Churches of Rome Wiki

Santi Marcellino e Pietro ad Duas Lauros is an important palaeochristian site at Via Casilina 641, in the Prenestino-Labicano quarter and near the Berardi metro station on the electric railway Ferrovia Roma-Giardinetti. Pictures of the complex on Wikimedia Commons are here.

The complex comprises an impressive 4th century mausoleum, the scanty remains of a contemporary "basilica" attached to it, a set of catacombs under it, a 17th church within it (!) and an earlier 20th century parish church.

The dedication is to SS Marcellinus and Peter.

Beware of prevalent confusion with the church of Santi Marcellino e Pietro al Laterano.


Foundation of catacombs[]

The location is at the third milestone of the ancient Via Labicana (the present Via Casilina) and was obviously a notable location from the first years of the Empire. A columbarium (sepulchre for cremation ashes) and some small mausolea dating from the 1st century AD were identified in the area north of the Via Casilina, during archaeological investigations in 1948 and again in 1977.

The underground burial area is now known to have been founded perhaps in the 1st century AD, after a chance discovery in 2002 when a hypogeum of six chambers came to light. These contained mass burials of about 1200 high-status individuals of both sexes, and it is surmised (from lack of trauma on the bones) that these were the results of epidemics. Further, it is surmised that the individuals were associated with the Equites singulares Augusti which was the Emperor's cavalry bodyguard. This certainly had its dedicated cemetery here later in the 3rd century, located in the public park known as the Villa de Sanctis.

These so-called "X tombs" were perhaps the origin of the entire burial complex.

The dating of the first Christian use of these catacombs has, until recently, been put much too early. This was because of a tendentious and flimsy chain of scholarly argument which accepted as historic the fictional legend attached to the catacombs of Santa Domitilla, and which consequently attributed wrong dates to styles of fresco found in the catacombs in general.

It is now considered that the Christian passage catacombs to be found here were begun in the last third of the 3rd century, just before the Great Persecution of Diocletian. The present complicated layout hints at at least three separate original nuclei, which in turn might indicate that the original funerary excavations were sponsored by private individuals acting as patrons of the Church.

Excavators in the late 19th century found an epigraph reading Locus Sebhri, Olimpi, lectores de d[omo?] Eusebii, locus est ("Place of Severus, Olympus, readers of the house of Eusebius, the place"). This has been taken as evidence that the titulus Eusebii on the Esquiline had a special interest in the catacombs -the church of Sant'Eusebio all'Esquilino is the successor of that titulus.



The pilgrimage itineraries of the early Middle Ages list four martyrs enshrined here in separate locations: SS Marcellinus and Peter, St Tiburtius and St Gorgonius. The historical existence of these is uncontroverted, and Pope St Damasus (366-84) provided lost but transcribed epigraphs for their shrines.

However records indicate that the so-called Four Crowned Martyrs were also venerated here, and they are a serious historical problem.

Also, references exist to two mass burials of martyrs, one of thirty and one of forty. Since 2002, it is tempting to view these two as arising from the discovery of mass burials of victims of an epidemic -perhaps just the one chamber, with a confusion over the number of bodies leading to a duplication.

SS Marcellinus and Peter[]

The epigraph by Pope St Damasus for these two read:

Marcelline tuos pariter Petre nosce triumphos. Percussor rettulit mihi, Damaso, cum puer essem: Haec sibi carnificem rabidum mandata dedisse sepibus in mediis vestra ut tunc colla secaret ne tumulum vestrum quisquam cognoscere posset, vos alacres vestris manibus mundasse sepulcra, candidulo occulte postquam iacuistis in antro postea commonitam vestra pietate Lucillam hic placuisse magis sanctissima condere membra.

("Marcellinus, together with Peter, acknowledge your triumphs. [Your] executioner related to me, Damasus, when I was a child, that the raving butcher gave orders that your necks be cut through in the midst of hedges so that nobody might know [the location of] your tomb. Your yourselves cheerfully prepared your graves. Being informed of your piety by a hidden white shining light after you fell into the hollow, Lucilla was very glad to collect together your holy members in this place").

It seems that the martyrs were actually murdered on the orders of a private individual. They were originally interred in two adjacent ordinary loculi, which hints at a lowish social status for them and Lucilla.

The Martyrology of St Jerome provides the details that St Marcellinus was a priest, and St Peter an exorcist. The revised Roman martyrology has combined this with the story outlined by Pope Damasus, but has rejected the developed 6th century legend as fictional.

St Tiburtius[]

Pope St Damasus wrote this epigraph:

Tempore quo gladius secuit pia viscera matris, egregius martyr, contempto principe mundi, aetheris alta petit, Christo comitante, beatus. Hic tibi sanctus honor semper laudesque manebunt. Care deo, ut foveas Damasum precor, alme Tiburti.

("At the time when a sword cut the pious entrails of the mother the famous and blessed martyr, despising the prince of the world, seeks the heights of heaven in the company of Christ. In this place holy honour and praise will always remain for you. Beloved by God, I pray that you take care of Damasus, kind Tiburtius").

It is obvious that the pope had no biographical details -the line about the disembowelled mother refers to the Church suffering persecution. The revised Roman martyrology confines its entry to the fact of the saint's martyrdom.

The Itineraries indicated that the shrine of this saint was in a mausoleum next to the western (curved) end of the basilica, and this hints at his having been a person of high status.

St Gorgonius[]

Pope St Damasus wrote this epigraph:

Martyris hic tumulus, magno sub vertice montis, Gorgonium retinet, servat qui altaria Christi. Hic, quicumque venit, sanctorum limina quaerat, inveniet vicina in sede habitare beatos, ad caelum pariter pietas quos vexit euntes.

("This tomb of a martyr, under the summit of a great mountain, holds Gorgonius who cares for the altars of Christ. Here, whoever comes and seeks the thresholds of the saints will find dwelling in a nearby habitation the blessed whom piety together carried to heaven as they went out").

The Roman martyrology again confines itself to a declaration of his martyrdom.

The Itineraries indicated that his shrine was in an underground chamber or cubiculum. Until recently the scholarly consensus has been that the shrine has not been found and that it must be in an unexplored area of the catacombs. However, this position is now problematic given that the complex has been well surveyed -see Quattro Coronati below.

Quattro Coronati[]

The early Itineraries mention four martyrs: SS Marcellinus, Peter, Tiburtius and Gorgonius, and there is a famous large vault fresco in the catacombs depicting them venerating Christ together (in the so-called Cubicolo dei santi eponimi).

This is relevant to the tradition that the Four Crowned Martyrs were enshrined in these catacombs, before being taken to the church of Santi Quattro Coronati. The confusions surrounding their identities have exercised scholars for centuries, but the revised Roman Martyrology (2001) comes to this conclusion in its entry for them on 8 November:

"The commemoration of SS Simpronian, Claudius, Nicostratus, Castorius and Simplicius, martyrs who, by tradition, were sculptors in marble at Sirmium in Pannonia. When they refused to carve a statue of the god Aesculapius because of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the emperor Diocletian ordered them to be thrown into the river and so, by the grace of God, they were crowned with martyrdom. Their veneration has flourished in Rome since ancient times under the title of the Four Crowned Ones in a basilica on the Caelian HIll". The year given is 306.

The major confusion has been with a second putative group, named in their legend as Severus (or Secundius), Severian, Carpophorus and Victorinus, who were martyred at Castra Albana. According to the fictional legend of St Sebastian, the four saints were soldiers (specifically cornicularii or clerks in charge of written records) who refused to sacrifice to Aesculapius, and therefore were killed by order of the emperor Diocletian (284-305), two years after the death of the five sculptors. The bodies were then buried in the catacomb of Santi Marcellino e Pietro by Pope St Miltiades and later brought to the basilica on the Caelian.

The scholarly consensus is that the story of the second group is fictional, based perhaps on the veneration of a group of four martyrs at Santi Marcellino e Pietro. There is a historical possibility that these were soldiers, and that they had been executed at Castra Albana (a military camp), but alternatively the soldiers there might have been the echo of a third martyrdom.

A revisionist opinion as regards the four at Santi Marcellino e Pietro is that they were SS Marcellinus, Peter, Tiburtius and Gorgonius -which would mean that the cubiculum assigned to the Quattro Coronati by the archaeologists might have been the shrine of St Gordianus.

Constantine's funerary complex[]

When the emperor Constantine conquered Rome from Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, the Equites singulares were on the losing side and were disbanded. The emperor then granted the site of their barracks to the Church as the location of the new cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano, and apparently earmarked their burial ground as the location of his future tomb complex.

Around 320, a "circiform basilica" (now regarded as having been a funerary enclosure, not a church) was built over the catacombs, next to the pre-existing little mausoleum of St Tiburtius. A porticus or large courtyard with arcaded walks on three sides was attached to the left hand (south) side of this basilica, and a simple walled enclosure to the right hand side.

Then, between 326 and 330, a huge circular mausoleum (the Mausoleum of Helena) was attached to its front (east) end. Brick stamps provide the dating. The mausoleum was provided with a porphyry sarcophagus carved with scenes of battle in high relief -the martial nature of the imagery is actually the only positive evidence that the complex was initially intended for the emperor.

St Helena[]

However, in 330 he founded the new imperial capital city of Constantinople and chose to be buried there in the Church of the Holy Apostles. Creepily, he morphed his self-image from that of military general to that of Thirteenth Apostle and intended to be buried at a focal point in the church, surrounded by twelve shrines containing the relics of the real apostles. The scheme was uncompleted at his death in 337, and the full set of relics was never collected.

By tradition, the funerary complex in Rome was granted to the emperor's mother St Helena. Her last appearance in history was in 328, and the date of her death is unknown. The revised Roman martyrology has it as 329, so Constantine must have already decided to be buried in the future Constantinople.

The Liber pontificalis entry for Pope St Sylvester (314-35) alleges that the complex, together with a very large estate, was donated to the Church by St Helen. The complete accuracy of this can be doubted, as an imperial villa was still functioning here in the following century.

Developments in the catacombs[]

The glory days of the catacombs were in the 4th century. These catacombs were obviously used by wealthy and high-status people, as they contain the best series of fresco paintings of that century of any in Rome. Also the basilica and porticus were abutted by individual mausolea for the even more wealthy, in the same way as is more obvious at San Sebastiano fuori le Mura.

The complex was extended to about 4.5 km of passages, on three levels (one being small). The number of burials is estimated at about 25 000.

Pope St Damasus re-ordered the shrines of the martyrs in about 370, and provided epigraphs for them. This pope was a pioneer in promoting the cults of the martyrs in the catacombs, and it was in his reign that they became major pilgrimage destinations.

There is actually some doubt as to whether he was responsible for the substantial remodelling of the shrine of SS Marecellinus and Peter -this might have occurred in the 6th century. The saints were originally buried in to ordinary loculi in a standard passage, but a shrine-chamber was dug out around them so that the two slots were left in a large lump of rock in the middle of the floor with access all around it. A set of stairs was cut to connect the shrine with the mausoleum-shrine of St Tiburtius in the open air above.

If, as is now regarded as likely, the basilica was not a church then it is uncertain as to when or where the first church on the site was founded. The re-ordering by Pope St Damasus might have seen the mausoleum of St Tiburtius consecrated as a church, but this is speculative. This might have been done with other pre-existing mausolea also, but San Tiburzio was the church functioning here in the early Middle Ages.

In 455, Emperor Valentinian III was murdered by his bodyguard on the campus martius (parade ground) at an imperial villa residence located here. This is the only direct evidence of any kind that we have of such a villa as part of the complex -the archaeologists have not located any remains. This is puzzling in itself.

Early Middle Ages[]

The catacombs were an important pilgrimage destination until the 9th century, and graffiti around the shrines bears witness to this. A few of these are written in runes by northern European pilgrims.

Pope Vigilius (537-55) restored the catacombs and pilgrimage facilities, and the alterations to the shrine of SS Marcellinus and Peter might have been done by him. More probable is the set of alterations to the location containing the cubiculum traditionally assigned to the Quattro Coronati, in order to make it more safely accessible to pilgrims. These two locations are the only ones known with evidence of pilgrim interest especially in the form of graffiti.

Pope Honorius I (625-38) also ordered restoration works, and his intervention is also claimed as having involved the creation of the extant shrine-chamber of SS Marcellinus and Peter. Part of the argument is that this chamber looks like a genuine underground church (most so-called "churches" in the catacombs are romantic fantasies), and this was more likely only at such a late date.

Pope Adrian I (772-95) oversaw another restoration.

Dispersal of saints[]

However, this was a swan-song because the city was losing control of its suburbs which were being overrun by marauders and Muslim pirate raiders by the end of the 8th century. The following century saw the abandonment of most of the catacombs, and the transfer of martyrs' relics to churches within the city walls or abroad.

The process here had already started under Pope Paul I, who in 765 granted the relics of St Gorgonius to St Chrodegang of Metz. This was in the context of the alliance between the Papacy and the Frankish Kingdom. The relics were enshrined in the great abbey of Gorze, founded by St Chrodegang, but were moved to the abbey of Saint-Arnould at Metz in the following century.

There is confusion about what happened to SS Marcellinus and Peter. One story is that the relics were purloined on the orders of Einhard, the secretary of the emperor Charlemagne, and enshrined by him in his new abbey in the town of Seligenstadt in 829. The town was actually renamed after them -"Town of the Holy Ones" -and has an interest in the catacombs to the present day. However, a rival set of relics is in their other Roman church of Santi Marcellino e Pietro al Laterano, and a third set at the cathedral of Cremona.

There is even more confusion over the fate of St Helena's relics. One assertion is that she was not buried in the mausoleum here for long, but was taken to Constantinople to join her dead son at Sancti Apostoli. A twist to the tale is the alleged looting of these relics in the Fourth Crusade, 1204, and their enshrinement at the church of Sant'Elena in Venice in 1211. Alternatively, she never left Rome and is now to be found in the chapel dedicated to her at Santa Maria in Aracoeli. The third story is that her relics were stolen in 841 and ended up at the French abbey of Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers. Take your pick (bearing in mind that the second and third versions might have involved a division of the relics). Further, the cathedral at Trier claims her head (a gift of Emperor Charles IV).

St Tiburtius apparently went to St Peter's.

The alleged Quattro Coronati, if they had been here, were removed and enshrined in their church of Santi Quattro Coronati by Pope Leo IV in about 850.


It is thought that the complex was abandoned totally after 850. The mausoleum ended up as a small castle, for which a well was dug in the middle of the floor. The archaeologists in the latest excavation found 11th and 12th century pottery in its fill, indicating the period when people actually lived in here.

What is not known is when the mausoleum's dome collapsed. This looks like the result of an earthquake, but the date is completely unrecorded. A hint, however, lies in the date of the alleged transfer of St Helena's relics to the Aracoeli by Pope Innocent II (1130-43), followed quickly by the burial of Pope Anastasius IV in her scavenged sarcophagus at the Lateran in 1154. So, a date in the early 12th century for the collapse is reasonable.

After that, the mausoleum obtained the nickname Tor Pignattara because the amphorae used in the construction of its dome became visible in the ruined fabric. They reminded bygone people of pine-cones (pigne).


To these catacombs, as with others, the romantic myth that their location was completely forgotten does not apply. However, nobody cared about them until the Renaissance. Giulio Pomponio Leto and his academic poseurs explored them in the latter 15th century, and left graffiti to prove it.

Antonio Bosio performed a more scholarly exploration in 1594, and this is counted as the beginning of archaeological interest in the complex. However, he did not find the shrine-chamber of SS Marcellinus and Peter but mistook the Cubicolo dei santi eponimi for it.

Back then, the locality was called Santenina.

17th century church[]

In the 17th century, the Chapter of the Canons of San Giovanni in Laterano implemented a programme of building chapels or small churches for the small rural population living on their properties in the countryside of the Campagna. Here in 1647, a little church dedicated to SS Marcellinus and Peter (oddly, not to St Helen) was erected actually inside the mausoleum, with a little house attached. It is unclear as to which comedian thought of this act of architectural insertion, leaving something rather like a hermit crab.

The parish was founded in 1765, and the little house next to the church was enlarged to form the so-called canonica (a place where canons lived). This was an unfortunate abuse of the mausoleum. Apparently part of its fabric was demolished to make room, and sarcophagus niches were walled up. Further, one of the large second-storey window apertures was utilised as a campanile.

The large area of the parish held a small rural population for the next hundred and fifty years.

19th century[]

The noted early archaeologist Giovanni Battista De Rossi worked in the catacombs in the 1852-3 season. However, the first major dig and survey was by Henry Stevenson between 1896 and 1898, which revealed the circiform basilica.

Together with several other Roman catacombs now closed, the catacombs here were open to the public on a fairly regular basis at the end of the 19th century.

20th century church[]

The little church in the mausoleum became too small for modern needs once suburban development started in the area after the First World War. So the Canons of the Lateran commissioned a completely new church, which was built in a neo-Romanesque style in 1922 between the mausoleum and the road. The architect was Guglielmo Palombi. Part of the scheme was a gateway and courtyard for visitors to the catacombs and mausoleum. The 17th century church was deconsecrated.

The parish was relinquished by the Canons and put into the care of diocesan clergy in 1936. Unfortunately, things then went wrong with the oversight of the preservation of the ancient complex. Stupidly, other modern buildings were erected on the site -including a convent with a large school to the left of the new church. This was run by the Suore della Sacra Famiglia -ISF from Bergamo (there are several congregations with a similar name). The catacombs were closed to visitors, and the pilgrims' courtyard sequestered by the school for use as a playground. The former church and convent in the mausoleum were apparently being used as a scout hut and youth centre at the end of the 20th century.

Most seriously, the mausoleum was completely neglected and later 20th century photographs show vegetation taking a strong hold of the fabric.

The German archaeologist Friedrich Deichmann worked in the complex in 1940 and again in 1954-8. The only subsequent archaeological investigation before the end of the century was by the Ecole Française in 1975.

The Congregation of the Charity Schools, which in Italian is known as the Instituto Cavanis after its founder, opened a large school on a spacious site across the road in 1946. This congregation subsequently took over the parish from the diocese, and is still in charge.


The neglect and misuse of the palaeochristian complex attracted serious criticism towards the end of the 20th century, and a successful campaign was launched to make the mausoleum and catacombs publicly accessible.

A comprehensive programme of restoration of the mausoleum, including archaeological investigations, was launched in 1993 and lasted until 2000. Earlier in the century this might well have resulted in the demolition of the 17th century church with its 18th century convent, but archaeological fashions have changed and these were conserved. However, the blocking walls in the sarcophagus niches were removed.

Matters were inadvertently helped along by the decline of the ISF convent owing to lack of vocations -in 2016 there were only three sisters in the Diocese. The Sacra Famiglia school was shut as a public institution, although the congregation retained legal title. For this purpose, a single sister (Sr Ermelinda Galizzi) remains in residence here, and apparently she gives private tuition to girls.

In 2002, a broken water pipe led to investigations underneath the convent building which had the serendipitous result of the discovery of series of pagan mass burials in six chambers. About 2500 high-status individuals were stacked up and embedded in lime plaster, an odd echo of Egyptian mummification practices and certainly not in the ancient Roman funerary tradition.

The problem with opening the catacombs was originally given as the lack of electric lighting, but there was also the issue of who was going to pay for guides and maintenance workers if the catacombs were routinely open to the public.

In 2014, the catacombs were finally open to guided tours on a pre-booking basis (in other words, you can't just turn up). Also, at the end of that year the mausoleum was declared visitable. It was hoped to convert the old church and convent into a museum, but this still seems to be a "work in progress" (2016) and access to the mausoleum seems to be by guided tour only, too.


Circiform basilicas[]

The plan of the basilica is that of an elongated U with an apsidal end, and a straight entrance façade. Each side had an arcade, and these were joined by an ambulatory following the curve of the U.

This plan is known as the Basilica circense or "circus basilica", because the layout evokes that of an ancient circus.

There are five other known examples of circiform basilicas, as they are known: San Sebastiano fuori le Mura, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura -Basilica Costantinina, Basilica Anonima della Via Ardeatina and Basilica dei Gordiani.

The resemblance to an ancient Roman circus of this strange group of buildings is surprisingly close. They have entrance façades which are slightly skew to the major axis of the buildings. This was not incompetent surveying, but reproduced a feature of circuses where the straight end was also skew. A race would be from this end, round the circular far end and back again, and the skew was to ensure that the racers going round the outside of the curve would travel exactly the same distance as those going round the inside.

Why the basilicas had to have this feature is utterly mysterious. It meant that those processing from one side of the façade along the aisle round the apse ambulatory and back to the other side would walk exactly the same distance if they were walking in step. What liturgical function required this? Nobody knows. Also, San Lorenzo stands out in that the skew is front left to back right whereas the others have it reversed.

Layout and fabric of main building[]

The basilica was 65 metres long by 29 metres wide.

Each side arcade of the edifice here had nine rectangular pilasters, and a further five of these formed the ambulatory. Invariably, pictorial reconstructions of the complex show the central nave having side walls and a roof above the arcades, but there is no archaeological evidence for these and the surmise rests on the prior assumption that the building was a church.

This is very unlikely. The archaeologists found the entire floor area occupied by burials, with no sign of cultic activity. The resulting revisionist interpretation of the structure gives a U-shaped arcaded passageway, surrounding a central open courtyard instead of a nave. Traces of painted decoration on plaster mimicking marble has been found at the bases of the arcade walls.

There was an inner narthex. This was formed by the near end walls of the aisles, and two blocking walls connecting the first pair of nave piers to the side walls. This arrangement created a pair of square rooms at the near ends of the aisles. These four walls were at a slight angle to the major axis of the basilica.

The southern or left-hand room was the actual entrance to both the basilica and the mausoleum, and this in turn was accessed by a long covered corridor which was one side of a large cloister or porticus (enclosure with three arcaded walkways). The opposite (western) side of this cloister abutted the basilica on the south side of the ambulatory.

East of the inner narthex was an outer narthex, which was one rectangular space with a wide portal from the inner narthex matching the width of the central nave. This connected to the circular mausoleum through a surviving tall arched entrance. Unlike the inner narthex, which was a parallelogram, this outer narthex was a true rectangle aligned with the major axis of the mausoleum.

North (to the right) of the basilica was a large simply walled rectangular enclosure. The western wall of this did not join the ambulatory, but was interrupted by the apsidal mausoleum (later church) of St Tiburtius which abutted the ambulatory here. Its alignment was south to north, with the apse to the north.


The mausoleum has a circular plan, and has an outside diameter of 27.7 metres, an inner one of 20.2 metres and an original height of 25.4 metres. It has two storeys in brick, in the form of two telescoped cylinders.

The first storey is a very solid, blank brick ring, with a cornice having modillions (little brackets) along the roofline. Inside it has seven sarcophagus niches, three at the cardinal points which are rectangular and four at the diagonal points which are apsidal. The far rectangular niche would have contained the sarcophagus of St Helena.

The second storey (now partly ruined) had eight enormous round-headed window embrasures, twice the height of the actual arched windows within and in the form of apses with conchs. The second storey roofline also had a cornice with modillions, which bounded a shallow saucer dome.

The surviving section of this storey displays fat-bellied amphorae embedded in the fabric, creating voids to lighten the structure.

Originally the mausoleum would not have been naked brick -ancient bricks are slightly porous, as the Romans could not fire a kiln at a temperature high enough for modern standards. The exterior would have been lime-washed, perhaps in brilliant white. The inside was revetted in polychrome marble, with a floor to match. Dowel marks for the wall slabs are in evidence, and remnants of the flooring survived for the archaeologists to find.

Old church[]

The small, rectangular 17th century church peeps out of the entrance to the mausoleum rather like a hermit crab out of its shell. It was restored in 1769 (when the adjacent convent was built), 1779 and 1858 and narrowly escaped demolition in the early 20th century when the project for a new church was being mooted.

It has a typical Baroque single-storey small church façade, with a pair of Doric pilasters holding up a triangular pediment. The pilasters are not exactly at the corners, and the molding of the simplified capitals is extended to the corners. There is no proper entablature, and the pediment cornice is in shallower relief over the zone between the pilasters. The latter stand on a fairly high plinth, with which the simple unmolded door-case of the single entrance melds. Above the door-case is a raised length of horizontal cornice.

Above the entrance is a large vertical rectangular window, which just intrudes into the pediment's tympanum. This has curved top corners, and is in an unmolded frame which is expanded at the bottom to form a plinth on the door cornice with incurves flanking the bottom corners of the window. The two wall surfaces bounded by door-case, window frame, cornice and pilasters are delineated by a simple frame in half-relief. This is very thin next to the sides of the door-case, with a hint of a tassel at the top on each side.

The tympanum contains a curlicued Baroque tablet in the shape of a shell.

The recent restoration has left the façade in pale blue with the architectural details in white.

If you look at the mausoleum's nearest surviving window embrasure to the right, you will see that it was converted into a campanile by the insertion of a central pier supporting a little arcade of two arches to left (looking from outside). There used to be three bells, the largest hanging from a horizontal wooden beam to the right of the pier, but these with the beam have been removed.

The interior of the church had a single altar, with an anonymous 17th century altarpiece depicting Christ Venerated by Saints.

The church is now deconsecrated, and it is hoped that it will serve as part of a new museum.

New church[]

Layout and fabric[]

The new church is typically basilical in form. Structurally it consists of a central nave of eight bays with side aisles, but the first bay contains an internal entrance loggia and the last bay is a transept. The sanctuary is a large semi-circular apse. Both sides of the transept and the right hand side of the sixth bay have little external chapels in the form of semi-circular apses.

A convent attaches to the back of the church, which has three storeys on the left hand side and a rather messy set of single-storey units on the right.

The fabric is in brick, rendered in an orange ochre with architectural details in white.

The side aisle walls are windowless, and the bays are separated by blind pilasters melding into the architrave of an unmolded roofline entablature. The central nave side walls have a small vertical rectangular window in each side of each bay, except for the first bay which have none -the transept ends have a pair of these windows, too. The side walls have a pilaster between the first and second, fourth and fifth and the sixth and seventh bays, which are painted in the orange not in white, and a much prouder pilaster before the transept which is in white.

The main roof is pitched and tiled, and runs over all eight bays. The aisle roofs are flat. The sanctuary apse and the little chapels have tiled roofs, pitched in sectors.

There is no campanile.


The façade has two storeys, with the ends of the aisles slightly set back from the central nave frontage.

An internal entrance loggia is entered through an arcade of three arches having molded archivolts, supported by two Doric columns in travertine limestone. This occupies the width of the central nave frontage. It is approached by a flight of eight steps (hinting that the church has a crypt). The corners of the central nave frontage of the first storey are occupied by a pair of Corinthian pilasters doubletted along their outer edges, and the outer corners of the aisle frontages have a similar pair of pilasters doubletted along their inner edges. These pilasters support a molded entablature dividing the storeys, and providing the eaves of the aisle frontages; the cornice has dentillations

Each aisle frontage is occupied by a blind arch with thin Doric piers flanking a blank rectangular wall panel, and in the tympanum is a lunette window with two vertical bar mullions.

The second storey has at its corners a pair of blind pilasters which support a crowning entablature and triangular pediment, there being posts over the pilasters in the entablature in lieu of capitals. The cornice has no dentillations, and the tympanum of the entablature is empty.

This storey has a central vertical rectangular window with a balustrade, flanked by a pair of empty round-headed niches. The niches have molded frames topped by strap keystones, and the window is flanked by a pair of little pilasters in the same style as the corner ones of this storey. They support a segmental pediment.



The central nave is separated from the side aisles by arcades having five travertine limestone Doric columns on each side. The archivolts of the arches are molded, springing from square tile imposts on the column capitals. Above each archivolt is a circular tondo with a molded frame from which springs a chandelier bracket, and above these tondi is a floating entablature with no architrave which runs round the entire interior. In between each pair of tondi is a panel in a molded frame in the shape of an irregular inverted pentagon, the two bottom sides fitted to the curves of the archivolts.

The décor is in a puce colour, with the architectural details (including tondi and pentagonal panels) in white.

Above the entablature is a row of rectangular windows on each side which contain stained glass. These have Baroque frames and raised triangular pediments, and are separated by Corinthian pilasters supporting a ceiling entablature. The ceiling itself is flat, with white rectangular panels framed by transverse wooden beams and longitudinal wooden rafters.


The transept is entered through a triumphal arch supported by a pair of square Corinthian piers -the arcades end with engaged limestone piers attached to these. The entablature runs over the capitals, and the molded archivolt springs from this.

The apse has its own triumphal arch, in the same style. It also has a conch, divided into three panels by a pair of wide ribs. The original altarpiece is a very large round-headed painting of The Martyrdom of SS Marcellinus and Peter, with the top intruding into the entablature and with a pair of flanking Corinthian pilasters.

The sanctuary now occupies the transept, and is raised on a platform with three steps. The free-standing altar is on a further circular platform fitting into the apse, with two steps following the apse wall on which the seating of the ministers is put.



The ceremonial gateway to the catacombs and mausoleum is to the left of the church, and is 18th century Baroque. It has had no maintenance since the church was built in 1922, and is almost derelict. The original orange and white paintwork has almost peeled off.

The structure has two storeys. The first storey has a simple arched portal with a keystone in relief is flanked by two pairs of pilasters supporting a thin horizontal cornice. The outer pair of pilasters is blind, but the inner two have capitals based on the Doric triglyph (a "pentaglyph"). These outer pilasters are flanked by two lower sections of wall topped by incurved volutes.

The second storey consists of a horizontal rectangular surface bounded by a pair of very dumpy pilasters over the inner pair below. They support a crowning triangular pediment. The surface boasts a little stone plaque advertising the catacombs -D. O. M, in honorem SS MM Marcellini et Petri, over which is a Papal heraldic shield which has had its heraldry eroded away.

To the left of the main gateway is a small doorway which is the reception entrance for the catacombs. This has had a modern sign installed over it advertising the fact, and on the railing gate should be a notice giving details of when and how to visit.

The gateway leads into a long rectangular courtyard under tarmac, with the mausoleum at the far end. To the left before the mausoleum is a metal door which is the main entrance to the catacombs.

Interior overview[]

The catacombs have two main levels, and a few passages on a third level. The total length of passageway is about 4.5 km, making this one of the larger Roman catacombs but not in the same league as the biggest at Catacombe di San Callisto or Santa Domitilla which are over twice the size.

The passages are almost all to the west of the mausoleum, under the basilica and the convent and stretching as far as the Via Artena. The western part has notably more cubicula than the eastern, although the latter has several cubicula under and around the basilica.

These catacombs have the best display of 4th century fresco paintings of any in Rome, and are well worth the visit in order to see them.

The tour itinerary is always likely to change, but the original intention in 2014 was to start with a visit to the mausoleum, where there is a subsidiary entrance.

Interior -what you might see[]

A passage from this leads westwards to the Shrine-Chamber of SS Marcellius and Peter, which is an apsidal cubiculum carved out of the original passageway where the saints were interred in two loculi. The excavators left the two grave-slots in a rock mound, which now looks rather fragile and is being propped up. Here on display are architectural fragments found by the excavators, including transennae (pierced marble screens) from the original shrine.

After this, a narrow passage with two bends takes you to the Cubicolo dei Santi Eponomi. This has a spectacular late 4th century vault fresco of the four named martyrs (SS Marcellinus, Peter, Tiburtius and Gordianus) venerating Christ in between SS Peter and Paul. The saints' names are given. Oddly, the Lamb of God also features -Christ being depicted twice.

After this, you should be shown several cubicula in the western region. Hopefully you won't get the short tour, and will be shown the putative Cubicolo dei Santi Quattro Coronati. This is interesting for its pilgrim graffiti, and for how surrounding passages were blocked off to control the flow of pilgrims in the 4th and 5th centuries.

Some of the cubicula are completely frescoed, and scenes are depicted from both Old and New Testaments:

One has scenes from the career of the prophet Jonah -his being thrown to the whale, his being vomited out and at rest waiting for the destruction of Nineveh.

Another has three scenes of women interacting with by Christ: The Samaritan woman at the well, the woman healed of a haemorrhage and the healing of the lame woman on the Sabbath (the last scene is unique in the catacomb oeuvre). This is called the Cubicolo di Niceforo, but the patron was almost certainly a woman.

One has a scene of Noah in the Ark, with the dove returning with an olive branch.

The "Daniel's Den" has a young, nude Daniel in an orans position between two small lions.

The Cubicolo delle Quattro Stagioni ("Four Seasons") displays Moses bringing water out of the rock, Noah again, Job on his dunghill and the miracle of the loaves and the fishes.

A very interesting scene of The Baptism of Christ shows the Dove of the Holy Spirit emitting rays which surround the youthful Christ standing in the water. The iconography is unique to this catacomb.

Another rare depiction is of The Marriage of Cana.

A vault depiction of The Garden of Eden shows an alarmingly modern-looking young couple with the serpent wrapped around a tree-trunk. Eve is a thin bionda with curly hair, and is taller than Adam -perhaps real people were depicted.

Unique to the catacomb also are depictions of youths with books (codices). Also, there are heavenly banquet scenes where the waitresses are given the names Irene ('peace") and Agape (Christian charity).

Charmingly, there are also depictions of fossores, the workmen who excavated the catacombs. They are either at work, or carrying their tools and lamps.

The end of the tour should be at the metal door leading out into the courtyard.

Interior -The X Tombs[]

The tour guide should talk at some length about the so-called "X tombs", named after zone X of the catacombs (the latter are mapped out by assigning letters to zones, and numbers to passages).

In 2002, a broken water pipe led to remedial work underneath the convent building. This had the serendipitous result of the discovery of a pagan mass burial in a hypogeum of six chambers, dating over the first three centuries AD. The chambers were of two different sizes, large and small, and were arranged around a central focus like a small bunch of grapes on three levels. The overall entrance had been bricked up, and this blocking wall bore the remnants of a mediaeval fresco in Byzantine style depicting SS Marcellinus and Peter.

The bodies of about 2500 high-status individuals had been stacked up carefully in these chambers, over a period ranging from the 1st century AD for the two smaller chambers, to the end of the 2nd or start of the 3rd century for the larger chambers. It was demonstrated that several mass inhumations had taken place, as the chambers could not have held the totality of corpses found in them if undecayed.

The bodies had been embedded in lime plaster, an odd echo of Egyptian mummification practices and certainly not in the ancient Roman funerary tradition. Also, the types of textile found indicated a south Mediterranean provenance. The people themselves had ate a diet rich in fish and meat, wore finely woven textiles and had a few extremely expensive personal items with them. A pair of gold earrings of the 2nd century was found, and a single ring carved out of Whitby jet from Britain. Distributed among the bodies were several kilos of crushed Baltic red amber.

It is surmised, from the lack of trauma on the bones, that the burials were the results of several epidemics. Further, it is surmised that the individuals were associated with the Equites singulares Augusti which was the Emperor's cavalry bodyguard. (This certainly had its dedicated cemetery here in the 3rd century, located in the public park known as the Villa de Sanctis.) The original homeland might have been the Roman provinces of Numidia and Africa (nowadays Algeria and Tunisia).

This is the only set of mass burials found in the catacombs so far, but it throws light on odd references in the sources to large numbers of alleged martyrs being interred elsewhere -see Catacomba ad clivum Cucumeris for example.

Sarcophagus of St Helena[]

The sarcophagus of St Helena formerly in the mausoleum is now in the Pio-Clementino Museum at the Vatican. It was restored for exhibition in 1777 by Gaspare Sibilla and Giovanni Pierantoni, and mounted on four recumbent lions sculpted by Francesco Antonio Franzoni.

The sarcophagus is carved in high relief from a single block of imperial porphyry from the quarry at Mons Porphyrites in the Eastern Desert of Egypt -a very hard stone. The sides depict Roman cavalry defeating barbarians and taking them prisoner; the riders have no stirrups because the ancient Romans never thought of them (they didn't work out the wheelbarrow, either). The gabled lid has swags with amorini (cupids) and Victories sitting down, and near the ridge (difficult to see) are two lions lying down.

The dimensions are 2.4 by 2.7 by 1.8 metres.

The battered state of the sarcophagus before its restoration can be appreciated in a Piranesi print here of 1757 (the artist depicted it in the ruined mausoleum, even though it had been at the Lateran since the 12th century).


The church is open (parish website, June 2018):

7:30 to 12:00, 16:00 to 19:30 (later on First Fridays, see below).


Mass is celebrated (parish website, June 2018):

Weekdays 7:30, 18:00 (18:30 in DST);

Sundays and Solemnities 8:00, 10:00, 11:30 (not July and August), 18:00 (18:30 in DST).

There is Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on Thursdays from 17:00 to 18:30 (an hour later in DST), also on First Fridays from 20:30..

The feast-day of SS Marcellinus and Peter is on 2 June, that of St Tiburtius on 11 August, of St Gorgonius on 9 September.

Access to catacombs[]

The catacomb website gives the following information (June 2018):

Tours take place daily at 10:00, 11:00, 14:00, 15:00, 16:00.

Weekly closing: Thursdays. 

PRE- BOOKING IS COMPULSORY, and can be arranged by:

Phone: +39 06.2419446 - mobile phone +39. 339.6528887;


HOWEVER, the diocesan web-page for the catacombs here indicates that no pre-booking is needed for Saturdays or Sundays.

The tours are guided in Italian and English. French seems no longer available, but a recorded commentary is available in this language as well as in German and Spanish.

The web site is:

The Facebook page is:

The best way to get here is by catching the electric train from its little station of Roma Laziali on the south side of the Termini station, and getting off at Berardi which is opposite the catacomb entrance.

External links[]

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Parish website

Italian Wikipedia page on mausoleum

Cathopedia page on catacombs

Parish's blog

Parish's historical website

Catacombs' website

Pontifical Archaeology Commission resource page

"Romeartlover" web-page


Romapedia's photos of catacombs

Article on mass burial

Article on restoration (pdf)

Youtube video of catacombs