Top 5 Most Beautiful Catacombs in Rome

November 3, 2014
Enrico Catani

The famous Catacombs of Rome are ancient underground cemeteries, of both Jewish and Christian heritage. Most of them are carve in the tuff, outside the perimeter of the ancient walls of Rome (the Aurelian walls), as in the city centre it was forbidden to bury the dead.
Visiting the Catacombs of Rome is an intense journey through history: the tunnels and secret passages tell us about the customs and funeral traditions of the ancient Romans. In Rome and its surroundings there are more than 60 catacombs and thousands of tombs, mostly located along the ancient routes, such as the Appian Way, the Via Ostiense, and the Via Nomentana.
However, only five of the splendid Roman catacombs are open to the public and they can be visited by guided tours. So, here is a short guide, brought` you by ItalyXP, to discover those eerie places characterized by a mystical atmosphere…

1. Catacombs of Callixtus

Located on the right side of the Appian Way, nearby the small church of "Domine quo vadis?”, the Catacombs of Callixtus are among the largest and most important of Rome. Carved out in the 2nd century, the catacombs are part of a burial complex covering an area of ​​15 hectares of land, with a maze of 20km long tunnels, on different levels, reaching a depth of over 20meters.
At the beginning of the 3rd century the Catacombs of Callixtus became the official cemetery of the Church of Rome, and then became the burial place of dozens of martyrs, 16 popes and hundreds of Christians.
The catacombs consist of several areas, including the Crypt of the Popes, also called "the little Vatican" because they were buried 9 popes. Another place of interest is certainly the Crypt of Saint Cecilia, who was martyred in the 3rd century: she was buried where now lies her creepy statue. Originally, the crypt was all decorated with frescoes and mosaics.
You can experience the exploration of the tombs and impressive galleries full of niches, with a walking tour of the Catacombs.

2. Catacombs of San Sebastiano

The archaeological site of San Sebastiano is located in the initial part of the Appian Way. In the 2nd century, the area was used as a burial ground, and was later adapted and used as a Christian cemetery.
The catacombs are named after the saint, the martyr Sebastiano, who was buried here after his death (298 AD): he preferred to suffer the torment of the arrows rather than renounce his Christian faith, but he survived the torture and he was later beaten to death and his body was transported to the catacombs that he took the name.
The tour of the Catacombs of San Sebastiano includes access to four levels: the deepest area is decorated with 4th century frescoes depicting biblical episodes. Another place of interest is the crypt of San Sebastian, with the three mausoleums, decorated on the outside and inside with paintings and bas-reliefs.
Walking through the narrow galleries of the catacomb you can see the wide variety of graves and decorations. Each tomb has a small mark to be recognized (often an object, such as a lamp, a coin, a fund of the cup, a necklace, a toy for a child, etc.).

3. Catacombs of Saint Domitilla

The Catacombs of Domitilla are among the largest in Rome: the complex includes a 4th century basilica and 17 km of tunnels and corridors structured on four different levels, for a total of 150,000 burials, arranged in niches, some of which are decorated with frescoes and bas-reliefs. They are considered among the best preserved and as such have provided an endless repertoire of information about the burial habits of ancient Romans.
Dating back to the 3rd century, the catacombs are named after the saint Flavia Domitilla, the wife of a Roman consul, who left his land to the Christian community to make ​​it the largest cemetery in Rome. The place is located the catacombs of San Sebastiano and those of Callixtus (respectively #1 and #2 on this list), and just like them, also the catacombs of Domitilla are structured in a maze of corridors dug into the tuff entirely.
The visit starts from the ancient basilica, strictly accompanied by a professional guide and in small groups for safety reasons: an adventure into the underground Rome, not to miss!

4. Catacombs of Priscilla

The Catacombs of Priscilla are one of Rome’s most ancient underground cemeteries, whose first burials date back to the 2nd century AD. Located in the borders the Villa Ada (one of the greatest parks in Rome), the catacomb was the burial place of famous people, such as some popes (killed during the persecution of Christians), hundreds of martyrs, and finally Pope Sylvester, to whom was dedicated the church above.
The original nucleus of the cemetery complex is identified in the so-called Crypto-porch, the hub of the extensive corridors that stretch for about 13 km. From the spiral staircase in the entrance, you will enter to a maze of tunnels with large arcs and plant roots coming out from the ceiling.
In the corridors are several paintings depicting biblical episodes, including a fresco (considered one of the oldest existing) that portraits Saint Mary with the baby Jesus in her arms. At the bottom of the galleries are also several paintings representing the most important moments in the life of a woman whose identity is still unknown... There are many mysteries contained in these catacombs, and you can discover them through a guided tour!

5. Catacombs of Saint Agnes

Saint Agnes, the holy child that gives her name to this catacomb was probably martyred during the persecution of Christians by Emperor Diocletian. She was killed at the age of 12, because she refused the son of the prefect of the City to take her virginity, and then buried in the family’s land (which became the catacomb of Saint Agnes in the 3rd century.
The catacombs are structured on three levels. They were excavated in the 16th century, bringing to light some portions of the underground cemetery, geographically dividing into four distinct royal catacombs.
You can enter the catacombs of Saint Agnes through an entrance of the Basilica of St. Agnes. Many of the areas have been looted of precious relics over the centuries, however, exploring the tunnels you can see the characteristic rectangular niches (tombs) with their funerary inscriptions with the names of the dead; there are also several small items attached on Christian tombs (oil lamps, glass gems, shells, plates, perfume bottles, rings, etc.).
Exploring the Catacombs of Saint Agnes is a way to travel back in time and discover Rome's most secret and hidden places.

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