Catacombs of Domitilla Rome

The Catacombs of Domitilla in Rome consist of an extensive network of galleries and are named after a niece of the Emperor Domitian, member of the wealthy Flavian family. Originally this was Domitilla‘s private cemetery. When Domitilla‘s husband Flavius Clemens was denounced and executed (on the Emperor’s orders) for being a Christian she was exiled to the island of Ventotene (then Pandataria).

Catacombs of Domitilla Rome

Address, opening hours and admission

Address: Via delle Sette Chiese, 280/282 – Rome (tel. +39 06 5110342). Opening hours: From 09.00 till 12.00 and from 14.00 till 17.00. Last entrance is 15 minutes before closing time. Closed: Tuesdays, January 1, Easter, mid-December till mid-January. Admission: 8 Euros; children ages 6-15: 5 Euros; children younger than 6: Free.

History and description

Catacombs of Domitilla Rome
Jesus Teaching the Apostles

In the 4th century, when a basilica was built over the graves of Saint Nereus and Saint Achilleus, the Catacombs of Domitilla gained notoriety. Contrary to what legend holds Nereus and Achilleus were not two converted servants of Domitilla herself, but soldiers who were martyred during the reign of Diocletian, more than a century later.

Another martyr who used to be buried in Domitilla‘s catacombs was Saint Petronilla. Her sarcophagus was however transferred to the Vatican, in the 8th century.

The basilica built over Nereus‘ and Achilleus‘ graves has three naves. Among its ruins two pillars were found, which used to support the ciborium. One of those pillars, completely intact, has the name Achilleus carved on it. Sculptures on the columns represent the two beheaded saints. Behind the apse of the church is a fresco of the Saints Petronilla en Veneranda.

One of the oldest parts of the cemetery can be found to the right of the basilica. Here members of the Flavian family were buried and there is also a cubiculum with a fresco of Christ as the Good Shepherd. Another part of the catacombs is known as the area of the Virgin (della Madonna) and is adorned with various 3rd and 4th century paintings. The most famous one of these shows the Magi approaching the Virgin and child.

Via delle Sette Chiese, 280/282 – Rome

San Panfilo Catacomb Rome

The Catacomb of Saint Panfilo is located along the Via Salaria Vecchia, to be more precise underneath the present Via Paisello and the Via Spontini. The present entrance of this catacomb is inside the Santa Teresa di Bambin Gesù in Panfilo Church. It is normally not open to tourists.

San Panfilo Catacomb Rome

Address, opening hours and admission

Address: Via Paisiello, 24 – Rome (tel. +39 06 735824) District: Quartiere Pinciano. Bus: 910. Opening hours: Like many smaller an dless well-known catacombs the San Panfilo Catacombs can only be visited with permission of the Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra.

History and description

The presence of many so-called “a capuccina” tombs (that resemble the roof of a house, with rows of slanted tiles) indicate that people were buried here as early as the 3rd century. This impression is supported by some of the inscriptions found in the catacombs, one of which is dated 298 AD.

The oldest level of these catacombs, which was reached by means of a long staircase, was created with the so-called “a pettine” system. A higher level was added in the 4th century to be followed by a third floor.

This last floor consists of a hallway, beginning neat the staircase. This hallway is more disorderly than the other two levels.

There is a cubicolo doppio (double cubicolo) in the oldest one of the hallways, which had apparently necessitated the destruction of a number of already existing loculi. These extensively decorated spaces had been built by two freed slaves and dedicated to their former masters, Teofilo and Ponziana.

Panfilo’s relics are supposed to be kept in this cubicolo doppio. According to the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, a 7th century list containing all martyrs, Saint Quirino and Saint Candido are also supposed to be buried in these catacombs, but no remains have been found yet to support this.

Panfilo’s catacombs can only be visited after writing to the Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra.

Via Paisiello, 24 – Rome

Sant’Agnese Catacombs Rome

The Catacombs of Sant’Agnese in Rome are part of a bigger structure including the Basilica of Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura (“Sant’Agnese outside the Walls”) and the Mausoleo di Costanza, which was built around the year 350.

Continue reading “Sant’Agnese Catacombs Rome”

Catacombs of Saint Sebastian Rome

Saint Sebastian was a soldier who was martyred during the reign of Diocletian (end of the 3rd century). He was pierced with arrows, then killed by blows of a club and thrown into the Cloaca Maxima. He appeared in a vision to the matron Irene, who subsequently picked up his body and carried it to the catacombs. His cult became very popular and in the 5th century a crypt was excavated around his tomb.

Catacombs of Saint Sebastian Rome

Address, opening hours and admission

Address: Via Appia Antica, 136 – Rome (tel. +39 06 7850350). Opening hours: 10,00 till 16.30. Closed: Sunday, January 1, December 25, 26. Admission: 8 Euros (age 6-15: 5 Euros; age 0-5: Free).

History and description

The Appian Way, or the Via Appia Antica, passes through a valley near the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian. Since the bottom of the valley was called “ad catacombas“, the columbarii that were built there came to be called catacombs. Later the word became synonymous with all underground cemeteries.

Three mausoleums were erected at the bottom of the valley. In the 3rd century the church got ownership of the site and had the mausoleums covered by a platform, thus creating a so-called triclia (covered courtyard). In the 4th century a basilica was built above the earlier structures. This basilica was altered in the 13th century and renovated (by Cardinal Scipio Borghese) in the 17th century.

The Catacombs of San Sebastiano contain second century pagan as well as Christian tombs and consist of four levels. The tour will take you down a staircase along which remains of sarcophagi bearing imperial seals can be viewed. Underneath the church three pagan tombs can be seen, as well as some frescoes and a floor mosaic.

The Chapel of Symbols is called thus because of the early Christian symbols that can be found there.

Via Appia, 136 – Rome

Catacombs of Priscilla Rome

The Catacombs of Priscilla (Italian: Catacomba di Priscilla) are the best preserved early Christian cemetery in Rome. It is also among the oldest and largest of all of Rome’s catacombs. Thanks to several inscriptions bearing the names of Peter and Paul one can deduce that it dates back to the 2nd century. In November 2013, after a 5 year restoration period, Priscilla’s Catacombs were reopened to the public.

Continue reading “Catacombs of Priscilla Rome”

Nicomedes Catacombs Rome

Of the Catacombs of Nicomedes in Rome not much is known, not even the exact location where the saint was buried. The site can only be visited through intervention of a special papal office.

Nicomedes Catacombs Rome

Address, opening hours and admission

Address: Via dei Villini, 32 – Rome. District: Nomentano. Public transport: Bus 60. Opening hours and admission: The site cannot be visited, except through (rarely granted) permission from the Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra. Italian name: Catacombe di Nicomede.

History and description

The Catacombs of Nicomedes were probably constructed at the site of a former entrance to Rome’s water system. According to an inscription on one of the walls they must have already existed in the year 388. These Catacombs were only discovered in the last century.

Unfortunately a number of hallways of Nicomedes’ Catacombs were destroyed during the construction of a pozzolana ( a kind of cement) mine.

Little is known about Saint Nicomede himself. He is thought to have been a Presbyterian who was martyred, killed and thrown into the Tiber.  A clergyman got him out of the river and made sure that he was buried along the Via Nomentana. (A Presbytarian was a kind of bishop and the word does not refer to the present Presbytarian church.)

A clergyman then got him out of the river and buried him along the Via Nomentana.

In the 7th and 8th centuries several manuscripts mention a basilica dedicated to Nicodemes, but traces of it have never been found.

After the construction of the Ministero dei Trasporti more or less on top of these catacombs tourists have not been allowed to visit them.

Via dei Villini, 32 – Rome

Catacombs – Facts

The first catacombs to be called catacombs were those of Saint Sebastian, to be found near the Appian Way, in the vicinity of caves where tuff blocks were cut out. The original Greek meaning of the word catacomb is “near the hollow”. From the 9th century onwards all underground cemeteries came to be called catacombs.

The Christians did not invent the catacombs, but perfected an existing technique by creating an immense, labyrinthine network of underground hallways on different levels. The rapid expansion was caused by many Christians’ desire to be buried close to a martyr.

Especially during the persecutions by Emperor Nero, the Christians could not profess their faith openly and resorted to the use of symbols, which were often depicted on the walls of the catacombs and on the marble sealing the tombs. The most important of these symbols were the Good Shepherd, the so-called Orante, the fish and the monogram of Christ:

  • The Good Shepherd and his lamb represent Christ and the soul he saved.
  • The orante is a praying figure with open arms symbolizing the soul living in divine peace.
  • The Greek letters X (chi) and P (ro) interlaced and placed on a tombstone meant that a Christian was buried there.
  • IXTHYS (ichtùs) in Greek is an acrostic: Iesùs Christòs Theòu Uiòs Sotèr (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour).
  • A dove with an olive branch stands for the soul having reached divine peace.
  • Alpha and Omega, being the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet, signify that Christ is the beginning and end of everything.
  • Through the anchor the soul’s arrival at the port of eternity was symbolized.
  • As Harry Potter readers will know, the phoenix was a mythical bird rising from its ashes after one thousand years. It is the symbol of the resurrection of the body.

Catacombs Rome, only five are open for visits.

There are only five Catacombs in Rome that are open to the public. They can only be visited by means of a guided tour, which takes about 30 minutes. All five are closed one day per week and one month out of the year. The admission price is 8 Euros per person.

Catacombs Rome

  • Catacombs of Saint Agnes – Via Nomentana, 349 – 00162 Rome – Sunday momings on Monday afternoons closed – Phone: +39 068610840
  • Catacombs of Priscilla – Via Salaria, 430 – 00199 Rome – Mondays closed – Phone: +39 0686206272
  • Catacombs of Domitilla – Via delle Sette Chiese, 282/0 00147 Rome – Tuesdays closed – +39 065135461
  • Catacombs of Saint Sebastian – Via Appia Antica, 136 00179 Rome – Sundays closed – +39 067843745
  • Catacombs of Saint Callixtus – Via Appia Antica, 126 00179 Rome (closed on Wednesdays) +39 065130151

On January 1st, Easter and December 25th the Catacombs are also closed.

The opening hours of the Catacombs of Saint Agnes are 9-12am and 4-6pm, whereas the other ones are open from 9-12am and from 2-4pm.

The Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology is in charge of visits to the other catacombs. Their ofice is in the Via Napoleone III, 1 00185 Rome (Phone: +39 064465610  +39 064465610 ; e-mail: pcomm.arch@arcsacra.va). Generally speaking only archaeologists are allowed to visit these catacombs.

Catacombs – Description

The intricate, labyrinthine system of underground tunnels that constitute the catacombs can stretch out over many miles. The actual burial places are niches cut out in the tunnel-walls.

These niches are called loculi and can also contain more than one person at the time. For the first burials were the bodies were simply wrapped in a shroud and there was no coffin. The loculi were closed off with a marble plate or, more often, simple tiles. An inscription would sometimes give a name and oil lamps and perfumed vases were placed next to the tombs.

The tombs were arranged in rows on top of each other. The word “cemetery” was take from Greek: Its meaning, resting place, indicated the Christians’ faith in the body’s resurrection.

Other types of tombs beside the loculi were:

  • Arcosolium: A larger niche, with an arch over it and an horizontal tomb-covering. Usually contained whole families. More popular in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
  • Sarcophagus: A coffin made of stone or marble and adorned with reliefs and inscriptions.
  • Forma: Tomb dug into the floor of a cubiculum, gallery or crypt, often to be found near the tombs of martyrs.
  • Cubiculum: Small rooms serving as family tombs, often decorated with frescoes.
  • Crypt: Bigger rooms, that were converted into small underground churches. These martyrs tombs were adorned with paintings and mosaics.

The catacombs were dug by the so-called fossores (a guild of gravediggers). The earth was carried away through sky-lights called lucemaria. After the completion of a hallway the lucemaria were kept open and served as a means of ventilation.

Catacombs – History

The Catacombs are among Rome’s top 10 tourist attractions. They are underground cemeteries, used by the Jewish, but especially the Christian communities. The first Christian Catacombs in Rome were built in the 2nd century and the practice of using underground burial places was continued until the 5th. Christians used to gather in the cemetaries to celebrate their martyrs’, but also their personal loved ones’ anniversaries.

It is a persistent, but untrue, myth that during the persecutions the Catacombs were used as hiding places. They were used, but rarely, as places of refuge in order to be able to peacefully celebrate the Eucharist. When the persecutions stopped the Catacombs became shrines and many Christians from all over the Roman empire undertook pilgrimages there.

Roman law forbade burial inside the city walls, therefore all catacombs are outside the city, along the consular roads.

One of the reasons for the existence of the catacombs is simple lack of space. Since the Christians preferred burial above cremation the cemeteries above ground filled up quickly and the catacombs created a lot more space. It was also cheaper for the Christians, who were generally not among the richer Romans, to dig deeper into land already owned than to buy vaster stretches of land.

Another reason for the underground burial places is the sense of community the Christians had. The existence of the catacombs allowed them to meet and to display their religious symbols without being disturbed.

The first Roman Christians did not have their own cemeteries, but, unless they owned land, were buried in normal “pagan” burial places, which is why Saint Peter was buried in the necropolis, the city of the dead, on the Vatican Hill, and Saint Paul in another one alongside the Via Ostiense.

When the Christians became richer, they started burying their dead underground. Many of the fist catacombs started out as family tombs, in the first half of the second century. Gradually also Christian non-family members were admitted to those tombs. Through donations, purchases of new land and even direct initiatives by the Church itself some of the catacombs grew rapidly in size. The Catacombs of Saint Callixtus were organized by the church and its administration as well was in the hands of the church.

The edict of Milan was issued by the emperors Constantine and Licinius and put an end to religious persecution and the Christians became free to worship as they pleased, the catacombs did not stop functioning as cemeteries until the beginning of the fifth century. From then on normal people were buried in regular cemeteries and martyrs in basilicas.

Over the years the Goths and the Longobards sacked Rome and destroyed many monuments and looted and pillaged the catacombs. The Popes decided to remove the martyrs’ and saints’ relics from the catacombs and place them inside various churches inside Rome itself. As a result, the catacombs themselves were abandoned and left to decay. The entrances gradually disappeared and by the end of the Middle Ages most of them were completely forgotten.  The exceptions were the catacombs of Saint Sebastian, Saint Lawrence and Saint Pancratius.

Two people, Antonio Bosio (1575-1629), the “Columbus of Subterranean Rome”, and Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894) are responsible for the rediscovery of the catacombs.