Catacombe di Massimo is a set of catacombs at Via Simeto 2 in the Salario quarter. An alternative name is Catacombe di Santa Felicita, but the Roman martyrology prefers the name as given.
For a general article on the catacombs, see Catacombs of Rome.
The saints Edit
In the early Middle Ages there were two martyrs venerated here, St Felicity and St Silanus (or Silvanus), and their shrines are mentioned in the pilgrimage itineraries. The shrine of the latter survives underground, but St Felicity was apparently enshrined above ground and her shrine has been lost.
St Felicity Edit
The first thing to note about St Felicity is that she should not be confused with her namesake in SS Perpetua and Felicity. These two seem to be mentioned in the Roman canon of the Mass, but there is a suspicion that the Felicity reference was originally to our Roman martyr.
There is a complicated historical problem associated with her. Firstly, the present situation: There is a church in Rome dedicated to her, Santi Felicita e Figli Martiri. This alludes to a discredited legend that she was martyred in the year 162 with her seven sons. The revised Roman martyrology (2004) has deleted the sons as being too historically vague, and has listed her as being of an uncertain date.
Discite quid meriti praestet pro rege feriri, femina non timuit gladium, cum natis obivit, confessa Christum meruit per saecula nomen. ("Learn how it is better to merit to be killed for the kingdom, a woman did not fear the sword, she was killed with her offspring, she who confesses Christ deserves and eternal name .")
This seems to be the only reliable historical hint of the existence of her sons, and justifies the church dedication.
The so-called Martyrology of St Jerome (last recension 9th century) lists her under 25 January, although her feast-day is now 23 November.
The Acta or legend of her and her seven sons was written in Greek, probably in the earlier 6th century, and is a work of fiction. The terminus ad quem dating is the reign of Pope St Gregory (590-604) who was familiar with the legend when he preached here.
Her relics were removed from her shrine in the early 9th century, and are now at Santa Susanna.
St Silanus, and the Other Six Edit
On the 10 July, the revised Roman martyrology has the following entry:
"At Rome, the holy martyrs Felix and Philip in the catacombs of Priscilla (Santa Priscilla on the Via Salaria Nova); Vitalis, Martial and Alexander in those of the Jordani (Catacombe dei Giordani also on the Via Salaria Nova); Silanus in those of Maximus, and Januarius in those of Praetextatus (Catacombe di Pretestato on the Via Appia). The church of Rome rejoices in their conjoined memory."
These are the martyrs incorporated into the Acta as the seven sons, and includes the Silanus who had a shrine in these catacombs. The Chronographus anni 354 includes a 4th century list of feasts of martyrs (the so-called Depositio Martyrum), and this already lists these seven together. If it wasn't for St Januarius it could be speculated that this was a convenient single date to celebrate the martyrs in the Via Salaria Nova catacombs, but his presence is a puzzle.
It might be that these seven were killed in a single pogrom, on an uncertain date (the attempt to date them by claiming a late 2nd century date for the frescoes around the catacomb shrine of Januarius is false, and depends on a bad dating of fresco styles at the catacombs of Santa Domitilla).
A plausible explanation for the association of these seven with St Felicity involves the proximity of the shrine of St Silanus to hers, and the author of the legend being aware of her martyrdom with offspring.
This set of catacombs was the first on the Via Salaria Nova, being the nearest to the ancient Porta Salaria. It is thought that Maximus was the owner of the property under which the system was first dug, but nothing is known about him or about the origins of the catacombs here.
Burials might have begun in the 3rd century, but a serious date seems not to be suggested in the literature. However, the catacombs would have been in full operation in the 4th.
In ancient times, the Via Salaria resembled the more familiar Via Appia in having many mausolea, tombs and and burial places lining it on its approach to the city. There were three other major catacomb systems along it which became places of pilgrimage: Catacombe di San Trasone, Catacombe dei Giordani (including Catacomba di Sant'Ilaria) and Catacombe di Santa Priscilla.
Pope St Boniface I (418-22) apparently built a basilical church over the shrine of St Felicity, and built another one for himself as a place of burial. These would correspond to two ruinous buildings noted on the site at tend of the 16th century. He also excavated a shrine chamber for St Silanus, and this survives.
The catacombs here were explored by Antonio Bosio at the start of the 17th century, but the identification of the site had been forgotten and he confused them with the Giordiani up the road. Marcantonio Boldetti also explored a century later, but again was confused about the identification and thought that he was in part of the catacombs of Santa Priscilla.
Tragically, no proper survey was done before the area was subject to suburban development in the last quarter of the 19th century. Armellini noted the destruction of the surface ruins along the Via Salaria Nova after 1871, and these would have included the foundations of the two putative 5th century churches thought to have stood over the catacombs. The catacombs themselves suffered very serious damage in the excavations required for building foundations.
The only archaeological investigation in response to this was in 1884, when the digging of foundations broke into the catacombs near the shrine-chamber of St Silanus, which had been previously unknown. The building under construction was then provided with a doorway and staircase into the catacombs. Apparently you could visit on occasion at the end of the century, but this facility was withdrawn in the earlier 20th century.
Nothing seems to have happened here for the last hundred years.
What's here Edit
There are absolutely no surviving remains above ground. What you do find at Via Simeto 2 is a steel door facing onto the street, with a little epigraph above it reading Catacombe di S. Felicita. This is a reminder of the brief period when the catacombs were open to visitors.
The catacombs have three levels, one of them small. There has been very serious damage, especially to the first level, and apparently only two hundred metres of passages are accessible as well as the shrine-chamber (the so-called "Basilica", although it was never a church) of St Silanus.
The accessible passages contain loculi which are still sealed, and some have little household objects such as lamps or glass vessels pressed into the cement as markers. One marker was an ivory arm from a statuette.
The "Basilica of St Silanus" is a rectangular chamber in the first level with a brick barrel vault, and the bottom of a bricked-up staircase that was the original entrance. The 19th century archaeologists tided it up. Here there are marble screen-slabs (transennae) and column bases belonging to the lost shrine. On the walls is a collection of epigraphs collected from elsewhere in the catacombs.
The most important item down here is a 7th century fresco, very badly perished. This shows Christ in Majesty, and below him on a smaller scale is a row of eight figures of saints. A central one is female. The archaeologists noted that three of the men had remnants of labels: -nua-, -ppus and Marti-. These were read plausibly as Januarius, Philippus and Martialus and are three of the legendary seven sons of St Felicity. Hence, the fresco was painted with her legend in mind.
There is no public access.
The Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra has a discretionary scheme which allows visits to accessible closed catacombs by groups of not more than fifteen, "for a real and exclusive cultural purpose". The minimum fee in 2015 was 220 euros, increasing after 75 minutes. See the PDF file Rules Regarding Visits to the Catacombs Closed to the Public.