When in Rome, do as the Romans do
I no longer remember what it was in the history books at school that made me so fascinated by these underground graveyards – the catacombs. Somehow the idea of them stuck in my mind - necropolises dug out far below the earth’s surface. They sounded mystical and mythical.
The catacombs were burial sites for the early and persecuted Christians of Rome. Contrary to popular belief - the catacombs were not hiding-places where people would live. Their locations were fully known by the authorities and people in general. In ancient Rome everyone had a right to a proper burial – regardless of faith and social status.
Replacing cremation with inhumation
Cremation was the most common burial practice in early Roman times but in the first and second centuries a.d., burying the deceased became the norm.
In general, the burial plots would be situated outside the city – along the main roads.
As time went by - burial space was getting harder to come by - so small underground tombs were created, often connected by short tunnels. Such underground tombs were the humble beginnings of the large scale underground cemeteries - going deep into the ground.
The catacombs are dug out of the tufa stone, a soft stone of volcanic origin found in this area. The oldest tombs are the ones closest to the ground level. When there was no more space left, the grave diggers would go deeper - creating several levels with connecting galleries, stairways and shafts for transportation, air and light.
The grave diggers are said to have been paid well but it was hard work – with only small oil lamps to guide them in the darkest sections. A large number of them perished at a young age as a result of the poor working conditions.
The catacomb of Domitilla – Flavia Domitilla
The catacomb of Domitilla is situated on the site of a property once belonging to the noblewoman Flavia Domitilla. With its 15 kilometres of subterranean galleries spread over 4 levels, the Domitilla catacomb is one of Rome's largest. Its semi-underground basilica adds to the ancient beauty of the place.
Flavia Domitilla was a member of the imperial family and is said to have been a committed Christian. During the first centuries after Christ, Christians were persecuted and often condemned to death. Despite her privileged background, Flavia was no exception.
The catacombs were slowly abandoned and forgotten
As the centuries passed, the catacomb of Domitilla was gradually abandoned and disappeared from the minds of the living. The catacomb was re-discovered in 1593 by the first modern explorer of Christian cemeteries, Antonio Bosio. - Later excavations have brought the many galleries and their ancient treasures back to light.
Guided walks only
In my naivety I assumed that I could just show up and wander off into the depths of the cemetery – but not so. There are guided tours only - and one can fully understand why when starting the descent into the ground. First of all you could easily get lost in the narrow staircases and corridors. Besides, a knowledgeable guide is a great plus when visiting an ancient site like this. Seeing what is around you is one thing – hearing the stories and the details behind what you see is quite another. When visiting any ancient spot in Rome – I strongly recommend a guided tour. Whether they are mandatory or not.
The chill of the dead
Although visiting in late September, it was still very hot in the streets of Rome. After just a few steps down from the main and modern entrance of the catacombs you could feel the chill enveloping your body. At that moment it dawned on me where we were headed - we were about to enter the world of the dead. For those not very hot-blooded something warm around the shoulders might be advisable. And for those easily spooked – maybe a safe arm to hold onto.
The semi-underground basilica
The first stop is the semi-underground basilica, originating from the fourth century. It is simple in its beauty. Maybe it was here that the burial ceremonies took place - before the families followed the body of their beloved one to its final resting place - deep down in the dark and cold corridors.
Niches in the walls
In the walls alongside the underground corridors, grave niches were dug out. Seeing these niches today, it is difficult to imagine that grown women and men could be placed there. They must have been considerably shorter than most of us today. As the infant mortality rate was so high, there is a large number of niches made for children.
The deceased would be wound in a sheet and laid in the tomb. Each niche was originally sealed with a marble slab or a terracotta cover, sometimes with an engraved sign or text - depending on the deceased’s social status. However, most of the graves were anonymous – especially those of the poor. In later centuries most of the graves were opened and destroyed by grave-robbers and often only pieces of the marble and terracotta covers remain today.
Getting close to the living of the past
Walking through the corridors and seeing the humble graves gave me a feeling of connection - to the people of the past. Their world and world order was different in many ways - but the people and their emotions were the same. Too often we forget that the people of today and the people of the past are just one and the same.
It was as if I could see their faces before me when walking down there. I could hear their laughter - I could hear them cry.
Much of the original artwork has withered or been destroyed over the centuries but some of it is still preserved. As opposed to more recent religious art, the depictions and writings are simple - symbolic. But simple does not mean not beautiful. It gives the head and the heart food for thought.
Returning to the basilica
The tour only covers a fraction of the many kilometres of galleries. Slowly the group of tourists move around before we once again find ourselves in the basilica - much wiser and more thoughtful now than when we were in the same room a little while before.
Some day I may return to this sombre place. And I will definitely visit one of the other catacombs the next time I am in Rome. Life is a journey - and sometimes it feels good to journey back - to the people of the past. I can recommend it.
How to get there?
To get there I took the Rome metro’s blue line to the station Garbatella. It’s quite a walk from there but I love walking through the streets of Rome. It’s different – it’s beautiful. This is not the poshest part of the city but it has character in abundance. There is quite a lot of traffic in the area surrounding the catacombs and the best way to get there for those with a more feeble disposition is probably by guided bus or by taxi.
The Appian road – Via Appia Antica
After exiting the catacombs I decided to make use of the horses of the apostles on my way back towards central Rome. And off I went, into the grounds of the nearby catacombs of San Callisto, through the park and onto the ancient Via Appia Antica. Whatever you do don’t make that same mistake. I have never been closer to the end than during the walk along this stretch of the Via Appia.
The road is narrow with high walls on both sides - and the traffic? Well the word kamikaze springs to mind. Italian drivers aren’t the most considerate of drivers at the best of times - but here they were seemingly out on a mission. At a speed of 80 - 100 kilometres per hour they sped past me in both directions. I am telling you: I had a lucky escape.
According to Wikipedia, the Appian road “was one of the earliest and strategically most important Roman roads of the ancient republic. It connected Rome to Brindisi, Apulia, in southeast Italy”. One day, I am sure that I will find my way to a more quiet stretch of the Appian road.
Sources: Wikipedia | The leaflet “Roman and Italian catacombs – Domitilla 1” created by Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra | www.domitilla.info
Address: Catacombs of Domitilla, Via delle Sette Chiese, 282 – 00147 ROME