Catacombe di San Callisto -Catacombs of Callistus or Callixtus- comprises a network of catacombs at Via Appia Antica 110, which is in the Ardeatino zone. Pictures concerning the catacombs on Wikimedia Commons are here. An English Wikipedia page is here. A general introduction to catacombs: Catacombs of Rome.
YOU CAN ONLY VISIT BY FOLLOWING A GUIDED TOUR. NO PHOTOS OR VIDEOS ALLOWED. See "Access" below for further details.
- 1 Overview
- 2 Status
- 3 History
- 3.1 Origins
- 3.2 Crypt of the Popes
- 3.3 Pope St Cornelius
- 3.4 Popes elsewhere
- 3.5 St Tarcisius
- 3.6 SS Parthenius and Calogerus
- 3.7 St Soteris
- 3.8 Greek martyrs
- 3.9 Expansion
- 3.10 Pope St Damasus
- 3.11 Mediaeval pilgrimage destination
- 3.12 Abandonment
- 3.13 Neglect
- 3.14 Explorers
- 3.15 Scientific rediscovery
- 3.16 Cistercians
- 3.17 Salesians
- 4 At ground level
- 5 Visitable area
- 6 Region of the Caecilii, Area I (St Cecilia)
- 7 Region of the Caecilii, Area II (Pope St Miltiades)
- 8 Region of Pope Liberius
- 9 Labyrinth
- 10 Crypt of Lucina
- 11 Region of the Caecilii, Area III (Pope St Eusebius)
- 12 Western Region
- 13 Access
- 14 Liturgy
- 15 External links
From the later 3rd century until the mid 5th century, the catacombs here comprised the largest Christian cemetery in Rome. However they were only part of an enormus funerary complex nowadays called the Complesso Callistiano, which is taken to occupy the thirty-hectare block bounded by the Via Appia Antica, Via Ardeatina and Vicolo delle Sette Chiese.
As well as the actual Catacombe di San Callisto, this complex contained a huge surface cemetery and at least two other sets of catacombs which were separately administered in their working lives. See:
- Catacomba di Balbina (Basilica di San Marco Papa)
- Catacomba di Basileo (Basilica dei Santi Marco e Marcelliano)
- Basilica Anonima della Via Ardeatina
- Basilica di San Damaso Papa
Nearby catacombs which are not considered part of the Complesso are:
Serious scholars should be aware of several problems with the literature:
- The surface features of the Complesso have been almost completely obliterated. Their layout and the locations of the two adjacent catacombs have been poorly determined, and a systematic archaeological survey of the entire site is long overdue. This loss of the surface structures has helped to perpetuate a skewed appreciation of the original functioning of the catacombs -early Christians did not live or worship in them.
- The documentary witness of the early pilgrimage itineraries cannot be reconciled with the extant remains with much confidence, despite centuries of guesswork.
- Previous scholars, up to the early 20th century, had an overly respectful attitude as regards the legends attached to martyrs venerated in the Roman catacombs. This led to flawed chains of reasoning, especially as regards chronology. As a result, the tendency was to date the artistic contents of the catacombs much too early -this especially applies to fresco work. See Santa Domitilla.
As regards the nomenclature. The great 19th century archaeologist Giovanni Battista De Rossi, famous for his seminal study of these catacombs, produced a detailed plan which has not been supplanted but only added to as new discoveries have been made. He divided the catacombs into regions with names, which he sub-divided into areas labelled with Roman numerals (I, II, III etc). The passages within each area he labelled with letters, with subsidiary passages given number suffixes (e.g. a1, a2). Cubicula were simply numbered within each area.
As with all Roman catacombs, the ownership of these is vested in the Holy See by Italian law as agreed in the Lateran Treaty of 1929. Fortunately, it also owns the surface area of the Complesso after buying it in the later 19th century. This has preserved it from the illegal suburban development which occurred in the area in the later 20th century-see Catacomba di Pretestato for what could have happened otherwise.
Supervision on behalf of the Holy See is undertaken by the Pontificia commissione di archeologia sacra, which is responsible for the fabric of the catacombs. The administration as a pilgrimage and tourist destination is in the hands of the Salesian Order, with the custody being called the Istituto Salesiano San Callisto. This is headquartered in a late 19th century monastery nearer the city -see San Tarcisio a Via Appia.
This set of catacombs has been the most popular among tourists and pilgrims to Rome since the end of the 19th century. If you are on a package tour or guided pilgrimage to the city and part of the experience is a visit to some catacombs, here is where you are likely to end up. This applies to everybody, including bishops on ad limina visits.
Very oddly, the catacomb facilities (in fact, the entire Complesso) has no public church. Facilities for saying Mass include a converted barn, which is not consecrated.
The first underground focus of the later catacombs is associated with a surviving above-ground mausoleum called the Mausoleo dei Pomponii, just one of rows of mausolea flanking both sides of the Via Appia, and which famously go on for miles. These began to be erected in Republican times, and construction continued into the 4th century. The roadside was divided into plots, rather like a suburban ribbon development for dead people.
Ruins of some other mausolea survive in the Complesso, including a big round one (the Mausoleo Circolare) which you can see over to the left once past the farmstead on the driveway from Domine Quo Vadis. This has five underground hypogea or chamber-tombs associated with it.
The neighbours of Pomponii include a columbarium or enclosure for funerary ashes (hence obviously pagan), and this is referred to as the "Columbarium of the Freedmen of the Gens Caecilia".
The catacombs developed from several separate foci, amounting to private hypogea dug in the late 2nd to early 4th centuries and joined up in the latter century. The total number of these is uncertain, at least four and possibly more (the Vatican counts seven), but only two of these are obviously pre-4th century and are in the present visitable area. The two are counted as the earliest part of the catacombs.
The Crypta Lucinae might be the oldest part, and is tentatively dated to the late 2nd century. It comprised a double cubiculum with a single straight passage. De Rossi traced out a rectangular plot with a short end on the Via Appia, and claimed this as the original funerary enclosure. This was still a private burial ground in the mid 3rd century, amounting to a little hypogeum under a mausoleum like very many on the Via Appia. There is no historical proof that the original owners were Christians.
De Rossi, rather romantically, surmised that Lucina was the baptismal name of Pomponia Graecina, who died in AD 83. This speculation is unsustainable and, as mentioned, there is no real evidence that the Crypta was Christian from the start. Lucina also features in the fictional legend of SS Processus and Martinian, but the 1st century AD is too early for this complex. The link to the gens Pomponia is based on the evidence of two epitaphs to Pomponius Grekinos and Pomponius Bassus, but these are 3rd century and not demonstrably Christian either.
Cuius corpus noctu collegit beata Lucina et sepelivit in crypta iuxta cymiterium Calesti, via Appia, in praedio suo.
("Blessed Lucina collected his body by night and entombed it in a crypt next to the cemetery of Callixtus, on the Via Appia, on her estate").
Zephyrinus and Callixtus
The Christian catacombs seem to emerge into recorded history in the reign of Pope Zephyrinus (199-217). St Hippolytus, in his Philosophuma, made the throwaway comment that the pope had appointed the deacon Callixtus "over the cemetery". Callixtus became pope after Zephyrinus, and reigned from 218 to 230. St Hippolytus hated them both with a passion, and his writing is full of nasty remarks.
This particular statement has long been claimed as evidence that the Roman Church had a set of public catacombs by this date. However the assumption needs qualification, within the context of the ancient Roman social system of patronage. It is fairly clear that the Church in Rome at the start of the 3rd century was arranged into a set of congregations called tituli, the members of which were clients of a wealthy patron after whom the titulus might be named. More generally, funerary arrangements back then were an entirely private matter and wealthy patrons could provide for clients in their burial places. (See Ipogeo di Via Dino Compagni with its amazingly high-status cubicula, but containing a passage with loculi for favoured slaves, freedmen and other lower-class clients.) So, it is thought that the burial arrangements of the tituli were under the patronal responsibility of the patrons of the congregations.
What this means for the funerary establishment taken over by Callixtus is, that it was probably then the burial place for clients of the papacy such as servants of the papal household -and not for members of the Roman Church as a whole.
A further item to note is that the reference does not mention anything underground, and Pope Zephyrinus was actually buried in a surface grave (sub divo). The primitive cemetery might have been on the surface, perhaps including a hypogeum with a limited length of passages with loculi. This is what we actually find in the so-called "Area I (One)" of the "Region of the Caecilii", which contains the Crypt of the Popes (see below).
Pope St Callixtus himself was buried not here, but in the Catacomba di Calepodio. This has puzzled some people in the past, but the possible explanation might be easy -he had a patron who guaranteed his burial arrangements before he became pope, or even during his papacy (he was actually lower-class, as St Hippolytus spitefully made clear).
De Rossi, being a devout Catholic as well as a great archaeologist, had some regard for the legends attached to the early martyrs of the Roman Church. Unfortunately, most of these were confected by (it is thought) monks of monasteries in charge of pilgrimage shrines in the early Middle Ages -and so are historically unreliable. This is the case with the legend attached to St Cecilia, which he used in his analysis of the remote origins of the catacombs here.
Interestingly, the old RM also avoids invoking the saint's legend. This story puts her very early, in the 2nd century, and so De Rossi was able to speculate that the papal part of the catacombs was established around her shrine. His discovery of some epigraphs relating to the Gens Caecilia seemed to support this (the saint's name simply indicates that she belonged to this gens), and so he went on to place her tomb in this primitive nucleus. You will see her statue on your visit.
Unfortunately, De Rossi's line of argument is wishful thinking. Some scholars have argued that St Cecilia never existed and was a romantic fiction, but the Roman Church has not accepted this. What can be doubted is whether she was ever in the cubiculum now pointed out as her tomb, because the evidence is allusive rather than positive.
Region of the Caecilii, Area I
De Rossi was on firmer ground when he laid out the plan of the primitive nucleus, dating to slightly later than the Crypt of Lucina.
He traced an ancient roadway linking the Via Appia and the Via Ardeatina, and next to this was a rectangular plot with a long side fronting the road. One set of stairs ran down to a passage with loculi closely paralleling the road above, and another set further south accessed a parallel passage. These passages are called A and B. A connecting passage, C, links their ends and defined a short side of the rectangle. Six cross-passages, D to I, connect A and B. In between the two sets of stairs was a double cubicle, now the "Crypt of the Popes" and the "Tomb of St Cecilia", and A has a further series of chambers, the "Cubicula of the Sacraments", under the roadway.
This was the funerary establishment that became the burial place for a series of popes in the 3rd century, and is basically what you are shown on the guided tour.
A small set of passages, labelled T, U, V, Y and Z, amounted to an extension to the south beyond B to link up with an arenarium or disused pozzolana quarry labelled X. De Rossi romantically imagined this to be an emergency escape route for Christians trapped in the catacombs by persecutors but, in reality, abandoned underground quarries were routinely incorporated into catacombs because of the obvious convenience in doing so.
A triconch (three-apsed) mausoleum of (perhaps) the late 3rd century was also erected with its frontage actually on the old access road. This building has never been a ruin, but its conversion to a farmhouse destroyed most of the interior archaeology and its function in the later pilgrimage complex is unknown. It has been called the Basilica dei Santi Cecilia e Sisto, and also the burial place of SS Tarcisius and Zephyrinus -this latter is a complete guess.
Crypt of the Popes
If one refrains from using St Cecilia as a historical source, then the "Crypt of the Popes" in "Area One" of her region emerges into history in 236 when Pope St Antherus was interred. Pope St Pontian was buried here in the same year, after being martyred in Sardinia. However, he might not have been the first pope -his predecessor Pope St Urban I (223-30) might have been interred here as well (see below).
After Anterus and Pontian, a series of seven popes were also buried here. The crypt (actually a cubiculum) was provided with four niches for sarcophagi and twelve large loculi (six on each side), so could accommodate sixteen. We know that other bishops besides popes were in these, because the Liber Pontificalis recorded that Pope Sixtus III (432-440) had made a list of the bishops buried in the catacombs which was transcribed in the early Middle Ages. De Rossi edited it as follows:
Sixtus; Cornelius; Pontianus; Fabianus; Eusebius; Dionisius; Felix; Eutichianus; Caius; Miltiades; Stephanus; Lucius; Anteros; Laudiceus; Policarpus; Urbanus; Manno; Numidianus; Iulianus; Optatus.
There were nine popes in the crypt -SS Pontian, Antherus, Fabian, Lucius I, Stephen I, Xystus II, Dionysius, Felix I and Eutychian. Laodiceus, Polycarp, Manno, Numidian, Julian and Optatus were not popes. Urban is a problem. This makes a total of sixteen.
The twelve loculi were provided with very minimalist marble slab closures, simply bearing the epitaph "So-and-so, bishop" in Greek with two of the popes (Pontian and Felix) described as "bishop and martyr". People can be surprised to be reminded that Greek was the worshipping language of the Roman Church until the start of the 4th century.
Pope St Urban?
Pope St Urban I (223-30) has an entry in the revised RM for 19 May:
"In the cemetery of Callixtus on the Appian Way, Pope St Urban I who, after the martyrdom of St Callixtus, faithfully ruled the Roman Church for eight years".
This entry conceals an impossible problem of identity concerning a St Urban venerated at the nearby Catacomba di Pretestato. The Itinerarium Salisburgensis lists him as a "bishop and confessor" (not a martyr) in his own shrine there in the Spelunca magna, while the Notitia Portarum lists him as a martyr -and the biography of Pope Adrian I lists him as a pope.
However, a fragment of the Greek epitaph of an Urban was found in the "Crypt of the Popes" at the Catacombe di San Callisto when it was first excavated by De Rossi. The RM has followed this evidence to put the burial of the pope in the Crypt, which would presumably make the Pretestato Urban a separate person. The question impinges on the identity of the patron saint of Sant'Urbano alla Caffarella down the road.
There is a hint in the list just quoted that the Urban in Callisto was regarded as a bishop from elsewhere. Urban is mentioned not with the popes, but in with the group of non-papal names.
Popes in the crypt
The following nine popes are known to have been buried in the crypt. They are all saints, and were all listed as martyrs until the 2001 revision of the Roman Martyrology (RM).
- Pontian (230-235). Epitaph survives. He was actually martyred in Sardinia and his body brought back to Rome, so was interred here after his successor.
- Antherus (235-6). Epitaph survives. He was the first pope certainly buried in the crypt. He is no longer listed in the RM as a martyr.
- Fabian (236-50). Epitaph survives. His successor, Pope St Cornelius, was not buried here.
- Lucius I (253-4). Epitaph survives. It is a fair historical certainty that he was not a martyr, and is not now so listed in the RM.
- Stephen I (254-7). No epitaph. The story of his martyrdom is fictional, and has been deleted from the RM. There is a rival historical claim for his burial in the Catacomba di Aproniano.
- Sixtus II (257-8). No original epitaph, but graffiti attest to his presence here. He had been martyred with his seven deacons when the emperor Valerian ordered, in effect, the liquidation of the Roman Church's board of directors. St Lawrence was the last to be killed, and SS Felicissimus and Agapitus were apparently killed at the Catacomba di Pretestato. The pope and the other four deacons were summarily killed by soldiers during a liturgical event at the Catacombe di Callisto. This has often been described as the pope celebrating Mass underground, but the celebration was most likely a refrigerium. Early mediaeval pilgrims could visit a little church (ecclesia parva) on the spot above ground where he and his deacons were beheaded. The old RM named the latter as Januarius, Vincent, Magnus and Stephen but these names have been deleted as unhistorical. Very oddly, they had no shrine in the catacombs.
- Dionysius (259-68). No epitaph. He is no longer listed as a martyr in the RM.
- Felix I (269-74). No epitaph. He is no longer listed as a martyr in the RM.
- Eutychian (275-83). Epitaph survives. He is no longer listed as a martyr in the RM.
Others in the crypt
The five other bishops buried here (or six, if Urban is included) are obscure. Laodiceus and Manno seem to have nothing about them recorded. Numidian and Optatus were later claimed to have been visiting African bishops who died while on a visit to Rome. Optatus only, with Julian and Polycarp, were listed as martyrs visitable by pilgrims in the early mediaeval Notitiae Portarum.
The African connection seems to be an old guess based on the names.
Pope St Cornelius
As mentioned, Pope St Cornelius (251-3) was not buried in the "Crypt of the Popes", but in the "Crypt of Lucina" which was then still privately owned. He had been martyred in Civitavecchia and his body brought back to Rome, so it seems that his burial was an act of private patronage by Lucina. Interestingly, his famous epitaph is in Latin not Greek and mentions his martyrdom -Cornelius martyr ep[iscopus]. This supports the surmise that his burial was not undertaken by the papal curia of the time.
Also interestingly, he was not provided with a cubiculum but with an arcosolium which was less prestigious.
Presumably because the "Crypt of the Popes" was full, after Pope Eutychian three further popes were buried elsewhere in the catacombs:
None of these was a martyr although they were venerated as such in the early Middle Ages. The locations of their shrines in the catacombs were identified by De Rossi, by means of epigraphs for the first two. The location of the shrine of Pope St Miltiades is, however, a guess.
The total number of known popes in this funerary complex is hence fourteen, with Urban being a possible fifteenth. You might also find Pope St Anicetus and Pope St Soter listed as buried here, but this is false.
The martyr St Tarcisius was enshrined in the same surface mausoleum as Pope St Zephyrinus. The Epitome of the early mediaeval pilgrimage itineraries reads: Ibi s. Tarcisius et s. Zephyrinus in uno tumulo iacet. The location of this mausoleum is unknown, and it is pointless trying to guess whether he was in one of the two extant triconch mausolea in the catacomb grounds.
The revised RM lists him on 15 August, and reads: "The commemoration of St Tarcisius the martyr. He defended the holy sacrament of Christ's Eucharist, which a wild crowd of unbelievers wished to profane. He preferred to be stoned to death rather than give holy things over to dogs". AD 257.
This story of a Eucharistic minster being lynched while taking Communion to the sick is regarded as genuine. This is because it does not conform to the rather limited set of tropes to be found in fictitious martyrs' legends. Also, Pope St Damasus left an epigraphic poem:
Par meritum, quicumque legis, cognosce duorum, quis. Damasus rector titulos post praemia reddit. Iudaicus populus Stephanum, meliora monentem, perculerat saxis. Tulerat qui ex hoste tropaeum, martyrium primus rapuit levita fidelis. Tarsicium, sanctum Christi sacramentum gerentem, cum male sana manus peteret vulgare profanis, ipse animam potius volvit dimittere caesus prodere quam canibus rabidis coelestia membra.
("You the reader, whoever you are, understand the equal merit of the two. Damasus the rector provided [this] memorial after [their] reward. The Jewish people had knocked Stephen down with stones when he instructed them in better things. He had taken the trophy from the enemy, the faithful deacon [lit. Levite] was the first who grabbed martyrdom. When an insane gang pressed Tarcisius to reveal to the impious the holy sacrament of Christ that he was carrying, he being slain preferred to give up his soul rather than give the heavenly items over to rabid dogs.")
SS Parthenius and Calogerus
The revised RM has an entry for the 19 May which puts these two martyrs in the reign of the emperor Diocletian. Their legend puts them in the mid 3rd century and is valueless, containing demonstrable anachronisms.
De Rossi identified their shrine cubiculum by means of a pilgrim graffito scratched by its entrance.
The revised RM has this for 11 February: "At Rome in the cemetery named after her on the Via Appia, St Soteris, a virgin and martyr who, as St Ambrose (a relative of hers) relates, put her faith before the nobility and honours of her parents. She neither yielded to the order to offer pagan sacrifice, nor turned her face from the blows inflicted by contemptible slaves nor was terrified by her being condemned to being killed by the sword". AD 304.
It is clear that her shrine was important in pilgrimage times, and that it was over a section of the catacombs which was begun independently. Very unfortunately, it is completely uncertain as to where this was. A guess is that it is to the north of the main layout, and joins onto the Catacomba di Basileo further to the north under the monastery of San Tarcisio.
Serious confusion has arisen over the centuries between her and Pope St Soter.
The old (pre-2001) RM had this entry for 2 December: "At Rome, the holy martyrs Eusebius the priest, Marcellus the deacon, Hippolytus, Maximus, Adria, Paulina, Neon, Mary, Martana and Aurelia, who fulfilled martyrdom under the judge Secundian in the persecution of Valerian." (Mid 3rd century.)
These are the so-called "Greek martyrs", whom Pope Damasus referred to in an epigraph that he wrote describing the catacomb's saints (Hic confessores sancti quos Grecia misit). The location of their shrine is unknown -the only clue is in the early mediaeval Notitia portarum, which puts it near (non longe) that of St Soteris.
The latter source gives another and differing list: Hippolytus, Adrianus, Eusebius, Maria, Martha, Paulina, Valeria and Marcellus.
The unreliable legend describes how Hippolytus the Monk buried the others in an arenarium or underground quarry at the third milestone of the Via Appia, and then was put there himself.
These martyrs were deleted from the RM in the 2001 revision, owing to the uncertainty over their identity. Especially, this Hippolytus was historically confused with St Hippolytus the Roman patristic writer, who was buried in the Catacomba di Sant'Ippolito but who has been mistakenly placed in the catacombs here as a result.
Four of these martyrs, Hippolytus, Adria, Neon and Martana, are now enshrined at Sant'Agata dei Goti.
The catacombs were massively expanded in the 4th century, and were in use as a funerary complex until the later 5th century when burials tailed off.
The primitive nuclei just described became part of the second level overall. A shallower, first level was excavated and also three deeper levels (two of which are not very extensive). Thus, a total of five levels exist -which have not yet been completely mapped. The total length of passageways is about twenty kilometres, the number of burials very approximately half a million and the number of cubiculi or burial chambers is quoted as 235 (this figure is out of date and must be too low).
It has proved difficult to ascertain which of the distinct areas developed independently, and which were extensions of already existing zones. The first two Areas listed are of the Region of St Cecilia.
- Area II, of Pope St Miltiades. This extension of "Area I" in the direction of the Crypt of Lucina contains important shrines and links up the two primitive nuclei. The southern portion, next to "Area I", has its passages aligned with those of this Area (roughly east to west), but the northern portion aligns with the boundaries of the Crypt of Lucina and the Via Appia (roughly south-east to north-west). This angle influenced the layout of the entire catacomb complex, which developed in a fan shape from it. The fan has two major axes, one running west and the other roughly following the line of the Via Appia.
- Area III, of Pope St Caius. This was the extension of "Area II" to the north, not quite parallel with "Area I". It also contains important shrines. The axis of the layout of the passages is slightly angled to the north-west in comparison with "Area I", which might be a hint at an independent origin. The area was provided with its own staircase, which is now used as an exit for tours.
- The Labyrinth. This is a rather irregular set of passages with loculi on two levels, with very few cubiculi and hardly any embellishments. It fits in between the Crypt of Lucina, Area II and the Via Appia in the south-east corner of the overall complex. The impression is that it was intended for people with very little money to spare.
- Arenarium of Hippolytus. This is another abandoned quarry, just to the north-west of the Crypt of Lucina and adjacent to the Via Appia. It would only have been taken over for catacomb purposes after the proprietors of the pagan mausolea here gave up their interests or were bought out. The name derives from the legend of the Greek Martyrs (see above).
- Western Region. This runs west of "Area I" and "Area III" of the Region of St Cecilia, and was thought by De Rossi to be the Catacomb of St Soteris. This was a mere guess, but there is good evidence that the region was independently developed. Firstly, the axis follows that of "Area III", not "Area I". Secondly, there are architectonic peculiarities -notably the presence of round cubicula as well as very many of the usual rectangular ones. Thirdly, a second triconch mausoleum is extant over this region which is known to have been a shrine. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing to which saint it belonged.
- Region of Pope Liberius. This extensive region runs north-west of "Area II" of the Region of St Cecilia, roughly parallel with the Via Appia. However, the passages do not approach the road and this must have been in order to respect the property rights of mausoleum owners. The region is named after Pope Liberius (352-66), because epigraphs found in it date to his reign. There is a limited set of passage connections with an obviously independent set of catacombs under the monastery of San Tarcisio, which is tentatively identified with the Catacomba di Basileo. These latter catacombs are on a completely different alignment.
Pope St Damasus
Pope St Damasus (366-84) succeeded Pope Liberius, and is credited with the systematic and massive propagation of the veneration of the catacomb martyrs. He remodelled and embellished their tombs in several sets of catacombs to make them into shrines, cut new staircases and passages to facilitate access by pilgrims and also composed poetic epitaphs which he had carved on marble slabs to be affixed to the shrines.
In the Crypt of the Popes
Here, he ordered the digging of a new staircase to the Crypt of the Popes, which is basically the extant entrance staircase used when you enter the catacombs on the tour. The Crypt itself he embellished with a pair of spirally fluted marble Corinthian columns supporting (it is thought) an architrave. He also reconstructed the tomb of Pope St Xystus II as a focal shrine, and provided two epitaphs -one for him, and one for the catacomb martyrs in general. They were:
Tempore quo gladius secuit pia viscera Matris, hic positus rector coelestia iussa docebam, adveniunt subito rapiunt qui forte sedentem, militibus missis. Populi tunc colla dedere mox sibi. Cognovit senior quis tollere vellet palmam, seque suumque caput prior optulit, ipse impatiens feritas posset ne laedere quenquam. Ostendit Christus reddit qui praemia vitae pastoris meritum numerum gregis ipse tuetur.
("At the time when a sword cut the viscera of Mother [Church], I the Rector (the one buried here) was teaching the heavenly commandments. Suddenly soldiers, who had been sent, arrived and seized me from where I happened to be sitting. Then, at once, the people offered their necks [to the sword] for him. The senior knew they wanted to take the palm [of martyrdom from him], and he presented himself and his own head first, being unwilling that savagery be able to harm anyone [else]. Christ, who grants the rewards o flife, showed the merit of the pastor and kept the number of the flock [safe].")
Hic congesta iacet, quaeris si turba piorum corpora sanctorum, retinent veneranda sepulchra. Sublimes animas rapuit regia caeli. Hic comites Xysti portant, qui ex hoste tropaea; hic numerus procerum servat qui altaria Christi; hic positus longa vixit qui in pace sacerdos; hic confessores sancti quos Graecia misit; hic iuvenes puerique senes castique nepotes quis mage virgineum placuit retinere pudorem. Hic fateor Damasus, volvi mea condere membra, sed cineres timui sanctos vexare piorum.
If you seek a crowd of holy bodies, here a collection [of them] lies. The venerable tombs retain [them], the kingdom of heaven snatched [their] sublime souls. Here [are] the companions of Xystus who carried the trophies from the enemy; here a number of nobles who served the altars of Christ; here is placed the priest who lived a long time in peace; here the holy confessors whom Greece sent; here the youths and boys and elders and holy descendants who all the more delighted in virginal modesty. Here Damasus admits to wanting to bury his dead body, but I feared to vex the holy remains of the pious".)
De Rossi and the 19th century archaeologists assumed that the result of the pope's remodelling was an underground church with an altar and a priest's throne, but Mass was not celebrated below ground in the working catacombs. This mistaken idea arose from assuming that familiar liturgical practices in the later Middle Ages also pertained in the earlier Church.
The pope refrained from providing himself with a tomb anywhere near the Crypt, as he mentioned above, but founded his own funerary basilica as part of the complex. See Basilica di San Damaso Papa.
At the Shrine of Pope St Cornelius
Pope St Damasus also embellished and composed an epitaph for the shrine of Pope St Cornelius, and improved access for pilgrims by constructing a separate stairway that replaced the original one. This might have been the stage when the previously private zone of Lucina became fully part of the wider complex. The epitaph read:
Aspice decensu extructo tenebrisque fugatis. Corneli monumenta vides tumulusque sacratum. Hoc opus aegroti Damasi praestantia fecit, esset ut accessus melior populisque paratum auxilium sancti, et valeas si fundere puro corde preces. Damasus melior consurgere posset quem non lucis amor tenuit mox cura laboris.
("Look, the way down has been constructed and the darkness has fled. You see the monument of Cornelius and his sacred tomb. This work the executive direction of the sick Damasus accomplished, in order that access might be better and the help of the saint be more available to the people, and also that you may be able to make prayers with a pure heart. May Damasus get up [from his sickness] better, whom the love of light [of this life] has not retained [but] the impending care of work.")
At the Shrine of Pope St Eusebius
The epitaph slab that Pope St Damasus commissioned for Pope St Eusebius is unusually ornate. However, it is actually a poor 6th century copy made when the original was vandalised. Instead of the usual straightforward inscription, it has a heading:
Damasus episcopus fecit ("Damasus the bishop made this"),
Eusebio episcopo et martyri,
and an extended signature of the famous carver of the original lettering down both sides:
Furius Dionysius Filocalus scribsit Damasis papae cultor et amatot [sic] ("Furius Dionysius Philocalus, an admirer and lover of Pope Damasus, wrote this").
The epitaph itself reads:
Heraclius vetuit labsos peccata dolere, Eusebius miseros docuit sua crimina flere. Scinditur in partes populus, gliscente furore seditio caedes bellum discordia lites. Extemplo pariter pulsi feritate tyranni, integra cum rector servaret foedera pacis pertulit. Exilium omino sub iudice laetus litore trinacrio mumdum vitamque reliquit.
("Heraclius [a sectarian] prohibited the lapsed from mourning their sins, Eusebius taught the miserable to weep for their crimes.The people was divided into parties, and with increasing fury [there was] insurrection, slaughter, war and discord. Immediately both [Eusebius and Heraclius] were together driven out by the fury of the tyrant, although the rector was keeping the agreements of peace intact. In exile he altogether rejoiced under the Judge [Christ?] and left the world and life on the Sicilian shore").
The Latin of the copyist is "wonky".
Mediaeval pilgrimage destination
A basilica dedicated to Pope St Cornelius was built on the surface above his shrine on the orders of Pope St Leo the Great (440-461), but no trace of this has been discovered. This was part of the development of the catacomb complex as a pilgrimage destination, as it gave up its original function as a burial place.
The early mediaeval pilgrimage itineraries hint at several churches on the surface here. As well as the little church marking the site of the martyrdom of Pope St Xystus II, there was a church dedicated to St Soteris and another one dedicated to Xystus again as well as (apparently) to St Cecilia. The latter has often been identified with the triconch mausoleum over the Crypt of the Popes, but this is a guess.
The itineraries make mention of a large number of martyrs buried in one place. The Itinerarium Salisburgensis give the number as eighty, but the Epitome make it eight hundred. This was possibly owing to the discovery of a mass burial resulting from an epidemic.
The underground shrines show evidence of several restoration projects. That of Pope St Cornelius has 6th century frescoes, while the Tomb of St Cecilia was decorated with frescoes in the 7th and 8th centuries.
The 6th century work might have been ordered by Pope Vigilius (537-55) after the catacombs were vandalised during the Gothic Wars. The Ostrogoths laid siege to Rome after their kingdom there had been conquered by the Empire, and other catacombs also show evidence of systematic and spiteful destruction at this time. The epitaph of Pope St Damasus in honour of Pope St Cornelius was smashed, and Vigilius apparently ordered a copy which was carved on the back of a recycled pagan epitaph slab. However, bits of the original were found still scattered about by the archaeologists.
Why such an important pilgrimage centre was abandoned is actually a complete mystery. The date is often taken to be in the reign of Pope Paschal I (817-24), who took the relics of St Cecilia to her basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.
The reason usually given is that the Roman suburbs had been overrun by marauders after the city government lost control of them, and pilgrims venturing outside the city walls were liable to be kidnapped and sold as slaves. However, on the Via Appia the basilica and catacombs of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura remained a pilgrimage destination all the way through the Middle Ages -and pilgrims going there would have to pass the site of the Catacombe di Callisto anyway.
The main motivation might have been that the complex was very badly damaged in predatory raids, and the Church of Rome simply gave up on it. The archaeologists found massive damage to the underground shrines, and one suspect is a raiding party of Tunisian Muslims during the Arab raid on Rome in 846.
One mysterious point about the abandonment is that two surface buildings never became ruins, but all the others in the Complesso Callistiano vanished. These two are the triconch mausolea which were farm buildings when they emerged into history, and one wonders what was going on here in the Middle Ages for them to have survived.
The romantic view, still popular, is that these catacombs were completely forgotten about until they were rediscovered in the 19th century. This is untrue, but certainly nobody cared much about them for about a thousand years.
The simple reason why they could not be forgotten by everybody is that they had several lucinaria or light-shafts, some large. These would be a hazard to any human or animal nearby, especially sheep, but would also provide fairly easy access for anybody with a rope. It is known that wealthier people were sometimes buried with their jewellery, which explains why almost all the higher-class tombs were smashed open. There were also scavengers after fine stonework such as marble slabs, and also a suspicion that the locals might have been viewing the human remains as useful fertiliser (this point is very little discussed).
The proprietors of the catacombs of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura in the later Middle Ages made the understandable but deliberately mendacious marketing pitch that their catacombs were those of Callisto.
Known explorers came in the 15th century, when visitors' graffiti start to reappear. The first belong to the crew of academic poseurs attached to Julius Pomponius Laetus (1428-98), who were down here but found nothing that they thought worth writing about.
In a cubiculum in the Western Region are graffiti recording the visit by a party of monks in 1462, and another group in 1490.
About a century later, the famous catacomb explorer Antonio Bosio (1576-1629) also left his "I was here" signature in charcoal in several places in the same region.
Bosio was unsure about what he had found, and thought that he was in an extension of the catacombs of San Sebastiano. This was very fortunate, because (unlike other catacombs that he discovered) the complex was not seriously targeted by plunderers in the 18th century who were after spurious relics of martyrs and moveable objects such as epigraphs.
However, Giovanni Marangoni visited in the early 18th century and noted two sarcophagi in the "Tomb of St Cecilia". These subsequently vanished without trace.
One tragedy of the 17th century was that the area was laid out as vineyards. This involved much work in destroying ruins to make way for the vines, and using the scavenged stonework to build boundary walls. You will see these if you visit from the Via Appia. The Complesso Callistiano was occupied by three vineyards, which in the early 19th century were (from north to south) the Vigna Moroni, the Vigna Cardelli and the Vigna Amendola. The last-named was the site of the famous explorations by De Rossi in that century.
Serious archaeological study of the Roman catacombs in general is judged to have begun with the work of the Jesuit Giuseppe Marchi (1795-1860) who published the first volume of his Monumenti in 1844. His young disciple Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894) was to become much more famous as the alleged "discoverer" of the Catacombe di San Callisto -despite the visit of Giovanni Marangoni in the 18th century. Although the guides showing pilgrims around San Sebastiano fuori le Mura had been pretending for centuries that the catacombs there were those of San Callisto, scholars such as Marangoni had known where the latter actually were for some time. De Rossi sexed-up his own account of his work here with bene trovato details, but it makes a very good story.
In 1849, at a cottage in the vineyard of Vigna Amendola north of San Sebastiano, he discovered that one of the steps in a stone staircase has an inscription: ...NELIUS MART. Knowing that the martyr Pope St Cornelius had been interred in the catacomb of San Callisto, he searched the area and found an open ventilation shaft allowing underground access. There, he stumbled across a part of the same inscription, saying COR.... Wisely, he immediately tipped off Pope Pius IX who purchased the vineyard and allowed De Rossi complete freedom to excavate. The latter found the wrecked cubiculum where the nine popes had been interred in the 3rd century, and soon after was able to bring the pope himself to view what were to be known in the later 19th century as the Chapel of the Popes and the Chapel of St Cecilia. The Holy Father was so moved by his visit to the burial place of so many of his saintly predecessors that he fell to his knees and wept.
In 1883, after De Rossi had restored and tidied-up these two "Chapels" (actually cubicula), Pope Pius IX chose the Trappist Cistercian monastic order to administer the catacombs as a pilgrimage destination. The reason seems to have been because the nearby San Sebastiano fuori le Mura had itself been a Cistercian monastery until the start of the 19th century.
The Trappists are a contemplative order, and their charism focuses on farming as their main work. So, the other two vineyards of the Complesso were purchased by the Holy See to provide a compact and well-defined farm estate. A completely new monastery was built in the former Vigna Cardelli, and a farmstead in the Vigna Moroni. (See San Tarcisio a Via Appia.) The monastic community was constituted by monks coming from the abbey of Mont des Cats in France.
The present driveway was newly provided, and was initially called the Via Pio Nono (the name seems to have been discarded since for some reason). Also, De Rossi restored the eastern triconch mausoleum to what he thought was its original appearance -unfortunately, this conversion from a farmhouse removed later fabric relevant to an understanding of the building's long history. The restored edifice has functioned as an antika or small museum for the display of archaeological finds.
The Cistercian scheme was ultimately a failure, as the monks were only here until 1928 when the monastery closed down. Apparently the Trappist Order had reviewed the activity of this monastery, and decided that the lifestyle being required of the monks in administering the catacombs was incompatible with monastic principles. One aspect that caused trouble seems to have been the need for monks to act as guides to groups of women.
An oddity on record at the start of the 20th century is that the guide monks warned visitors that anybody taking anything from the catacombs, even earth or bits of stone, would be excommunicated.
After a pause, the Salesians were granted a lease of the Complesso in 1931 and took on the administration of the catacombs. Initially the former monastery was run as an agricultural school, but when that became rather pointless with the advent of suburbia it was made into a noviciate. This it remains, as the Istituto San Tarcisio. The modern entrance to the Catacomba di Basileo is adjacent to the main buildings.
From then, on San Callisto became the premier catacomb to visit for pilgrims and tourists, a status it has maintained to the present day.
Archaeological investigations of the surface area took place from 1977 to 1980, including a proper examination of the western triconch mausoleum.
For the Jubilee Year of 2016, there was a restoration of the visitable areas of the catacombs including the frescoes. These were cleaned using a laser. This work was done after a roof-fall indicated problems.
At ground level
The Complesso Callistiano is now mostly under grass, although some arable farming does occur. The Cistercians continued with viticulture into the 20th century, but the Salesians did not -and City of Rome wine has been wholly extinct for well over half a century (the French occupiers at the start of the 19th century though it was piss, and that that the vintners took advantage of what was then a huge captive market).
The surface facilities are clustered around a cross-roads formed by the main driveway from Domine Quo Vadis to San Sebastiano, and a wide path from the Via Appia entrance to the Fosse Ardeatine one (this latter has an attractive monumental Baroque gate). These ways are attractively lined with mature conifers, and a double row of olive trees flank the drive from Domine Quo Vadis. The ambience is quiet, and the setting attractive with not much reminder of Roman suburbia.
On the other hand, the facilities are not up to much and border on the inadequate.
If you arrive at the Via Appia gate, on entering you pass the crumbled ruins of the Mausoleum of the Pomponii on the right, and the Columbarium of the Freedmen of the Caecilii on the left. The former is above the shrine of Pope St Cornelius. At the crossroads, the large car and coach parks are on your right. A little further on is a little piazza which is the heart of the complex. A coved (concave) Fascist-era (by the look of it) edifice on the right is the largest building on site, and contains the shop, ticket-office and the refreshment facilities. The back end of the western triconch mausoleum is on the left, followed by an irregular little former farm building which flanks the actual catacomb entrance. A meeting hall converted from a barn hides away behind the mausoleum, and Masses are celebrated here. Finally, the western triconch mausoleum is on the right as you go towards the Via Ardeatina. This is another meeting venue.
The only surface structures of interest are the two triconch mausolea from the early 4th century, triconch meaning that each has a low back apse flanked by two side ones in a clover-leaf pattern. They are in brick, and have been completely restored from their original function as farm buildings.
In the eastern one, De Rossi found that the floor was completely occupied by multiple burials. He was unable to say whether any of these were particularly favoured, and so the supposition that Pope St Zephyrinus and St Tarsicius were buried here is a guess. The walls are covered in epigraphs and carved fragments of sarcophagi, and here also is a memorial bust of De Rossi. You might find the edifice being called the Basilica of SS Xystus and Cecilia in the literature, but there is no archaeological evidence that it was ever a church.
The western mausoleum was probably the vineyard-keeper's house where De Rossi found a fragment from the epitaph of Pope St Cornelius, which kick-started his great discoveries. It is also filled with fragments of sarcophagi found in the area.
You get to see about 0.1% of the catacomb complex. What you are shown can vary apparently, but is not open to negotiation. It is mostly within "Area I" of the "Region of the Caecilii", and is on the second level of the catacombs. Many people are surprised to be told that there is another network of passages above them when they are down there.
The entrance stairs are modern, but are on the footprint of those provided for pilgrims by Pope St Damasus. At the bottom, you take a right into a antechamber with a short passage, labelled L, continuing straight on. On the right down here is the Cubiculum of Orpheus, then on the left the Crypt of the Popes. This connects with the neighbouring Tomb of St Cecilia via a little passage in the top left hand corner. After that, you will be taken down passage B and passage C past smashed-open loculi -a sample of many tens of thousands in the Roman catacombs. If you are not getting the bijou tour but the forty-minute option, you hopefully will also be shown at least a couple of the Cubicula of the Sacraments which are off the long passage A, to the right at the far end of passage C.
There are two available exit staircases, one on the footprint of the ancient stairs at the end of passage A and its cubicula -these are near the entrance stairs, and have been used for the standard tour given since the 19th century. The other is next to the shop building, and has its own roofed stairwell which contains many epigraphs. You might find the guide taking you out through this if you get the bijou tour, turning off passage C before reaching passage A and going round short passages forming three sides of a square in order to reach the foot of the stairs.
Region of the Caecilii, Area I (St Cecilia)
On arriving at the foot of the entrance stairs, the guide should mention the early mediaeval pilgrim graffiti scratched into the walls around here and at the entrance to the Crypt of the Popes. Some of this is in Greek. Several mention Pope St Sixtus II by name, which is important since this is the only positive evidence that he was buried here (oddly, the epigraph in the Crypt composed by Pope St Damasus does not mention him by name).
St Cecilia gets no mention, and this worries historians.
Cubiculum of Orpheus
To the right before the crypt entrance is the so-called Cubiculum of Orpheus, with fresco decoration dating from about AD 240. The plan is square, with three arcosolia and engaged columns in the corners.
The interior is entirely in white, with thin lines of colour dividing the surfaces into panels containing figurative frescoes. This is a very typical painting style of the period, and this cubiculum is a good sample of the many hundreds in the Roman catacombs.
In the apex of the vault is a depiction of Orpheus, with his lyre and surrounded by birds, sea monsters and flowers. This pagan motif was co-opted as Christ the Good Shepherd, and depictions are common in the catacombs.
The shallow vault had problems at the start of the 21st century, and some of the painted plaster fell off. It was restored, and the frescoes cleaned, in 2016.
Crypt of the Popes
This crypt is the first on the left after the entrance foyer. In the 3rd century, nine popes were interred here. Among them was Pope St Xystus II, who was martyred in 258 (pace the legend, it seems that this was done in the open air). The original chamber was remodelled and embellished by Pope St Damasus (366-384), focusing on the shrine of Xystus.
The chamber is trapezoidal, vaguely rectangular on a long axis, and has a barrel vault pierced by a large lucinarium or light-shaft installed by Damasus to light up the shrine. Any decoration in fresco, mosaic and polychrome marble has long vanished and the aesthetic ambience is rather grim.
When De Rossi first discovered this chamber, it was filled with spoil tipped down the lucinarium during farming operations. When he dug this out, the vault collapsed. So, what you see includes 19th century structural repairs in brick. The floor is also apparently 19th century, although it is in smashed marble slabs and looks old.
There are six large loculi on each side, and spaces for four sarcophagi. Some of the loculi bear re-assembled fragments of original epitaphs that De Rossi found in the rubble. This are very straightforward Greek texts -"so-and-so, bishop". Obviously the replacement of the epitaphs was random -it cannot be claimed that the various popes were in these particular loculi.
Notable are two very high-quality free-standing spirally fluted marble Corinthian columns, obviously scavenged as a pair by Damasus since the spiralling is in opposite directions. It is surmised that these supported some kind of horizontal architrave.
The shrine area, circumstantially but fairly conclusively once occupied by Pope St Xystus, comprises two slightly raised marble floor slabs. The further one is slightly higher. The nearer one has four sockets for little piers. De Rossi identified this as the altar base and the far slab as the footing of a priest's chair, but these labels depend on the discredited supposition that the Crypt was used as a place for saying Mass after its 4th century remodelling. (Underground catacomb churches did exist, but only centuries later -see San Zotico.)
A large marble epigraph tablet by Damasus, listing the martyrs of the catacombs, was recovered in fragments by De Rossi, and re-assembled on the far wall. He also found a few fragments of an epigraph in honour of Pope Xystus specifically, and surmised that this was originally in a position higher up on the same wall.
The guide will take you through a little portal in the far left hand corner, which emerges into a large cubiculum of irregular plan labelled the "Tomb of St Cecilia". In this portal De Rossi found the fragmentary epitaph of the mysterious Urban (pope, or bishop?).
Tomb of St Cecilia
In 821, Pope Paschal I collected relics of martyrs from the catacombs to protect them from raiders -a systematic policy pursued by the Church of Rome in that century, and one that led to the abandonment of most of the Roman catacombs. An autobiographical account describes how he searched for her relics, but they could not be found because of the ruinous state of the catacombs here. But in a dream he was told where they were, and subsequently discovered her incorrupt body "near the tombs of his predecessors". This he then transferred to Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.
De Rossi made a strong moral case that St Cecilia was originally interred here, traditionally in the 2nd century although this is much too early. However, modern archaeologists and historians are concerned about the lack of positive evidence -her name does not occur. There is an alternative hypothesis that she was buried in a surface shrine, but it is impossible to be conclusive about the matter unless some further archaeological evidence turns up.
However, it is clear that this cubiculum was of very high status originally, and that it was the focus of veneration in the early Middle Ages. If she wasn't venerated here, then it is now impossible to make guesses as to who was. De Rossi found several epitaphs here for persons of high status buried here, including those of senatorial rank, and also many pilgrim graffiti.
The plan is irregular, vaguely square, and there is a serious amount of remedial brick patchwork in the fabric. Again, the floor is made up of broken marble revetment slabs. There are very limited traces on the cubiculum walls of mosaic decoration, but what survives is fresco work in the Byzantine style perhaps of the early 9th century. This would have been close to the final abandonment of the catacombs.
The focal point is a restored sarcophagus niche containing a fine copy of the famous marble statue of St Cecilia by Stefano Maderno, located under the high altar of her Trastevere basilica. This was sponsored by a lady from New York USA called Edith Cecilia McBride, and was installed in 1920. An interesting detail is that the sculptor corrected the anatomically improbable bare foot of the original sculpture.
There are two surviving sets of frescoes. To the left of the statue is a set of three panels, a large one over two small ones. The former depicts a young woman orans and dressed as an empress -obviously this is taken to be St Cecilia, although there is no label. Below her is a head of Christ to the left, and a bishop to the right who is labelled St Urban. A bishop of this name features in the legend of St Cecilia, so this is indirect evidence that she was being venerated here by the 9th century.
The other set is under the lucinarium, and again has three panels which have deteriorated badly. The lowest, best-preserved one has a depiction of three martyrs, labelled SS Polycamus, Sebastian and Quirinus. These are unknown, although scholars have been trying to guess who they are since the late 19th century. One fairly obvious guess is that the latter two are those of the same name at San Sebastiano fuori le Mura, but the question then emerges as to why they are painted here.
Above these saints is a cross between two lambs, and at the top is another young woman orans. This set of frescoes is thought to be earlier than the first one mentioned.
After visiting this tomb, the guide will take you down passage B and then C to experience what a typical catacomb is like. You may then be taken to an exit. However, if you are fortunate you might be taken down passage A at the end of C and so be able to visit some of the Cubicula of the Sacraments.
Cubicula of the Sacraments
Passage A has five (originally six) cubicula off it, on the left hand side heading to the stairs. These cubicula do not contain arcosolia, but the walls have loculi instead which have all been smashed open. Much of the early 3rd century fresco work has perished, but was originally on long panels paralleling the loculi.
The name comes from the symbolic significance of the fresco depictions, several of which allude to Baptism and the Eucharist. The old idea that the paintings formed a systematic scheme for purposes of catechesis is false, and depends on the delusion that Christians lived in the catacombs.
In De Rossi's catalogue scheme, the chambers are labelled as Cubicula 5 to 9 of Area I of the Region of the Caecilii. Cubiculum 10, the one nearest the stairs and the sixth in the row, was sequestered as part of a passage when the catacombs were expanded into Area II (see below).
- 5. Left wall: Story of the prophet Jonah. Right wall: Seven people at a meal, with twelve baskets of bread. Entrance wall: The Raising of Lazarus, and Moses Brings Water from the Rock.
- 6. Far wall: Seven people at a meal, with eight baskets of bread. Right wall: Jonah Under the Vine.
- 7. The vault, highly decorated and with a polychrome marble opus sectile floor, has The Good Shepherd and scenes from the prophet Jonah. The wall frescoes have been lost.
- 8. The vault has The Good Shepherd again, with peacocks and winged genii (not angels at this early date). Left wall: Jonah Thrown into the Sea (in the lunette); A Fisherman Catching a Fish, A Baptism and The Healed Paralytic Carrying His Bed. Far wall: A three-legged table with bread and fish ,accompanied by a male figure pointing to it and a female orans; a meal with seven persons; The Sacrifice of Isaac. Right hand wall: Jonah Under the Vine (in the lunette; the main panel is destroyed); Entrance wall: Christ with the Woman of Samaria; Moses Brings Water from the Rock.
- 9. The vault has The Good Shepherd again, with peacocks. Left wall: Moses Bringing Water from the Rock (a symbol of baptism); a fisherman catching a fish; a meal with seven persons. Far wall (top to bottom): A ship in a storm bearing an orans; a tripedal table with two loaves and a fish, accompanied by seven baskets of loaves; a baptism. Right wall: Story of the prophet Jonah; The Raising of Lazarus. Entrance wall: A dolphin around a trident.
Cubiculum 10 is now an antechamber leading into Area II.
Region of the Caecilii, Area II (Pope St Miltiades)
It is thought that this area was not a separate nucleus, but an extension of the primitive Area I to join the Crypt of Lucina. The access passage, A, has a passage O first on the left which leads to area III. Straight ahead you come to an important junction marked by four engaged masonry piers (the "Four Piers"); bearing left here will bring you to the Region of Liberius, and bearing right leads to the Crypta Lucinae.
Shrine of Pope St Miltiades
The first cubiculum on the left after passage O is thought to have been the shrine of Pope St Miltiades, although this is not conclusive and depends mainly on the provision of a lucinarium. It is very large, on a longitudinal rectangular plan with a barrel vault containing the lucinarium and a large sarcophagus niche at the far end. The sarcophagus was a high-status piece, having a gabled lid decorated with masks and a frontal showing The Good Shepherd. The side walls of this chamber have longitudinal benches for refrigeria meals, and above these were revetted in marble slabs to the vault. The latter had stucco decoration with figurative scenes- The Resurrection of Lazarus and The Good Shepherd can be made out.
Cubiculum of the Four Seasons
Across the passage from this cubiculum is the Cubiculum of the Four Seasons. This is attractively frescoed with birds, flowers, dolphins and the personifications of the Four Seasons. An interesting aspect is that there is no overtly Christian symbolism here. The long-entrenched idea that only Christians were buried in catacombs like these has been subject to revisionist challenges in recent years.
These two cubicula have their entrances in masonry, and not carved out of the living rock. The geology here and further east is actually rather unsuitable for underground excavations, because the rock is so crumbly. A vulnerable area here is also indicated by the next pair of cubicula, which unusually have fairly long access passages.
Cubiculum of Sophronia
The next facing pair of cubicula also have reinforced entrances. The one on the right is called the Cubiculum of Sophronia, because of a graffito next to the arcosolium reading Sophronia dulcis, semper vives Deo. Sophronia vives Deo. ("Sweet Sophronia, you will always live in God. You will live in God"). Remarkably, the archaeologists spotted two other graffiti in the same hand and on the same subject near the tour entrance staircase.
Cubiculum of the Ocean
A large hallway then opens up running to the left, just before the "Four Piers". At the far end of this is the Cubiculum of the Ocean, a more obvious candidate for a pagan place of burial. It is small, and the frescoes show little talent. The name comes from a bizarre figure of a person with his head in the form of a lobster's claw, thought to be a symbol of Neptune. Near this is a portrait, but the actual face was painted on canvas and attached -obviously this rotted away long ago. Peacocks appear on the barrel vault, and the lower walls have black lines in a diaper pattern resembling open wickerwork.
Region of Pope Liberius
The large hallway and the "Four Piers" junction mentioned above are the portals to a vast mid to late 4th century region of the catacombs, named after Pope Liberius because of several epigraphs mentioning him by name. The region roughly parallels the Via Appia, and heads north-westwards.
It is noticeable that the cubicula tend to be on the side further from the road, while the passages nearer it have simple loculi. This is probably in response to varying rock quality.
Many of the cubicula are architectonically ornate, and give witness to the increasing wealth of Roman Christians in this century. The main passage of the region, A, is three times as wide as those of the older parts of the catacombs.
However, the archaeologists discovered that fresco works in this region had been very seriously damaged by damp. Also, epigraph tablets had been mostly plundered -it used to be thought that this was done in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it probably happened much earlier.
The region had its own set of access stairs leading to passage A, but no shrines of martyrs seem to have been venerated here.
De Rossi named this region, which is a confused complex of passages with loculi but no cubicula or frescoes. The inference is that it was for poor people who had a little money for funerary expenses. It is over to the right of Area II, which on the surface is in the corner between the Via Appia and the Vicolo dei Sette Chiese.
Some interesting epigraphs have been discovered here, however. One very surprising example is allegedly the only Hebrew epigraph in a Christian catacomb -transcribed as Chephaël. The Jews of Rome had their own sets of catacombs as old as the Christian ones (or older), and so what this was doing here is a small mystery.
Defuncta est Euplia, quarto idus Maias quievit, afnoru [sic] quinque deposita. In pace. Sub Libero papa. ("Euplia is dead, she died on the fourth day before the Ides of May. In peace. Under Pope Liberius (352-66).
This is the second-oldest use of the word "pope" in reference to the Bishop of Rome (the first is also in these catacombs).
Crypt of Lucina
The oldest part of the catacomb complex was named after a Roman matron who originally owned a rectangular burial plot on the Via Appia. She allowed Christians to bury their dead here if she wasn't one herself, and seemingly was a patroness of Pope St Cornelius (251-252) since she had him buried here after his martyrdom instead of in the Crypt of the Popes.
The original small layout involved a simple hypogeum, a double cubiculum under the ground behind a large brick mausoleum. (The ruins of the latter are on the right when entering the catacomb grounds from the Via Appia.) This cubiculum was accessed via an L-shaped passage which De Rossi gave the label U. The plot also contains the south-eastern tip of an ancient pre-existing underground quarry called the Arenarium of Hippolytus, because of the legend that the Greek Martyrs were buried there, and the angle of the L-passage accesses it.
The 19th century archaeologists tried to explore the Arenarium, but found it much too dangerous owing to roof collapses.
Further spine passages were dug following the plot on its south-west side and between the double cubiculum and the road, parallel to the latter and forming a larger L. The longer passage had several short blind passages, and when all the loculi had been filled this passage was deepened leaving the side passages marooned. Further passages were dug under the mausoleum, and one of these contained the tomb of Pope St Cornelius.
This well-defined area ended up having three levels, with a small first one above the primitive excavations. Proper exploration of the lower reaches is hazardous because of the crumbly rock.
Pope St Damasus remodelled the shrine of Pope St Cornelius, provided a new staircase nearer it and sealed the old one off. It is clear that the shrine was visited by early mediaeval pilgrims via this staircase, not through the catacombs from the Crypt of the Popes.
The original hypogeum's double cubiculum consists of two cubical spaces, one behind the other. The first one has deteriorated very badly, and the original fresco work is lost. A depiction of two doves in a garden was still visible in the early 20th century.
The far cubiculum has very interesting frescoes of the late 2nd century, some of the earliest in any catacomb. By the entrance is a Baptism, and on the far wall is a depiction of two fish. These are each accompanied by a basket of bread and a glass of red wine. The symbolism is fairly certainly Eucharistic.
On the left wall is a column bearing what appears to be a bucket of milk. This is flanked by trees, and accompanied by an ewe with her lamb as well as a shepherd's staff. The right hand wall shows two birds in a tree, growing in a flower garden, and Jonah under the Vine.
The vault shows two depictions of The Good Shepherd and two orantes in the corners, and what seems to be Daniel in the Den of Lions in the centre.
Tomb of Pope St Cornelius
The tomb of Pope St Cornelius was not in a cubiculum, but in a loculus in a passage. The location was heavily remodelled by Pope St Damasus, who inserted transverse supporting arches in the passages and revetted the passage walls leading to his new staircase with masonry. He also provided one of his marble epigraph tablets when he converted the shrine location into a sort of arcosolium (but without a top arch). During excavations fragments of it was found, and missing pieces have been reconstructed from early mediaeval manuscripts quoting the verse.
Also here is the original marble closure slab with its Latin inscription Cornelius martyr ep[iscopus].
To the right of the tomb is a pier for a relieving arch, and this bears a 6th century fresco in Byzantine style which depicts Pope St Cornelius and his close friend St Cyprian of Carthage. They face outwards, and below them is a tall column drum in front of it having a hollow in the top. This is identified as a votive lamp holder. On the left hand side is another relieving arch bearing a fresco, but this faces towards the tomb and depicts SS Sixtus and Optatus (according to the labels, hard to make out).
A nearby pilgrim graffito reads SCS Cerealis at Sallustia cum XXI, which is an interesting witness to the fictitious legend attached to the death of the saintly pope and which hence seems to have been familiar by the 6th century.
Region of the Caecilii, Area III (Pope St Eusebius)
Return to passage O in Area II, which runs behind the Cubicula of the Sacraments. This very important passage runs on in a straight line into the Western Region, but before then forms the main axis of the little Area III of the region of the Caecilii which is named after Pope St Eusebius. He only reigned a few months in the year 309 or 310, and his shrine was here.
This region was provided with its own set of entrance stairs, which are actually the set of exit stairs used in tours that avoid passing the Cubicula of the Sacraments. The website of the catacombs mentions the shrine of this pope and the nearby one of Pope St Caius, so some tours might include them.
If you were to go down passage O behind the Cubicula of the Sacraments, you would arrive at this set of stairs on your left. A double cubiculum (one behind the other) on the left just before the stairs had three sarcophagi under the floor in its first chamber, and this unusual placement concealed them from plunderers. The late 19th century archaeologists found the bodies intact, two "nearly mummified" and the third "wrapped in canvas", but stupidly these were left for the amusement of visitors and apparently disintegrated owing to exposure to the atmosphere. The sarcophagi are finely carved, with one having Christian themes.
Shrine of Pope St Eusebius
Beyond the stairs, the passage is revetted with masonry which was a remedial work ordered by Pope St Damasus. The shrine of St Eusebius was in the first cubiculum on the left beyond. It is rectangular, with three deep arcosolia the far one of which is double (one behind the other). These arcosolia contained sarcophagi, the far one having two. The walls were revetted with marble slabs, and the intradoses of the arcosolia arches show traces of mosaic decoration. The vault had stucco decoration in the form of octagonal coffers.
In the centre of the vault is a large square lucinarium. A peculiarity of this is that it has an aperture with a balustrade made of transennae or pierced marble slabs having a diagonal cross design. Access to this little gallery viewpoint is from halfway down the nearby staircase and some passages of the first level of the catacombs (the shrine is in the second).
This cubiculum had an inscription composed by Pope St Damasus (quoted in the "History" section above) that is of interest to Church historians. It mentions the question of the lapsi, those who has denied their faith rather than die as martyrs. In the early 4th century one of the important debates in the Church was how they should be treated if they wished to return to the Church.
The original epigraph slab was smashed by vandals in the 6th century, and a copy provided. Most of this survived for De Rossi to find, and he installed it in the front of the far arcosolium. Some fragments of the original were also found, and were being kept in the right hand arcosolium (they might be elsewhere now).
Shrine of Pope St Caius
On the other side of the corridor from the previous shrine-chamber is a very large and high trapezoidal cubiculum, with a short passage in its far wall leading to a smaller one with a lucinarium. Both of these have an arcosolium in the left hand wall. The decoration was again very rich, with marble revetting and mosaic work which has left few traces.
This cubiculum is identified as the shrine of Pope St Caius (283-96) through the discovery here of his mutilated original epitaph, which is in Greek and reads" "Caius the bishop, laid to rest on the first day before the Kalends of May (22nd April)".
This pope had a church dedicated to him in the city, now lost -see San Caio.
Shrine of SS Parthenius and Calogerus
The two obscure martyrs SS Parthenius and Calogerus, who probably died in the persecution of Diocletian, were enshrined in the next cubiculum on the left down passage O, after a cross-passage. The cubiculum itself has been completely wasted, but De Rossi found a pilgrim graffito on the entrance wall on the left, which reads: Partenio martyri Colocero martiri.
The final region of the catacombs lies to the west of the Region of the Caecilii, and comprises a fairly regular grid pattern of passages. The western triconch mausoleum stands over it.
There is a suspicion that this region was under separate management to the older core of the catacombs, because it had its own access stairs (to the west of the mausoleum), and the architectonic styles of the cubicula differ from those elsewhere. There are some ornate circular ones, instead of the usual quadrilaterals.
De Rossi raised a speculation that the female martyr St Soteris had her shrine somewhere here, but later archaeologists demurred and the consensus is that it is not worth guessing as to where she might have been.
Passage O of the Area of Pope St Eusebius continues as passage A of this region, with many cubicula opening off it and off its cross passages.
Cubiculum of the Five Saints
If you carry on down passage O of the Area of the Caecilii after visiting the shrine of SS Parthenius and Calogerus, you immediately enter this region and passage A.
The second cubiculum on the left is a small square one with two arcosolia, but is famous for its much-photographed fresco of the early 4th century. This shows a paradise scene, a verdent garden with flowers, fruiting trees, birds and peacocks. In this stands five orantes, and each figure is named. They are: Dionysia, Nemesius, Procopius, Heliodora and Zoë. The names are followed by the formula in pace ("in peace"). Above the left hand peacock is the additional epigraph Arcadia in pace -it is unclear whether this refers to a sixth person, or is a general formula meaning "In paradise, in peace" (Latin speakers will appreciate that arcadia could be nominative or locative). The figures are very richly dressed.
This fresco is above an arcosolium, and a separate register below it shows birds drinking from large stemmed vases.
The painting is of very high quality, and Dionysia has received attention for decades on account of being a pretty girl. She and her companion on the far right have had loculi for children cut across their bodies.
Cubiculum of Severus
On the other side of the passage, to the right, is the double cubiculum of the deacon Severus. It should be remembered that deacons in the early Church of Rome were not the relatively unimportant figures that they have been for the last millennium, but formed with the pope the executive council of the Church. This explains the lavishness of the cubiculum, which has an antechamber and a lucinarium.
The importance here lies in the surviving dedicatory epigraph that Severus left. This was incorporated into a pierced marble screen formerly closing an arcosolium, bits of which were found by the archaeologists. It is thought that it was scavenged from an earlier pagan tomb, most likely above ground.
Fortunately, the epigraph survived intact although not much else of the screen did. It reads:
Cubiculum duplex cum arcosolius et luminare, iussu papae suae Marcellini, diaconus iste Severus fecit mansionem in pace quietam sibi suisque, memor quo membra dulcia somno per longum tempus Factori et Iudici servet. Severa, dulcis parentibus et famulisque, reddidit octavo februarias virgo kalendas quam Dominus nasci mira sapientia et arte iusserat in carnem. Quod corpus pace quietum hic est sepultum donec resurgat. Ab ipso quique animam rapuit spiritu sancto suo castam pudicam et inviolabilem semper quamque iterum Dominus, spirituali gloria reddet. Quae vixit annos VIII et undecem menses quindecem dies, sic est translata de saeclo.
("This deacon Severus, by order of his pope Marcellinus, made a double cubiculum with arcosolium for himself and his relatives as a quiet resting-place, remembering in what sort of sleep it may keep these sweet members for a long time for the Creator and Judge. Severa the virgin, dear to her parents and slaves, returned her soul to God on the eighth kalends of February which the Lord with wonderful wisdom and skill had ordered to be born in the flesh. The same body, resting in peace, is here buried. For the Lord took her always chaste, modest and inviolate soul from it by the Holy Spirit, and will return it in spiritual glory. She lived eight years, eleven months and fifteen days, thus she was removed from the world").
This epigraph is the first evidence of use of the word papa or "pope" for the Bishop of Rome. Pope Marcellinus (296-304) reigned in a period of persecution, and this cubiculum is a useful reminder that Church life did go on -and that Roman Christians were not hiding away in the catacombs as the discredited ideas has it.
Arcosolium of the Mask
This region contains many interesting cubicula and arcosolia.
Further down passage A, the first side passage on the right is B. This has arcosolia as well as cubicula, and arcosolium 8 on the right has four orantes which are by the same artist as painted the ones in the "Five Saints". The intrados has a mask with two flower sprays, and so this is called the "Arcosolium of the Mask".
Cubiculum of the Sheep
Back in passage A, the next passage on the left is C. The first cubiculum on the left down this is the "Cubiculum of the Sheep" which has a fine fresco of The Good Shepherd in the far arcosolium. As well as the usual shepherd carrying a sheep, there is a flock among trees and two figures drinking from two waterfalls. Very unfortunately, a loculus was later chopped into this fresco. To the right is Moses Removing His Sandals and Moses Bringing Water from the Rock, and to the left is Christ with two apostles presenting him with bread and fish to multiply. This cubiculum has charcoal graffiti from 15th century visitors; one dated 1462 by Abbot Sciermetis and seven other monks, another dated 1490 by another monk called Raynuntius of Farnese and his companions and a third by Hieronymus Minoltus of 1495. Word must have got round.
Antonio Bosio was here in the following century, and had the frescoes copied. We know this because of another graffito that he left:
Angelus Toccafondus pinxit die 18 Iunii 1649. Ant. Bosius fecit.
There are five round cubicula in this region, spectacularly different from the usual layout. One is nicknamed the Pantheon, and is on the left down passage P which runs from the original entrance stairs near the western triconch mausoleum. The round space, with a saucer dome, has several niches of varying depths filled with loculi.
YOU CAN ONLY VISIT BY FOLLOWING A GUIDED TOUR, AND THE ITINERARY OF THIS IS NOT NEGOTIABLE.
Older publications used to mention that you could negotiate a longer tour in quiet times, or ask to see a special feature not usually on a tour. This no longer happens. The rules are set by the Vatican, not the custodians. Please don't raise noisy objections if disappointed, because the staff have no time for explanations and you will be ejected by security personnel.
The tours are in the main languages: English, Italian, French, Spanish and German seem to be readily available. Portuguese, Romanian and Polish speakers are probably better off phoning beforehand. The website is coy about the languages available, which hints at difficulties over guide availability.
The insistence on your following a guided tour is because of worries about safety and vandalism. The Vatican has had centuries of experience of catacomb visitors stealing things (including human remains) and damaging frescoes. Also the catacombs are attractive to certain disturbed individuals who wish to commit suicide or find the Holy Grail in them, and an unconfirmed rumour is that there's a sniffer dog on the staff payroll to track intruders down. So, part of the guide's job is to count you in and count you out.
The website advises that tours are "thirty to forty minutes". This hints at a noisome but understandable practice, whereby management switch to a shorter "bijou tour" in busy periods.
Another change from years past is that explanations about the history, makeup and functioning of the catacombs come as a little lecture above ground before the descent. This is in order to shorten the time underground, and the guides won't stop for further explanations down there.
The catacombs can become so busy that tours are run on a continuous-conveyor basis. This means that guides can be speaking to groups within earshot of each other, which makes things difficult for people with hearing problems. Also, some of the guides have been repeating the same spiel for hundreds or even thousands of times and so have become rather mechanical.
NO PHOTOS OR VIDEOS ALLOWED! They are strict about this.
The catacombs are open to visitors from 9:00 to 12:00, and 14:00 to 17:00.
They are closed on Wednesdays, and on Christmas Day, New Year's Day and Easter Day.
There is an extended closure at the beginning of the year, which in 2018 is advertised as from 25 January to 21 February.
Note that the closing times given are not the last guided tours. So if you turn up too near a closing time then you will be disappointed, as 12:00 and 17:00 are chuck-out-and-lock-up. It is better not to arrive after 11:15 or 16:15. If too many people are waiting then, you may be disappointed even so.
This is one of the catacombs where you can just turn up and buy a ticket. The prices and conditions are set by the Holy See, so there's no point haggling with the custodians. Larger groups (more than thirty) are advised to contact the custodians beforehand, so as to avoid a lengthy wait.
The standard ticket is eight euros (2017).
A discounted ticket of five euros is available for those aged between seven and fifteen, older school pupils if part of a school group (with documentation from the school) and members of the armed and police forces in Italy.
THERE IS NO DISCOUNT FOR INDIVIDUAL STUDENTS OR FOR OLD PEOPLE.
Free entry is available for children under seven, and also for the disabled with their helpers -one helper per person. Also, the leader of a certified school group (not less than fifteen) and the leader and the vehicle driver of a group paying full price are allowed in for free.
THERE IS NO FREE ENTRY FOR PRIESTS AND RELIGIOUS, EXCEPT FOR THE SALESIAN ORDER.
You can pay by cash or credit card at the catacombs, or online in advance at the catacombs' website (see link below). If you become tired of waiting for a tour after buying a ticket, please don't ask for a refund because you won't get one.
You are not expected to tip the guide.
The edibles and drinkables on sale here are "premium priced". The nearest bar in the real world is close by the Fosse Ardeatine entrance, where parking is possible (Via Ardeatina 300). You can buy bus tickets as well as cold beer and coffee here -and not have to queue for the toilet.
The catacombs have four entrances. The main one is on the Via Appia Antica, number 110. A subsidiary gate is at Fosse Ardeatine on the Via Ardeatina, and this one is worth bearing in mind (you can visit the site of a World War II massacre here, too). The vehicular gate is at Via Appia Antica 78, opposite the church of Domine Quo Vadis. Finally, the vehicle driveway continues past the catacombs to the church and catacombs of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura (this section is not open to vehicles, only to pedestrians).
Even if you are not visiting the catacombs, the driveway from Domine Quo Vadis to San Sebastiano is worth remembering. It bypasses a very narrow and dangerous section of the Via Appia Antica, so use it if you are walking this road. It only becomes a romantic and quiet ancient highway beyond San Sebastiano.
The complex has a large private car and coach park, which immediately explains its dominance as the most visited set of Roman catacombs. The vehicular access is down the long driveway from th gate opposite Domine Quo Vadis.
Be aware that this gate is on the junction between the Via Appia Antica and the Via Ardeatina, where four lanes of main road combine into two. Negotiating it can be interesting, especially in the morning rush hour -there are no traffic lights. The gateway is very narrow so coach drivers need to take care of their mirrors, and emerging from the gate into the junction must be done very slowly because of heavy traffic passing blind on the left.
It is possible to park a car on the other side of the road at the Fosse Ardeatine entrance, and if you have your own car then this is often the best option (assuming that a space is free, of course).
If you are visiting privately and don't want to pay for a taxi, you have to take a bus. There are two possibilites:
- 118 from Piazza Venezia. This drops you outside the Via Appia Antica entrance, which is fine. However, getting back to the city is not. You have to walk some distance to the stop after turning left out of the gate, and this is along a very narrow and busy road without any pavements (sidewalks). The bus stop has no waiting area away from the road, and you are backed against a wall with the traffic passing about two feet in front of you. This is awesomely horrible, especially in summer.
- 218 from Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, to Fosse Ardeatine. This is the better option for getting back.
Visitors might need to be reminded that tickets are bought in advance for Roman buses, usually in places where you can buy newspapers. You are paying for time on any bus, not for a particular journey, but you do need to stamp the ticket yourself when you get on the bus otherwise you will be fined very heavily.
The city bus company's online search engine for routes and times is here.
There is no church, hence no schedule of public Masses.
The website of the catacombs advises that pilgrim groups have to book a slot in advance to celebrate Mass here, and that they have to have their own priests. There is no resident priest here to celebrate Masses for groups.
The times available are 9:00 to 11:00 and 14:00 to 15:30, in thirty-minute slots. So, Mass must be celebrated within half an hour. Booking must include the number of participants, the language to be used and the date and time wished for.
The catacombs will provide the necessary vessels, cloths and elements for celebration, texts in Latin, Italian, English, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish or Polish and also vestments for three priests. Bring your own albs. Priests are expected to be properly vested (this requirement is not on the English language version of the website, but is on the original Italian one).
The website does not mention facilities for the Extraordinary Form, but presumably these exist.