Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Letter from Italy: City of the Dead Volume 61 Number 4, July/August 2008
by Sarah Yeomans

A journey through the catacombs of ancient Rome

'Let them go down quick into hell...' Only occasionally is light let in to mitigate the horror of the gloom, and then not so much through a window as through a hole. You take each step with caution, as surrounded by deep night, you recall the words of Virgil: 'The very silence fills the soul with dread.'
—St. Jerome (fourth to fifth century A.D.)

[image] Gallery of the catacomb of Vigna Randanini with empty loculi or burial niches (Rachelle Cheever)


Alberto Marcocci of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology stands inside a frescoed cubicula (burial chamber) within the Vigna Randanini catacomb. The inscribed block noes that Petronius, a scribe, was buried here. (Rachelle Cheever)

Following in the footsteps of both ancient and modern Romans, I hike along the Appian Way, through one of the city's ancient gates and into the countryside. The first few miles leading out of Rome are flanked by imposing walls that surround some of the city's most prestigious homes and ancient churches. It is hard to imagine that underneath these manicured gardens and well-kept estates lie hundreds of thousands of subterranean burials.

Eventually I reach the mid-second century catacombs of St. Callixtus, 12 miles of galleries with niches holding as many as half a million dead. Walking through such galleries has become a different experience since the days of St. Jerome. Today, the entrances to these underground cemeteries are gated and rigged with lights. I have come to journey into the past, rather than connect with the terrifying underworld. But at first, breathing the dank air and the scent of ancient stone in the labyrinthine corridors, I can easily imagine what so disturbed the poor saint more than 1,600 years ago.

Farther on, past the catacombs of St. Callixtus, I come to the catacombs of St. Sebastian, with more than six miles of galleries that also date from the second century A.D. Some galleries have four distinct levels, one of which is thought to have been the hiding place for the remains of Sts. Peter and Paul in the third century A.D. While these are the two most popular catacombs and the ones most easily accessible to tourists, there are about 70 such sites along the principle roads leading out of the city.

Sarah Yeomans is a journalist and archaeologist based in Rome and Washington, D.C. She is also a certified speleologist for the city of Rome.