Catacombe di San Callisto -Catacombs of Callistus or Callixtus- comprises a network of catacombs at Via Appia Antica 110, which is in the Ardeatino zone. Pictures concerning the catacombs on Wikimedia Commons are here. An English Wikipedia page is here. A general introduction to catacombs: Catacombs of Rome.
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From the later 3rd century until the mid 5th century, the catacombs here comprised the largest Christian cemetery in Rome. However they were only part of an enormus funerary complex nowadays called the Complesso Callistiano, which is taken to occupy the thirty-hectare block bounded by the Via Appia Antica, Via Ardeatina and Vicolo delle Sette Chiese.
As well as the actual Catacombe di San Callisto, this complex contained a huge surface cemetery and two other catacombs which were separately administered in their working lives. See:
- Catacomba di Balbina (Basilica di San Marco Papa)
- Catacomba di Basileo (Basilica dei Santi Marco e Marcelliano)
- Basilica Anonima della Via Ardeatina
- Basilica di San Damaso Papa
Nearby catacombs which are not considered part of the Complesso are:
Serious scholars should be aware of several problems with the literature:
- The surface features of the Complesso have been almost completely obliterated. Their layout and the locations of the two adjacent catacombs have been poorly determined, and a systematic archaeological survey of the entire site is long overdue. This loss of the surface structures has helped to perpetuate a skewed appreciation of the original functioning of the catacombs -early Christians did not live or worship in them.
- The documentary witness of the early pilgrimage itineraries cannot be reconciled with the extant remains with much confidence, despite centuries of guesswork.
- Previous scholars, up to the early 20th century, had an overly respectful attitude as regards the legends attached to martyrs venerated in the Roman catacombs. This led to flawed chains of reasoning, especially as regards chronology. As a result, the tendency was to date the artistic contents of the catacombs much too early -this especially applies to fresco work. See Santa Domitilla.
As regards the nomenclature. The great 19th century archaeologist Giovanni Battista De Rossi, famous for his seminal study of these catacombs, produced a detailed plan which has not been supplanted but only added to as new discoveries were made. He divided the catacombs into regions with names, which he sub-divided into areas labelled with Roman numerals (I, II, III etc). The passages within each area he labelled with letters, with subsidiary passages given number suffixes (e.g. a1, a2). Cubicula were simply numbered within each area.
As with all Roman catacombs, the ownership of these is vested in the Holy See by Italian law as agreed in the Lateran Treaty of 1929. Fortunately, it also owns the surface area of the Complesso after buying it in the later 19th century. This has preserved it from the illegal suburban development which occurred in the area in the later 20th century-see Catacomba di Pretestato for what could have happened otherwise.
Supervision on behalf of the Holy See is undertaken by the Pontificia commissione di archeologia sacra, which is responsible for the fabric of the catacombs. The administration as a pilgrimage and tourist destination is in the hands of the Salesian Order, with the custody being called the Istituto Salesiano San Callisto. This is headquartered in a late 19th century monastery nearer the city -see San Tarcisio a Via Appia.
This set of catacombs has been the most popular among tourists and pilgrims to Rome since the end of the 19th century. If you are on a package tour or guided pilgrimage to the city and part of the experience is a visit to some catacombs, here is where you are likely to end up. This applies to everybody, including bishops on ad limina visits.
Very oddly, the catacomb facilities (in fact, the entire Complesso) has no public church. Facilities for saying Mass include a converted barn, which is not consecrated.
The first underground focus of the later catacombs latter is associated with a surviving above-ground mausoleum called the Mausoleo dei Pomponii, just one of rows of mausolea flanking both sides of the Via Appia, and which famously go on for miles. These began to be erected in Republican times, and construction continued into the 4th century. The roadside was divided into plots, rather like a suburban ribbon development for dead people.
Ruins of some other mausolea survive in the Complesso, including a big round one (the Mausoleo Circolare) which you can see over to the left once past the farmstead on the driveway from Domine Quo Vadis. This has five underground hypogea or chamber-tombs associated with it.
The neighbours of Lucina include a columbarium or enclosure for funerary ashes, and this is referred to as the "Columbarium of the Freedmen of the Gens Caecilia".
The catacombs developed from several separate foci, amounting to private hypogea dug in the late 2nd to early 4th centuries and joined up in the latter century. The total number of these is uncertain, at least four and possibly more (the Vatican counts seven), but two of these are obviously pre-4th century and are in the present visitable area. The two are counted as the earliest part of the catacombs.
The Crypta Lucinae might be the oldest part, and is tentatively dated to the late 2nd century. It comprised a double cubiculum with a single straight passage. De Rossi traced out a rectangular plot with a short end on the Via Appia, and claimed this as the original funerary enclosure. This was still a private burial ground in the mid 3rd century, amounting to a little hypogeum under a mausoleum like very many on the Via Appia. There is no historical proof that the original owners were Christians.
De Rossi, rather romantically, surmised that Lucina was the baptismal name of Pomponia Graecina, who died in AD 83. This speculation is unsustainable and, as mentioned, there is no real evidence that the Crypta was Christian from the start. Lucina also features in the fictional legend of SS Processus and Martinian, but the 1st century AD is too early for this complex. The link to the gens Pomponia is based on the evidence of two epitaphs to Pomponius Grekinos and Pomponius Bassus, but these are 3rd century and not demonstrably Christian either.
Cuius corpus noctu collegit beata Lucina et sepelivit in crypta iuxta cymiterium Calesti, via Appia, in praedio suo.
("Blessed Lucina collected his body by night and entombed it in a crypt next to the cemetery of Callixtus, on the Via Appia, on her estate").
Zephyrinus and Callixtus Edit
The Christian catacombs seem to emerge into recorded history in the reign of Pope Zephyrinus (199-217). St Hippolytus, in his Philosophuma, made the throwaway comment that the pope had appointed the deacon Callixtus "over the cemetery". Callixtus became pope after Zephyrinus, and reigned from 218 to 230. St Hippolytus hated them both with a passion, and his writing is full of nasty remarks.
This particular statement has long been claimed as evidence that the Roman Church had a set of public catacombs by this date. However the assumption needs qualification, within the context of the ancient Roman social system of patronage. It is fairly clear that the Church in Rome at the start of the 3rd century was arranged into a set of congregations called tituli, the members of which were clients of a wealthy patron after whom the titulus might be named. More generally, funerary arrangements back then were an entirely private matter and wealthy patrons could provide for clients in their burial places. (See Ipogeo di Via Dino Compagni with its amazingly high-status cubicula, but containing a passage with loculi for favoured slaves, freedmen and other lower-class clients.) So, it is thought that the burial arrangements of the tituli were under the patronal responsibility of the patrons of the congregations.
What this means for the funerary establishment taken over by Callixtus is, that it was probably then the burial place for clients of the papacy such as servants of the papal household -and not for members of the Roman Church as a whole.
A further item to note is that the reference does not mention anything underground, and Pope Zephyrinus was actually buried in a surface grave (sub divo). The primitive cemetery might have been on the surface, perhaps including a hypogeum with a limited length of passages with loculi. This is what we actually find in the so-called "Area I (One)" of the "Region of St Cecilia", which contains the Crypt of the Popes (see below).
Pope St Callixtus himself was buried not here, but in the Catacomba di Calepodio. This has puzzled some people in the past, but the possible explanation might be easy -he had a patron who guaranteed his burial arrangements before he became pope, or even during his papacy (he was actually lower-class, as St Hippolytus spitefully made clear).
St Cecilia Edit
De Rossi, being a devout Catholic as well as a great architect, had some regard for the legends attached to the early martyrs of the Roman Church. Unfortunately, most of these were confected by (it is thought) monks of monasteries in charge of pilgrimage shrines in the early Middle Ages -and so are historically unreliable. This is the case with the legend attached to St Cecilia, which he used in his analysis of the remote origins of the catacombs here.
Interestingly, the old RM also avoids invoking the saint's legend. This story puts her very early, in the 2nd century, and so De Rossi was able to speculate that the papal part of the catacombs was established around her shrine. His discovery of some epigraphs relating to the Gens Caecilia seemed to support this (the saint's name simply indicates that she belonged to this gens), and so he went on to place her tomb in this primitive nucleus. You will see her statue on your visit.
Unfortunately, De Rossi's line of argument is wishful thinking. Some scholars have argued that St Cecilia never existed and was a romantic fiction, but the Roman Church has not accepted this. What can certainly be doubted is whether she was ever in the cubiculum now pointed out as her tomb.
Region of St Cecilia, Area One Edit
De Rossi was on firmer ground when he laid out the plan of the primitive nucleus, dating to slightly later than the Crypt of Lucina.
He traced an ancient roadway linking the Via Appia and the Via Ardeatina, and next to this was a rectangular plot with a long side fronting the road. One set of stairs ran down to a passage with loculi closely paralleling the road above, and another set further south accessed a parallel passage. These passages are called A and B. A connecting passage, C, links their ends and defined a short side of the rectangle. Six cross-passages, D to I, connect A and B. In between the two sets of stairs was a double cubicle, now the "Crypt of the Popes" and the "Tomb of St Cecilia", and A has a further series of chambers, the "Cubicula of the Sacraments", under the roadway.
This was the funerary establishment that became the burial place for a series of popes in the 3rd century, and is basically what you are shown on the guided tour.
A small set of passages, labelled T, U, V, Y and Z, amounted to an extension to the south beyond B to link up with an arenarium or disused pozzolana quarry labelled X. De Rossi romantically imagined this to be an emergency escape route for Christians trapped in the catacombs by persecutors but, in reality, abandoned underground quarries were routinely incorporated into catacombs because of the obvious convenience of doing so.
A triconch (three-apsed) mausoleum of (perhaps) the late 3rd century was also erected with its frontage actually on the old access road. This building has never been a ruin, but its conversion to a farmhouse destroyed most of the interior archaeology and its function in the later pilgrimage complex is unknown. It has been called the Basilica dei Santi Cecilia e Sisto. and also the burial place of SS Tarcisius and Zephyrinus -this latter is a complete guess.
Crypt of the Popes Edit
If one refrains from using St Cecilia as a historical source, then the "Crypt of the Popes" in "Area One" of her region emerges into history in 236 when Pope St Antherus was interred. Pope St Pontian was buried here in the same year, after being martyred in Sardinia. However, he might not have been the first pope -his predecessor Pope St Urban I (223-30) might have been interred here as well (see below).
After Anterus and Pontian, a series of seven popes were also buried here. The crypt (actually a cubiculum) was provided with four niches for sarcophagi and twelve large loculi (six on each side), so could accommodate sixteen. We know that other bishops besides popes were in these, because the Liber Pontificalis recorded that Pope Sixtus III (432-440) had made a list of the bishops buried in the catacombs which was transcribed in the early Middle Ages. De Rossi edited it as follows:
Sixtus; Cornelius; Pontianus; Fabianus; Eusebius; Dionisius; Felix; Eutichianus; Caius; Miltiades; Stephanus; Lucius; Anteros; Laudiceus; Policarpus; Urbanus; Manno; Numidianus; Iulianus; Optatus.
There were nine popes in the crypt -SS Pontian, Antherus, Fabian, Lucius I, Stephen I, Xystus II, Dionysius, Felix I and Eutychian. Laodiceus, Polycarp, Manno, Numidian, Julian and Optatus were not popes. Urban is a problem. This makes a total of sixteen.
The twelve loculi were provided with very minimalist marble slab closures, simply bearing the epitaph "So-and-so, bishop" in Greek with two of the popes (Pontian and Felix) described as "bishop and martyr". People can be surprised to be reminded that Greek was the worshipping language of the Roman Church until the start of the 4th century.
Pope St Urban? Edit
Pope St Urban I (223-30) has an entry in the revised RM for 19 May:
"In the cemetery of Callixtus on the Appian Way, Pope St Urban I who, after the martyrdom of St Callixtus, faithfully ruled the Roman Church for eight years".
This entry conceals an impossible problem of identity concerning a St Urban venerated at the nearby Catacomba di Pretestato. The Itinerarium Salisburgensis lists him as a "bishop and confessor" (not a martyr) in his own shrine there in the Spelunca magna, while the Notitia Portarum lists him as a martyr -and the biography of Pope Adrian I lists him as a pope.
However, a fragment of the Greek epitaph of an Urban was found in the "Crypt of the Popes" at the Catacombe di San Callisto when it was first excavated by De Rossi. The RM has followed this evidence to put the burial of the pope in the Crypt, which would presumably make the Pretestato Urban a separate person. The question impinges on the identity of the patron saint of Sant'Urbano alla Caffarella down the road.
There is a hint in the list just quoted that the Urban in Callisto was regarded as a bishop from elsewhere. Urban is mentioned not with the popes, but in with the group of non-papal names.
Popes in the crypt Edit
The following nine popes are known to have been buried in the crypt. They are all saints, and were all listed as martyrs until the 2001 revision of the Roman Martyrology (RM).
- Pontian (230-235). Epitaph survives. He was actually martyred in Sardinia and his body brought back to Rome, so was interred here after his successor.
- Antherus (235-6). Epitaph survives. He was the first pope certainly buried in the crypt. He is no longer listed in the RM as a martyr.
- Fabian (236-50). Epitaph survives. His successor, Pope St Cornelius, was not buried here.
- Lucius I (253-4). Epitaph survives. It is a fair historical certainty that he was not a martyr, and is not now so listed in the RM.
- Stephen I (254-7). No epitaph. The story of his martyrdom is fictional, and has been deleted from the RM. There is a rival historical claim for his burial in the Catacomba di Aproniano.
- Sixtus II (257-8). No original epitaph, but graffiti attest to his presence here. He had been martyred with his seven deacons when the emperor Valerian ordered, in effect, the liquidation of the Roman Church's board of directors. St Lawrence was the last to be killed, and SS Felicissimus and Agapitus were apparently killed at the Catacomba di Pretestato. The pope and the other four deacons were summarily killed by soldiers during a liturgical event at the Catacombe di Callisto. This has often been described as the pope celebrating Mass underground, but the celebration was most likely a refrigerium. Early mediaeval pilgrims could visit a little church (ecclesia parva) on the spot above ground where he and his deacons were beheaded. The old RM named the latter as Januarius, Vincent, Magnus and Stephen but these names have been deleted as unhistorical. Very oddly, they had no shrine in the catacombs.
- Dionysius (259-68). No epitaph. He is no longer listed as a martyr in the RM.
- Felix I (269-74). No epitaph. He is no longer listed as a martyr in the RM.
- Eutychian (275-83). Epitaph survives. He is no longer listed as a martyr in the RM.
Others in the crypt Edit
The five other bishops buried here (or six, if Urban is included) are obscure. Laodiceus and Manno seem to have nothing about them recorded. Numidian and Optatus were later claimed to have been visiting African bishops who died while on a visit to Rome. Optatus only, with Julian and Polycarp, were listed as martyrs visitable by pilgrims in the early mediaeval Notitiae Portarum.
The African connection seems to be an old guess based on the names.
Pope St Cornelius Edit
As mentioned, Pope St Cornelius (251-3) was not buried in the "Crypt of the Popes", but in the "Crypt of Lucina" which was then still privately owned. He had been martyred in Civitavecchia and his body brought back to Rome, so it seems that his burial was an act of private patronage by Lucina. Interestingly, his famous epitaph is in Latin not Greek and mentions his martyrdom -Cornelius martyr ep[iscopus]. This supports the surmise that his burial was not undertaken by the papal curia of the time.
Also interestingly, he was not provided with a cubiculum but with an arcosolium which was less prestigious.
Popes elsewhere Edit
Presumably because the "Crypt of the Popes" was full, after Pope Eutychian three further popes were buried elsewhere in the catacombs:
None of these was a martyr although they were venerated as such in the early Middle Ages. The locations of their shrines in the catacombs were identified by De Rossi, by means of epigraphs for the first two. The location of the shrine of Pope St Miltiades is, however, a guess.
The total number of known popes in this funerary complex is hence fourteen, with Urban being a possible fifteenth. You might also find Pope St Anicetus and Pope St Soter listed as buried here, but this is false.
St Tarcisius Edit
The martyr St Tarcisius was enshrined in the same surface mausoleum as Pope St Zephyrinus. The Epitome of the early mediaeval pilgrimage itineraries reads: Ibi s. Tarcisius et s. Zephyrinus in uno tumulo iacet. The location of this mausoleum is unknown, and it is pointless trying to guess whether he was in one of the two extant triconch mausolea in the catacomb grounds.
The revised RM lists him on 15 August, and reads: "The commemoration of St Tarcisius the martyr. He defended the holy sacrament of Christ's Eucharist, which a wild crowd of unbelievers wished to profane. He preferred to be stoned to death rather than give holy things over to dogs". AD 257.
This story of a Eucharistic minster being lynched while taking Communion to the sick is regarded as genuine. This is because it does not conform to the rather limited set of tropes to be found in fictitious martyrs' legends. Also, Pope St Damasus left an epigraphic poem:
Par meritum, quicumque legis, cognosce duorum, quis. Damasus rector titulos post praemia reddit. Iudaicus populus Stephanum, meliora monentem, perculerat saxis. Tulerat qui ex hoste tropaeum, martyrium primus rapuit levita fidelis. Tarsicium, sanctum Christi sacramentum gerentem, cum male sana manus peteret vulgare profanis, ipse animam potius volvit dimittere caesus prodere quam canibus rabidis coelestia membra.
("You the reader, whoever you are, understand the equal merit of the two. Damasus the rector provided [this] memorial after [their] reward. The Jewish people had knocked Stephen down with stones when he instructed them in better things. He had taken the trophy from the enemy, the faithful deacon [lit. Levite] was the first who grabbed martyrdom. When an insane gang pressed Tarcisius to reveal to the impious the holy sacrament of Christ that he was carrying, he being slain preferred to give up his soul rather than give the heavenly items over to rabid dogs.")
SS Parthenius and Calogerus Edit
The revised RM has an entry for the 19 May which puts these two martyrs in the reign of the emperor Diocletian. Their legend puts them in the mid 3rd century and is valueless, containing demonstrable anachronisms.
De Rossi identified their shrine cubiculum by means of a pilgrim graffito scratched by its entrance.
St Soteris Edit
The revised RM has this for 11 February: "At Rome in the cemetery named after her on the Via Appia, St Soteris, a virgin and martyr who, as St Ambrose (a relative of hers) relates, put her faith before the nobility and honours of her parents. She neither yielded to the order to offer pagan sacrifice, nor turned her face from the blows inflicted by contemptible slaves nor was terrified by her being condemned to being killed by the sword". AD 304.
It is clear that her shrine was important in pilgrimage times, and that it was over a section of the catacombs which was begun independently. Very unfortunately, it is completely uncertain as to where this was. A guess is that it is to the north of the main layout, and joins onto the Catacomba di Basileo further to the north under the monastery of San Tarcisio.
Serious confusion has arisen over the centuries between her and Pope St Soter.
Greek martyrs Edit
The old (pre-2001) RM had this entry for 2 December: "At Rome, the holy martyrs Eusebius the priest, Marcellus the deacon, Hippolytus, Maximus, Adria, Paulina, Neon, Mary, Martana and Aurelia, who fulfilled martyrdom under the judge Secundian in the persecution of Valerian." (Mid 3rd century.)
These are the so-called "Greek martyrs", whom Pope Damasus referred to in an epigraph that he wrote describing the catacomb's saints (Hic confessores sancti quos Grecia misit). The location of their shrine is unknown -the only clue is in the early mediaeval Notitia portarum, which puts it near (non longe) that of St Soteris.
The latter source gives another and differing list: Hippolytus, Adrianus, Eusebius, Maria, Martha, Paulina, Valeria and Marcellus.
The unreliable legend describes how Hippolytus the Monk buried the others in an arenarium or underground quarry at the third milestone of the Via Appia, and then was put there himself.
These martyrs were deleted from the RM in the 2001 revision, owing to the uncertainty over their identity. Especially, this Hippolytus was historically confused with St Hippolytus the Roman patristic writer, who was buried in the Catacomba di Sant'Ippolito but who has been mistakenly placed in the catacombs here as a result.
Four of these martyrs, Hippolytus, Adria, Neon and Martana, are now enshrined at Sant'Agata dei Goti.
The catacombs were massively expanded in the 4th century, and were in use as a funerary complex until the later 5th century when burials tailed off.
The primitive nuclei just described became part of the second level overall. A shallower, first level was excavated and also three deeper levels (two of which are not very extensive). Thus, a total of five levels exist -which have not yet been completely mapped. The total length of passageways is about twenty kilometres, the number of burials very approximately half a million and the number of cubiculi or burial chambers is quoted as 235 (this figure is out of date and must be too low).
It has proved difficult to ascertain which of the distinct areas developed independently, and which were extensions of already existing zones. The first two Areas listed are of the Region of St Cecilia.
- Area II, of Pope St Miltiades. This extension of "Area I" in the direction of the Crypt of Lucina contains important shrines and links up the two primitive nuclei. The southern portion, next to "Area I", has its passages aligned with those of this Area (roughly east to west), but the northern portion aligns with the boundaries of the Crypt of Lucina and the Via Appia (roughly south-east to north-west). This angle influenced the layout of the entire catacomb complex, which developed in a fan shape from it. The fan has two major axes, one running west and the other roughly following the line of the Via Appia.
- Area III, of Pope St Caius. This was the extension of "Area II" to the north, not quite parallel with "Area I". It also contains important shrines. The axis of the layout of the passages is slightly angled to the north-west in comparison with "Area I", which might be a hint at an independent origin.
- The Labyrinth. This is a rather irregular set of passages with loculi on two levels, with very few cubiculi. It fits in between the Crypt of Lucina, Area II and the Via Appia in the south-east corner of the overall complex.
- Arenarium of Hippolytus. This is another abandoned quarry, just to the north-west of the Crypt of Lucina and adjacent to the Via Appia. It would only have been taken over for catacomb purposes after the proprietors of the pagan mausolea here gave up their interests or were bought out. The name derives from the legend of the Greek Martyrs (see above).
- Western Region. This runs west of "Area I" and "Area III" of the Region of St Cecilia, and was thought by De Rossi to be the Catacomb of St Soteris. This was a mere guess, but there is good evidence that the region was independently developed. Firstly, the axis follows that of "Area III", not "Area I". Secondly, there are architectonic peculiarities -notably the presence of round cubicula as well as very many of the usual rectangular ones. Thirdly, a second triconch mausoleum is extant over this region which is known to have been a shrine. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing to which saint it belonged.
- Region of Pope Liberius. This extensive region runs north-west of "Area II" of the Region of St Cecilia, roughly parallel with the Via Appia. However, the passages do not approach the road and this must have been in order to respect the property rights of mausoleum owners. The region is named after Pope Liberius (352-66), because epigraphs found in it date to his reign. There is a limited set of passage connections with an obviously independent set of catacombs under the monastery of San Tarcisio, which is tentatively identified with the Catacomba di Basileo. These latter catacombs are on a completely different alignment.
Pope St Damasus Edit
Pope St Damasus (366-84) succeeded Pope Liberius, and is credited with the systematic and massive propagation of the veneration of the catacomb martyrs. He remodelled and embellished their tombs in several sets of catacombs to make them into shrines, cut new staircases and passages to facilitate access by pilgrims and also composed poetic epitaphs which he had carved on marble slabs to be affixed to the shrines.
In the Crypt of the Popes Edit
Here, he ordered the digging of a new staircase to the Crypt of the Popes, which is basically the extant entrance staircase used when you enter the catacombs on the tour. The Crypt itself he embellished with a pair of spirally fluted marble Corinthian columns supporting (it is thought) an architrave. He also reconstructed the tomb of Pope St Xystus II as a focal shrine, and provided two epitaphs -one for him, and one for the catacomb martyrs in general. They were:
Tempore quo gladius secuit pia viscera Matris, hic positus rector coelestia iussa docebam, adveniunt subito rapiunt qui forte sedentem, militibus missis. Populi tunc colla dedere mox sibi. Cognovit senior quis tollere vellet palmam, seque suumque caput prior optulit, ipse impatiens feritas posset ne laedere quenquam. Ostendit Christus reddit qui praemia vitae pastoris meritum numerum gregis ipse tuetur.
("At the time when a sword cut the viscera of Mother [Church], I the Rector (the one buried here) was teaching the heavenly commandments. Suddenly soldiers, who had been sent, arrived and seized me from where I happened to be sitting. Then, at once, the people offered their necks [to the sword] for him. The senior knew they wanted to take the palm [of martyrdom from him], and he presented himself and his own head first, being unwilling that savagery be able to harm anyone [else]. Christ, who grants the rewards o flife, showed the merit of the pastor and kept the number of the flock [safe].")
Hic congesta iacet, quaeris si turba piorum corpora sanctorum, retinent veneranda sepulchra. Sublimes animas rapuit regia caeli. Hic comites Xysti portant, qui ex hoste tropaea; hic numerus procerum servat qui altaria Christi; hic positus longa vixit qui in pace sacerdos; hic confessores sancti quos Graecia misit; hic iuvenes puerique senes castique nepotes quis mage virgineum placuit retinere pudorem. Hic fateor Damasus, volvi mea condere membra, sed cineres timui sanctos vexare piorum.
If you seek a crowd of holy bodies, here a collection [of them] lies. The venerable tombs retain [them], the kingdom of heaven snatched [their] sublime souls. Here [are] the companions of Xystus who carried the trophies from the enemy; here a number of nobles who served the altars of Christ; here is placed the priest who lived a long time in peace; here the holy confessors whom Greece sent; here the youths and boys and elders and holy descendants who all the more delighted in virginal modesty. Here Damasus admits to wanting to bury his dead body, but I feared to vex the holy remains of the pious".)
De Rossi and the 19th century archaeologists assumed that the result of the pope's remodelling was an underground church with an altar and a priest's throne, but Mass was not celebrated below ground in the working catacombs. This error arose from assuming that familiar liturgical practices in the later Middle Ages also pertained in the earlier Church.
The pope refrained from providing himself with a tomb anywhere near the Crypt, as he mentioned above, but founded his own funerary basilica as part of the complex. See Basilica di San Damaso Papa.
At the Shrine of Cornelius Edit
Pope Damasus also embellished and composed an epitaph for the shrine of Pope St Cornelius, and improved access for pilgrims. This might have been the stage when the previously private zone of Lucina became fully part of the wider complex. The epitaph read:
Aspice decensu extructo tenebrisque fugatis. Corneli monumenta vides tumulusque sacratum. Hoc opus aegroti Damasi praestantia fecit, esset ut accessus melior populisque paratum auxilium sancti et valeas si fundere puro corde preces. Damasus melior consurgere posset quem non lucis amor tenuit mox cura laboris.
("Look, the way down has been constructed and the darkness has fled. You see the monument of Cornelius and his sacred tomb. This work the pre-eminence of the sick Damasus accomplished, ")
Mediaeval pilgrimage destination Edit
Serious archaeological study of the catacombs is judged to have begun with the work of the Jesuit Giuseppe Marchi (1795-1860) who published the first volume of his Monumenti in 1844. His young disciple Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894) was to become much more famous as the alleged "discoverer" of the Catacombe di San Callisto. Although the guides showing pilgrims around San Sebastiano fuori le Mura had been pretending for centuries that the catacombs there were those of San Callisto, scholars had known where the latter were for some time. De Rossi sexed-up his own account of his work here with bene trovato details, but it makes a very good story.
In 1849, at a cottage in a vineyard north of San Sebastiano, he discovered that one of the steps in a stone staircase has an inscription: ...NELIUS MART. Knowing that the martyr Pope St Cornelius had been interred in the catacomb of San Callisto, he searched the area and found an open ventilation shaft allowing underground access. There, he stumbled across a part of the same inscription, saying COR.... Wisely, he immediately tipped off Pope Pius IX who purchased the vineyard and allowed De Rossi complete freedom to excavate. The latter found the wrecked cubiculum where nine popes had been interred in the 3rd century, and soon after was able to bring the pope himself to view what were to be known as the Chapel of the Popes and the Chapel of St Cecilia. The Holy Father was so moved by his visit to the burial place of so many of his saintly predecessors that he fell to his knees and wept.
Modern pilgrimage destination Edit
In 1883, after De Rossi had restored and tidied-up these two "Chapels", Pope Pius IX chose the Trappist Cistercian monastic order to administer the catacombs as a pilgrimage destination. The reason seems to have been because the nearby San Sebastiano fuori le Mura had itself been a Cistercian monastery until the start of the 19th century.
As a result a new monastery was built and opened in 1883, the community coming from Mont des Cats in France.
However the monks were only here until, 1928 when the monastery closed down. After a pause, the Salesians acquired the premises in 1931 and took on the administration of the catacombs. Initially the former monastery was run as an agricultural school, but when that became rather pointless with the advent of suburbia it was made into a noviciate. This it remains, as the Istituto San Tarcisio. The modern entrance to the Catacomba di Basileo is adjacent to the main buildings.
From then, San Callisto became the premier catacomb to visit for pilgrims and tourists, a status it has maintained to the present day.
At ground level Edit
The two chapels were originally tricora, mausolea from the 3rd century.
In the eastern one, a multiple burial was found in the floor It contains the bodies of, among others, Pope Zephyrinus and St Tarsicius.
The western one was probably the gardener's house where the de Rossi found a fragment from the tomb of Pope St Cornelius. It is filled with fragments of sarcophagi found in the area. In 1994, de Rossi's tomb was transferred here in honour of his great discovery.
Chapel of the PopesEdit
This chapel is one of the first rooms after the entrance. In the 3rd century, nine popes were interred here. Among them was Pope St Sixtus II, who was martyred here in 258. He was followed here, and while reading Mass he was apprehended and executed together with several Deacons.
The inscribed slab on the tomb of Pope St Cornelius (251-252) was placed here by Pope St Damasus I (366-384). During excavations, fragments of it was found, and the missing pieces have been reconstructed from manuscripts quoting the verse. The Byzantine paintings depict Pope St Cornelius and his close friend St Cyprian of Carthage.
The following crypts form part of the chapel.
Crypts of LucinaEdit
Named after the Roman matron who originally owned the catacombs and allowed Christians to bury their dead here, these crypts contain early paintings.
Crypt of St CeciliaEdit
St Cecilia was originally interred here. In 821, Pope Paschal I collected the mortal remains of martyrs and early Christians from the catacombs to protect them from raiders. He searched for her relics, but they could not be found. But in a dream, he was told where they were, and subsequently discovered her incorrupt body in this chapel. They were then moved to Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.
Crypt of St EusebiusEdit
Named after Pope St Eusebius (309), this crypt has an inscription by Pope St Cornelius that is of interest to Church historians. It mentions the question of the lapsi, those who has denied their faith rather than die as martyrs. At Cornelius' time, one of the important debates in the Church was how they should be treated if they wished to return to the Church. Pope St Caius (283-296) was buried here, as were the martyrs Sts Calocerus and Parthenius, who probably died in the persecution of Diocletian.
Cubicula of the SacramentsEdit
On the walls of this room are paintings of Baptism and the Eucharistic Meal. They are from the early 3rd century, and are among the earliest known Christian paintings.
Crypt of MiltiadesEdit
The crypt was dug in the 4th century, and dedicated to Pope St Miltiades (also known as Melchiades).
Guided tours Edit
YOU CAN ONLY VISIT BY FOLLOWING A GUIDED TOUR, AND THE ITINERARY OF THIS IS NOT NEGOTIABLE.
Older publications used to mention that you could negotiate a longer tour in quiet times, or ask to see a special feature not usually on a tour. This no longer happens. The rules are set by the Vatican, not the custodians. Please don't raise noisy objections if disappointed, because the staff have no time for explanations and you will be ejected by security personnel.
The tours are in the main languages: English, Italian, French, Spanish and German seem to be readily available. Portuguese, Romanian and Polish speakers are probably better off phoning beforehand. The website is coy about the languages available, which hints at difficulties over guide availability.
The insistence on your following a guided tour is because of worries about safety and vandalism. The Vatican has had centuries of experience of catacomb visitors stealing things (including human remains) and damaging frescoes. Also the catacombs are attractive to certain disturbed individuals who wish to commit suicide or find the Holy Grail in them, and an unconfirmed rumour is that there's a sniffer dog on the staff payroll to track intruders down. So, part of the guide's job is to count you in and count you out.
The website advises that tours are "thirty to forty minutes". This hints at a noisome but understandable practice, whereby management switch to a shorter "bijou tour" in busy periods.
Another change from years past is that explanations about the history, makeup and functioning of the catacombs come as a little lecture above ground before the descent. This is in order to shorten the time underground, and the guides won't stop for further explanations down there.
The catacombs can become so busy that tours are run on a continuous-conveyor basis. This means that guides can be speaking to groups within earshot of each other, which makes things difficult for people with hearing problems. Also, some of the guides have been repeating the same spiel for hundreds or even thousands of times and so have become rather mechanical.
NO PHOTOS OR VIDEOS ALLOWED! They are strict about this.
Opening times Edit
The catacombs are open to visitors from 9:00 to 12:00, and 14:00 to 17:00.
They are closed on Wednesdays, and on Christmas Day, New Year's Day and Easter Day.
There is an extended closure at the beginning of the year, which in 2018 is advertised as from 25 January to 21 February.
Note that the closing times given are not the last guided tours. So if you turn up too near a closing time then you will be disappointed, as 12:00 and 17:00 are chuck-out-and-lock-up. It is better not to arrive after 11:15 or 16:15. If too many people are waiting then, you may be disappointed even so.
This is one of the catacombs where you can just turn up and buy a ticket. The prices and conditions are set by the Holy See, so there's no point haggling with the custodians. Larger groups (more than thirty) are advised to contact the custodians beforehand, so as to avoid a lengthy wait.
The standard ticket is eight euros (2017).
A discounted ticket of five euros is available for those aged between seven and fifteen, older school pupils if part of a school group (with documentation from the school) and members of the armed and police forces in Italy.
THERE IS NO DISCOUNT FOR INDIVIDUAL STUDENTS OR FOR OLD PEOPLE.
Free entry is available for children under seven, and also for the disabled with their helpers -one helper per person. Also, the leader of a certified school group (not less than fifteen) and the leader and the vehicle driver of a group paying full price are allowed in for free.
THERE IS NO FREE ENTRY FOR PRIESTS AND RELIGIOUS, EXCEPT FOR THE SALESIAN ORDER.
You can pay by cash or credit card at the catacombs, or online in advance at the catacombs' website (see link below). If you become tired of waiting for a tour after buying a ticket, please don't ask for a refund because you won't get one.
You are not expected to tip the guide.
The edibles and drinkables on sale here are "premium priced". The nearest bar in the real world is close by the Fosse Ardeatine entrance, where parking is possible (Via Ardeatina 300). You can buy bus tickets as well as cold beer and expressos here -and not have to queue for the toilet.
Getting here Edit
The catacombs have four entrances. The main one is on the Via Appia Antica, number 110. A subsidiary gate is at Fosse Ardeatine on the Via Ardeatina, and this one is worth bearing in mind (you can visit the site of a World War II massacre here, too). The vehicular gate is at Via Appia Antica 78, opposite the church of Domine Quo Vadis. Finally, the vehicle driveway continues past the catacombs to the church and catacombs of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura (this section is not open to vehicles, only to pedestrians).
Even if you are not visiting the catacombs, the driveway from Domine Quo Vadis to San Sebastiano is worth remembering. It bypasses a very narrow and dangerous section of the Via Appia Antica, so use it if you are walking this road. It only becomes a romantic and quiet ancient highway beyond San Sebastiano.
The complex has a large private car and coach park, which immediately explains its dominance as the most visited set of Roman catacombs. The vehicular access is down the long driveway from th gate opposite Domine Quo Vadis.
Be aware that this gate is on the junction between the Via Appia Antica and the Via Ardeatina, where four lanes of main road combine into two. Negotiating it can be interesting, especially in the morning rush hour -there are no traffic lights. The gateway is very narrow so coach drivers need to take care of their mirrors, and emerging from the gate into the junction must be done very slowly because of heavy traffic passing blind on the left.
It is possible to park a car on the other side of the road at the Fosse Ardeatine entrance, and if you have your own car then this is often the best option (assuming that a space is free, of course).
If you are visiting privately and don't want to pay for a taxi, you have to take a bus. There are two possibilites:
- 118 from Piazza Venezia. This drops you outside the Via Appia Antica entrance, which is fine. However, getting back to the city is not. You have to walk some distance to the stop after turning left out of the gate, and this is along a very narrow and busy road without any pavements (sidewalks). The bus stop has no waiting area away from the road, and you are backed against a wall with the traffic passing about two feet in front of you. This is awesomely horrible, especially in summer.
- 218 from Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, to Fosse Ardeatine. This is the better option for getting back.
Visitors might need to be reminded that tickets are bought in advance for Roman buses, usually in places where you can buy newspapers. You are paying for time on any bus, not for a particular journey, but you do need to stamp the ticket yourself when you get on the bus otherwise you will be fined very heavily.
The city bus company's online search engine for routes and times is here.
There is no church, hence no schedule of public Masses.
The website of the catacombs advises that pilgrim groups have to book a slot in advance to celebrate Mass here, and that they have to have their own priests. There is no resident priest here to celebrate Masses for groups.
The times available are 9:00 to 11:00 and 14:00 to 15:30, in thirty-minute slots. So, Mass must be celebrated within half an hour. Booking must include the number of participants, the language to be used and the date and time wished for.
The catacombs will provide the necessary vessels, cloths and elements for celebration, texts in Latin, Italian, English, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish or Polish and also vestments for three priests. Bring your own albs. Priests are expected to be properly vested (this requirement is not on the English language version of the website, but is on the original Italian one).
The website does not mention facilities for the Extraordinary Form, but presumably these exist.