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Catacombs of Rome

When you think of romantic Rome, mysterious corridors and old crypts may not be the first thing that come to mind. Just outside the city are the Catacombs of Rome, a network of underground cemeteries dug in the second century AD. The most impressive are the Catacombs of St Callixtus, where 16 popes and some 30 martyrs are buried.

The catacombs of St Callixtus owe their name to the deacon Callixtus, who was appointed cemetery supervisor by Pope Zephyrinus in the third century. These catacombs became the official burial place of the Church of Rome. Christianity was still a fairly uncommon faith at the time and while the Romans cremated their dead, Christians preferred that their loved ones be buried. Roman religion forbade burial within city bounds, so the catacombs became the designated place.

The catacombs underneath Rome
The catacombs underneath Rome

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The little Vatican

There is an air of mystery in the corridors. The catacombs count no fewer than 4 storeys and some are 20 metres below ground. The most important of the various sections is the popes’ area, also known as ‘the little Vatican’. The popes’ crypts of St Callixtus are considered the most beautiful in the catacombs and original inscriptions are still visible in the walls.

The crypt of St Cecilia is another highlight. St Cecilia, patroness of music, was buried here for 5 centuries. She died a martyr's death around the year 230 and her body was missing for a long time. Her tomb was rediscovered with the catacombs of St Callixtus in 820. Pope Paschal I gave the order to rebuild a church in the place where she had died and transferred her body there. The basilica of Santa Cecilia can still be admired in the charming neighbourhood of Trastevere.

The catacomb of St. Cecilia

Underground symbolism

The hallways and rooms of the catacombs are richly decorated with Christian symbols. As Christians could not practice their faith openly at the time, they painted and carved symbols to express their beliefs. The best known are the monogram of Christ, the fish and the Good Shepherd. The monogram consists of the Greek characters X and P, the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ. If they are engraved on a tomb, this means that a Christian is buried there.

Photo credits

  • The catacomb of St. Cecilia: Paul Hermans, Wikimedia