The Catacombs were ancient, underground cemeteries used by the Hebrews and early Christians in Rome, from the 2nd -5th centuries. Because of their arrangement: one, on top of the other, they were called cimitero, from the Greek, meaning 'place of rest'; thus, affirming the Christans' belief in the resurrection of the body. Work on the catacombs was assigned to a specialized group called 'fossori'. These workers excavated vast tunnels, lit by their feeble lanterns, evacuating tons of earth, in baskets or sacks, by means pits or wells called 'lucernari', which extended towards the surface. These same 'lucernari' remained after the tunnels were completed, providing the galleries with ventilation and illumination. The word catacomb is a 9th century term, taken from Greek, meaning hollow, which referred to all subterranean cemeteries.
During the time of the persecutions, the catacombs became a temporary place of refuge, where Christians could safely celebrate the Eucharist. However, it is mere legend that they were utilised as secret hiding places. All of the catacombs were built underneath streets leading out of the city, since the law of the time prohibited burial within the city limits. Many catacombs were created, then later extended, from family crypts. With the passage of time, cemeteries grew, oftentimes through the intervention of the church. A prime example would be the San Callisto catacomb. The church assumed the communal responsibility of its organization and administration.
The Barbarian invasions had a devastating impact on the catacombs. After repeated sacking and looting, between the end of the 8th and the beginning of the 9th centuries, the popes transferred all remaining relics of martyrs and saints to various churches within the city. Thus began burials above ground, or the dawn of modern cemeteries. Slowly, over-time, the catacombs were abandoned, covered with time, until all traces were lost. In the 16th century Antonio Bosio initiated the first scientific survey of the ruins. However, Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894) took it to another level with his systematic exploration of these ancient subterranean graves, deservedly earning the name of the 'Father of Christian archaeology'.
San Callisto Catacombs
Via Appia Antica, 110-126
Hours: Thursday-Tuesday 9:00 A.M.-12:00 P.M.; 2:00P.M.-5:00 P.M. closed Wednesday, all of February, Christmas day, New year's day, and Easter
Entrance fee charged
Tel: +39 06.51301580 (during visiting hours) - +39 06.5130151
How to get there:
From Termini station: bus 714 to San Giovanni Laterano, bus 218 to stop 'Fosse Ardeatine', the entrance is in front
From Piramide Caio Sesto: Metro line B (Piramide), bus 118 to stop 'Catacombe di San Callisto'
These catacombs, established in beginning of the 2nd century, form part of a larger complex, which covers 15 hectares. This multi-level tunnel system, is about 20 kilometres long, and reaches a depth of 20 meters. They take their name from Deacon Saint Callisto, who, at the beginning of the 3rd century became its overseer, by request of Pope Zefirino, who designated it as the official cemetery of Rome. At the entrance to the tunnels is a small basilica, with three apses, believed to be the mausoleum of the young eucharistic martyr, Saint Tarsus.
Via delle Sette Chiese, 283; Zone: Appia Antica, Adreatina
Hours: Wednesday-Monday 8:30 A.M.- 12:00 P.M.; 2:30 P.M.-5:00 P.M.; closed Tuesday and all of January
Entrance fee charged
Tel: +39 06.5110342
How to get there: From termini station 714 to San Giovanni Laterano; 218 to the 'Fosse Ardeatine' stop
This complex was named for Domitilla, the wife of consul Flavio Clemente, martyred at the hands of Domitian in 95 A.D. The complex developed around the family crypt. Above the entrance to the complex stands the Basilica of Nereus and Achilles. Inside are three naves, divided by four columns on each side. The entrance is located at the far end of the basilica which extend over several kilometres. During the 3rd and 4th centuries these catacombs functioned primarily as cemeteries, after which, and up until the 8th century, it served as a place of worship and commemoration of martyred saints.