Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Buried deep down in the catacombs on the Appian Way, Rome

A short distance away from the historic centre of Rome, you will find the Appian Way, a Roman military road that was built to connect Rome with the south of Italy. Visitors to Rome can escape the city centre chaos for a few hours and enjoy a walk in the fresh air, or take the opportunity to explore some of the ancient catacombs to learn more about Italy’s ancient history.

Stand on the oldest parts of the Appian Way, or Appia Antica, and the straight path of ancient uneven flagstones stretches far in front of you as far as the eye can see. Try and imagine the Roman soldiers marching off to war as they founded the empire around 300BC, or even more, consider the people who built it. Today the historic tree-lined Appia Antica is a haven for walkers, cyclists, horse-riders and dog walkers, escaping the noise and chaos of the city for a few hours.

The road starts at Porta San Sebastiano, where there is an interesting museum dedicated to the ancient city walls. Once on your way, there are plenty of monuments to see such as the circular tomb of Cecilia Metella and the small church of Domine Quo Vadis? where a fleeing Peter met Jesus and was persuaded to return to Rome and meet his persecutors. Also take time to peer past the private gates of the lavish villas that belong to some of Rome’s more elite residents.

As well as being the main route from Rome to the south of Italy, the Appia Antica was one of the places that ancient Romans came to bury their dead. In ancient times, it was forbidden to bury people inside the city walls, leading to the creation of a network of catacombs around the periphery. There are 60 catacombs altogether in Rome, stretching for hundreds of kilometres under the ground, with 5 open to the public. Two of these are on the Appian Way with the biggest and oldest being the Catacombs of San Callisto, where it is recommended you pause for an hour and take advantage of one of the guided tours down to the tombs.

The Catacombs of San Callisto are a labyrinth of tunnels stretching for 20kms and built on 4 different levels deep under the ground. Dating from the 3rd Century, the walls are covered with hollows that once housed the remains of the Roman citizens wrapped in a simple white cloth and laid next to their possessions, before being sealed forever.

Rows and rows of empty rectangular tombs line every corridor, some only big enough to hold a small baby. Then there are the triangular-shaped family tombs with their frescoed walls, given to families who donated large sums to the church during their lifetimes. All silent, and now, all empty. At one time, there were even 9 Popes buried here although these were later moved to St. Peter’s Basilica. It was also the original burial place of Santa Cecilia, who was later moved to Trastevere.

The tombs did a brisk business until the 9th Century when they were ransacked by Barbarians. The tombs were unsealed, the possessions stolen and a trail of bones and earth left scattered on the floor. Following this almost complete destruction, the catacombs were abandoned, and left forgotten until being accidently rediscovered in 1849 when a local historian tripped over a hole on the Appian Way.

A restoration and excavation project of the tombs was started following his suspicions of what lay beneath, a project which still continues as much of the catacombs remain unexplored. Today you can take guided tours around the tombs which last around 40mins. But be warned. As you descend down the deep, dark, damp staircases to the second level, and are surrounded by empty graves and displays of bones, this is not a tour for the claustrophobic or squeamish.

The Catacombs are closed on Wednesdays and during February, Christmas Day, New Years Day and Easter. Guided tour 6 euros.

How to Get There
Reach the Appian Way and the Catacombs by taking the 118 bus from just outside the Pyramide Metro Stop (Blue Line). This bus stops at both the Porta San Sebastiano, and the Catacombs, so you can walk one way, and then catch the bus back. The really energetic, or those on bikes, can continue along to Lake Albano, a journey of around 14km, and then take the train back.


  1. Thats a great description.300BC means its very old...

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  2. Blog Commenting
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