Mario Torrigio allegedly visited in 1629.
Unfortunately, the discovery coincided with the development of the area as vineyards and villa estates. This was enormously destructive to the archaeology, because ruins were plundered and foundations dug up for stone to use in vineyard walls, hollows and open catacomb entrances were filled in and the ground levelled. The proper site of the catacombs was forgotten, and as a result confusion arose with the Catacomba dei Giordani which was explored (and looted) in the 18th century.
The genuine Trasone catacombs were only rediscovered in 1964, and the discovery written up in 1970 by Umberto Maria Fasola. Fortunately an epigraph mentioning the name was found in the limited area explored. By then, the surface archaeology had long been completely destroyed.
The Pontificia Commissione advises that the modern entrance is a manhole in front of Via Salaria 223. within a railed area separate from the street pavement (sidewalk).
The length of explored galleries is only about 100 metres, but it is suspected that this is a large set of catacombs on several levels (Giordani up the road has five). The known galleries under the Villa Grazioli might belong to these catacombs.