The catacombs are the underground cemetery complexes used by ancient Romans from the 1st to the 7th centuries. The majority, but not all, are Christian. Pictures of the catacombs on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
For a summary of ancient Roman funerary practices, see here.
Rome first developed as a city under the suzerainty of the Etruscan civilisation, which practiced inhumation of its dead. Perhaps partly as a cultural reaction, ancient Romans of any status took to the practise of cremation, and this was standard by the middle period of the Roman Republic. The ashes were installed in special mausoleums outside the city called columbaria. Old Roman law forbade the burial of human remains inside the sacred enclosure of the city, the so-called pomerium (this was motivated by religious concerns, not hygienic ones, and linked back to primitive anxieties concerning the localized presence of the spirits of the dead). Hence, the main roads leading from the city were lined with mausolea -the famous example always quoted is the Appian Way.
Cremation was unacceptable to early Christians, as well as to Jews, because of faith in the resurrection of the body. However, burial in surface cemeteries was problematic because of the cost of the land required. A cheaper type of cemetery was needed and an underground chamber, cut into the soft tufa or tuff stone, was a practical solution - expansion was only a matter of digging deeper or further away from the entrance, not of buying more land. Hence, the invention of the catacomb. The ancient city was already familiar with the idea of an underground quarry for building materials, and much of the underlying geology consisted of the tufa which is soft enough to cut easily, yet hard enough to allow passages without shoring.
The first small catacombs began towards the end of the 1st century. By their nature these were communal enterprises, but not initially defined by religious concerns. The evidence suggests various types of sponsorship. A wealthy family could create a private catacomb, and open it to their clients (easy to arrange in the patronage system of ancient Roman society). Or various interest groups, such as those with shared professions or crafts, could band together to create funerary clubs -these could be set up by the regulars in a neighbourhood bath-house, or the slaves in a very large household. Or an enterprise might be purely commercial (although the guides in the catacombs now open to the public seem not to like the idea of the catacomb as a business!).
These early catacombs seem to have contained deceased people from a mix of religions. The Christians seem to have got the idea of a Christian-only cemetery from the Jews. Six Jewish catacombs are known, beginning in the 1st century. Pagans also appreciated the cheapness of the burial method compared to cremation, and most of the earliest Roman catacombs appear to have been pagan in origin.
It has been claimed that if you visit one set of catacombs, you have seen them all. There is some truth in this, because the makeup is fairly standard. Depending on the geology, there might be several levels consisting of labyrinths of passages, one above the other (the Catacombe di San Callisto had five). Because of the weakness of the stone the standard passage was kept narrow, about 2.5 metres high by a little over one metre wide. The total length of passageways or galleries can be very impressive. Some catacombs have been surveyed at over ten kilometres, and San Callisto is now thought to have over twenty.
The galleries were lined by horizontal niches cut out of the living rock, which are called loculi (in the singular, loculus), which means "little places". The standard adult size was between 120 and 150 centimetres long, and 40 to 60 centimetres high. Depth could vary. For obvious reasons each loculus was opened for a single body, but multiple burials (usually two, sometimes more) are known and these might be the result of epidemics or accidents. Alternatively a poor family might re-open a loculus containing a body already, in order to save the cost of a new one (hopefully not too close to the death of the incumbent).
It is known that, when a new gallery was opened, the loculi were cut in its sides from top to bottom. When an internment was made, the usual practice was to close the cavity by cementing tiles or stone slabs across it. Sometimes epitaphs were provided, the more expensive ones in marble, and the surrounding wall could be frescoed. Little objects such as bits of glass drinking vessel, coins or statuettes have been found pressed into the cement of the blocking of loculi, and these seem to be identifying markers for those too poor to afford epigraphs or paintwork. However the bases of 4th century beakers in gold glass with iconic representations have also been found, and these were very high-status items.
Little glass perfume bottles have been found both inside loculi and in the sealing mortar, some containing a red deposit traditionally regarded as the blood of a martyr. Analysis has shown this substance to be an aromatic resin, amounting perhaps to a primitive air-freshener which would have been sorely needed. A sealed loculus underground would have meant no worms or maggots, hence the bodies would have been consumed by bacteria only -and the stink would have been awesome.
As well as galleries, a typical catacomb would also have arcosolia which was a larger niche containing a stone sarcophagus (solium in Latin) for wealthier people. This sarcophagus could be intricately carved in marble, and many examples survive in the museums. Also, arcosolia could be gathered together to open off a single room called a cubiculum (meaning "bedroom"), and these chambers are the ones which have the most interesting frescoes. Each cubiculum was usually sponsored by a special interest group of the sort mentioned above - a family, trades guild or group of friends.
If the catacomb had more than one level, vertical shafts could be cut to provide ventilation and also a little light. This mattered if your lamp went out, three levels below, and also because the build-up of putrefaction gases could be lethal.
The mark of a catacomb is the gallery with loculi. If the underground tomb does not have these, but has chambers and arcosolia only, it is better called a hypogaeum. The resulting uncertainty, as to when a small catacomb is really a hypogaeum, is why there is no consensus as to the number of catacombs that have been discovered. Another problem is when several sets of catacombs are connected by linking passages -is the Complesso Callistiano one catacomb, or eight?
Times of persecution Edit
For a Wikipedia article on early Christian art, see here.
It used to be thought certain that the existence of exclusively Christian catacombs could be demonstrated from the 1st century. This view is no longer held, and the claimed evidence at the catacombs of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura and Santa Domitilla has been discredited. The Christians in Rome in this century have left no archaeological evidence of any kind, and the only documented witness to them (apart from the New Testament) is to the pogrom ordered by the emperor Nero in the year 64 and recorded by Tacitus.
In early historiographical analyses of the period during which the Church was persecuted in the Roman Empire, the various documentary references to persecution were collated to produce a history of " the ten persecutions". This analysis is over-formalized, and gives a mistaken impression of repeated attempts by the Roman government to extirpate Christianity throughout the Empire. The reality was that the Empire did not have the bureaucratic and policing resources to achieve such an aim, and only in the "tenth" persecution under the emperor Diocletian was a serious attempt made.
In the 1st century AD the Church in Rome was made up mostly of people with low or no status, apparently patronized by wealthy Greek-speaking families who supported worshipping congregations (the origins of the so-called tituli). The origins of the Christian catacombs seem to lie in the private underground hypogaea of these families.
In the 2nd century Romans of status were being attracted to the new religion, but its social standing generally was still very low. Emperors could issue edicts of persecution, but what mattered were the attitudes of local townsfolk and the immediate law-enforcers in the Empire in general, and the vulnerability of higher-status people to attracting hostile notice in the City itself. The hostility of the government and of the majority of the citizens meant that people who mattered who became Christians, especially soldiers and patricians as well as the clergy in charge, were liable to be martyred but that the bulk of the Christian "little people" would be unlucky if they found themselves the focus of deadly action. In other words, until the beginning of the 4th century Christianity was a disapproved religion liable to pogroms and to having its celebrities "cancelled", but not in any danger of extermination.
This shows up in the catacombs, which developed into overtly Christian places of burial towards the end of the 2nd century when the first definitely Christian wall-paintings appear. Examples occur in the Catacombe di San Callisto, Santa Domitilla and especially Santa Priscilla where the so-called Greek Chapel is of this period. The lack of distinctive Christian religious art before then is thought to be the result of a lack of economic resources rather than an ideological aversion to figurative depictions (as has been alleged).
The first important piece of documentary evidence as regards the catacombs dates to the reign of Pope Zephyrinus (199-217), who appointed a Christian banker called Callixtus to be in charge of the management of the Christian cemeteries. This was towards the end of a process whereby the Church in Rome evolved from a loose federation of Christian synagogues under the patronage of individual laypeople and families, into a centralized body under the charge of a bishop (the Pope) and his administrations (the deacons). This meant that the cemeteries mostly passed from private ownership into that of the Church (although not all did).
The first centrally administered catacomb area is traditionally regarded as being that of San Callisto, named after Callixtus its administrator who was to become pope himself as Callixtus I (218-33) and who buried his boss in a surface tomb here. This complex comprised several separate catacombs in his own lifetime, but was consolidated into one around the year 253, when Pope St Cornelius the martyr was enshrined here. It was to remain the premier Roman catacomb until the abandonment of the catacombs in general, and was used as a burial place for subsequent popes in the 3rd century.
The process of the evolution of the centralized administration of the catacombs was completed under Pope St Fabian (236-50), who organized the Church within the city walls into seven districts, each with a deacon supervising ecclesiastical activities including funerary ones. Each district was allotted a burial zone outside the walls, and modern scholars have tried to work out which catacombs belonged to which of the seven districts.
We can learn a lot about the early Church from the catacombs. While we have several texts from the Church Fathers and other early theologians, they say little about the religiosity of ordinary Christian people. But here, we can find inscriptions and paintings that explain some of their thoughts and bring some of their pious activities to light. This contrasts, for the 3rd century, with the complete lack of evidence for any Christian activity in the city itself, within its walls. Despite much effort, no archaeologist has found any 3rd century place of worship or evidence of cultic activity in the built-up area of ancient Rome, and this negative evidence is now thought to be significant. The city's Christians worshipped in private houses or in rented commercial meeting-halls, and confined their artworks to portable items.
Some very influential but entirely false romantic myths concerning catacombs have been propagated since the 17th century, under the influence of earlier fictional legends concerning the careers of martyrs:-
The catacombs were not hiding-places for Christians during the persecutions. Archaeologists have found no trace that anyone ever lived in them.
The catacombs were not secret locations, with entrances hidden away in quarries or sand-pits. They were official burial grounds, well known to the Roman authorities. A quarry was merely a convenient place to begin the excavation of a planned catacomb.
The Mass was not celebrated in the catacombs. Many of the cubicula have traditionally been called "chapels", but there is no evidence of cultic activity apart from funerary celebrations and commemorations.
The catacombs were not invaded by persecutors looking for Christians to martyr. In fact, there is no evidence that the persecutions affected them much at all. The ancient Romans in general respected the dead, and if the catacombs had been closed the dead bodies would still have had to be buried somewhere outside the city walls.
The catacombs were not filled with thousands of martyrs. The true number of Christians killed for their faith in Rome between AD 64 and 313 is unknown, but a total figure in the low thousands is a generous guess.
The burials in the catacombs were not systematically marked up, so as to indicate which of the deceased were martyred. This seriously delusive piece of wishful thinking resulted in the catacombs being looted for false relics of "martyrs". The little glass bottles containing aromatic resin, the chi-rho symbol, the depiction of a palm branch and the letter M on its own in an epigraph were all taken as "proof" that the deceased concerned was a martyr.
The catacombs were not run down as soon as persecution ceased, nor abandoned on the day that Rome was sacked in 410. See below.
After tolerance was granted to Christians by the emperor Constantine in 313, use of the catacombs increased massively. It is estimated that 80% of the galleries in the Christian catacombs were actually cut in the 4th and 5th centuries, and the majority of surviving catacomb artworks date from this time. There is an obvious improvement in quality and status, for example the use of the bases of gold-glass bowls for decorating tombs (a layer of gold leaf cut in a figurative design and sandwiched between two layers of glass -very expensive).
From the time of Constantine, "basilicas" were built above some of the public catacombs. These have traditionally been regarded as churches from their beginnings, but there is serious doubt as to whether this is correct. Especially, the enigmatic buildings called circiform basilicas seem to have been mortuary enclosures rather than churches, although nobody knows how they functioned. See San Sebastiano fuori le Mura for the most famous example, and Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura -Basilica Constantiniana for the best-preserved ruin.
Pope St Damasus (366-84) oversaw a major programme of restoration of the catacombs owned by the Church. This involved the embellishment of the tombs of known martyrs, for some of which the pope provided epitaphs composed by himself. Visitors to these shrines were better provided for, with new and commodious entrance stairways for example, and it seems that this pope was the one to start building or consecrating churches on site.
Established catacombs became more popular as places for burial as the cult of the martyrs developed, since people wished to be interred near the shrines of venerated martyrs in certain catacombs. This is obvious, for example, at Santa Domitilla where the wish to be close to the shrine of the martyrs Nereus and Achilleus led to galleries being excavated too close together to be safe.
The barbarian sacks of the city in the years 410 and 455 used to be regarded as destroying the city's civic life. This was another delusive romantic fantasy, as ancient Rome's public institutions functioned well into the 6th century. The process whereby a megalopolis of over a million people shrank to one containing a few tens of thousands is completely undocumented, but a major epidemic of bubonic plague in the early 6th century must have had something to do with it. The catacombs fell out of use as the value of suburban land collapsed, and the surviving population started using surface cemeteries within the walls as well as outside.
Part of the motivation was that the city lost access to large supplies of olive oil for lamps, as trade routes shrank or shut down.
The last dates internment in a catacomb is quoted as being at San Sebastiano in the year 508. However wall murals have been dated to the start of the 7th century, coinciding with the last known meeting of the Senate to inaugurate the Column of Phocas in the Forum in the year 608.
The cessation of burials did not mean that the catacombs were then abandoned. The shrines of the martyrs were maintained and kept in good repair for a further two centuries, and were regularly visited by pilgrims. in the 7th and 8th centuries so-called Itinerari or "Routes" were written as guides for these, detailing which catacomb shrines could be found along which roads and how to get to them. This information is so clear that the early archaeologists used it in pinpointing lost catacombs -although several mentioned are still untraced. The last campaign of restoration was under Pope Adrian I (772-95).
The legal government of Rome had been the imperial one at Constantinople up to the year 800, and the Roman citizens called it the Roman Empire. The name "Byzantine Empire" is a tendentious modern fabrication, deriving from mediaeval hatreds and the wish of the papacy from the 11th century to pretend that it had the governing authority since the time of Constantine. However the Empire was increasingly unable to maintain order in Italy, especially in the face of Lombard barbarians.
The crowning of Charlemagne as emperor in 800 as a result is the start of mediaeval Rome, and also marked the ending of the city's relationship with most of its suburban shrines. The countryside around Rome was overrun by marauders, who were very likely to loot the precious objects at these shrines of the martyrs in the catacombs. So in the 9th century it was no longer considered safe to keep the relics of martyrs in these shrines, or to visit them as pilgrims.So, a systematic campaign by the Church was undertaken to move the martyrs to churches within the city. Pope St Paschal I (817-824) was responsible for transferring a large number of relics to safety, and he even carried some of them himself as a pious act. See his church at Santa Prassede. The last straw was probably the Muslim Arab raid of 846, when St Peter's was looted.
The practice of sealing the relics of martyrs into or beneath altars in churches was introduced around this time, together with the architectural practice of building a shrine-crypt beneath a church's altar in imitation of a catacomb. Several old Roman churches have this feature. See San Marco for a perfectly preserved fake catacomb.
During the Middle Ages the Church only maintained five shrines outside the city walls -San Paolo fuori le Mura, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura, San Pancrazio and San Sebastiano fuori le Mura. Apart from the first, which was too near the river, all these had catacombs under them. However, only at the last church were the catacombs kept open all through the centuries -at least in part. St Sebastian continued to be venerated in his original shrine in the catacombs, but the other three extra-mural churches with catacombs abandoned them.
The term "catacomb" comes from the original name of the locality of San Sebastiano, which in Greek was Kata kymbas or "in the hollows". It is a mystery as to why this set of catacombs was the only one kept open, while the premier catacombs of San Callisto with their papal tombs were stripped and abandoned. You had to pass their site to get to San Sebastiano down the Appian Way, so security for pilgrims cannot have been the main consideration here.
It is not really true that the locations of the catacombs were completely forgotten in the Middle Ages, merely that nobody cared. The countryside around Rome became a completely treeless and over-grazed sheep-walk, and the locals (such as there were) would have had problems with animals wandering in through entrances and falling down the ventilation shafts. This seems to be the real reason why these were blocked up.
However, there is an interesting hint that people were still getting into the catacombs, in that the marble inlays in Cosmatesque church floors in the city contain what look like bits of re-cycled marble catacomb epigraph tablets.
Another real puzzle is as to why so many of the loculi were broken open. This has traditionally been blamed on barbarian raiders such as Goths or Lombards, but the work needed would have been substantial. Christians have never been buried with grave goods, so the only reward that they could have hoped for was the occasional piece of jewellery or a gold ring. There is a suspicion, traditionally never expressed in writing, that the locals were doing this as a pastime through the years, in order to recover marble sealing-tiles on the loculi and in the hope of an occasional ring -but primarily to use the human remains as fertilizer.
Interest in the catacombs started to re-awaken in the Renaissance. In 1462, a group led by Ranuccio Farnese and Abbot Ermete of Pisa explored the Catacombe di San Callisto. At about the same time Giuliano Pomponio Leto and his gay friends, posing as an ancient Roman academy, were also poking about and leaving inscriptions proving that their visits took place (it's a pity that they did not write about them). It seems that they were after Classical remains, and were not impressed with what they found.
While most other people had forgotten about the catacombs by the 16th century, scholars knew of them from manuscript sources. For example the Augustinian friar Onofrio Panvinio published his superb historical map of the city in 1565, showing forty-three catacombs mentioned in the sources available to him (he did not do any actual exploring). A little later, in 1578, part of the catacomb of Santa Priscilla collapsed under the Via Salaria. This single event marks the re-awakening of interest in the catacombs on the part of the citizens and the Church.
A Spanish Dominican friar called Alfonso Chacón was the first to publish copies of the newly-discovered artworks at Santa Priscilla. These inspired a young Flemish expatriate called Philips van Winghe (1560-92), who was the first to start a systematic exploration. He discovered many other catacombs, sketching what he found and beginning the production of a complete guide. Tragically, his early death prevented this and it was left to Antonio Bosio (1576-1629) to continue searching and to fix the location of several catacombs- he even left his name written in candle-smoke on some of the walls. His seminal work Roma Sotterranea was published after his death, in 1632.
Another early scholar who deserves more notice than he gets was Jean L'Hereaux (nicknamed Macarius), a Fleming who wrote his Hagioglypta on ancient Christian art around 1590. This counts as the first critical scholarly work on the subject, and it was tragic that publication was delayed until 1856.
Unfortunately, the newly-discovered catacombs were regarded as more important as sources of moveable objects than as monuments in their own right. They were hence looted of frescoes, epigraphs, coins, lamps, glassware and, stupidly, the alleged relics of "martyrs" for which loculi were simply smashed open without regard for their antiquity. The artworks and other items ended up in museums and private collections, mostly losing their provenance.
The demand for "relics of martyrs" was being fuelled from the 17th century by the expansion of the Roman Catholic church in the New World, and the building of new churches as the population expanded in Europe. The Papacy intervened to discourage any private trade in such relics, and employed corpisantari -these workmen both guarded the catacombs, and explored them for relics. This was meant to be under the supervision of a priest, who looked for one or more of a list of symbols thought (on no actual archaeological evidence) to indicate a martyr -a little glass bottle, the depiction of a palm branch or the letter "M", for example. The occupants of anonymous graves were given names arbitrarily, and several of these "catacomb martyrs" are to be found under Baroque altars in Rome's churches.
19th century Edit
Partly as a result of ongoing damage and continued private relic-hunting, in the early 19th century ordinary visitors were restricted again to San Sebastiano. Other catacombs were only visitable with a pass from the Cardinal Vicar, and under the supervision of one of the corpisantari. Northcote writing in 1859 describes how one could only visit on a Sunday or feast-day when the workmen were free, that you had to bring your own candles and that the workmen were ignorant and could not function as guides.
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.
In 1883, after De Rossi had restored and tidied-up these two "Chapels", the Catacombe di San Callisto were given into the care of a new Trappist Cistercian monastery, founded here from Mont des Cats in France. From then, San Callisto became the premier catacomb to visit for pilgrims and tourists, a status it has maintained to the present day.
Several other catacombs were cleaned up and made accessible to pilgrims towards the end of the century. The published number was seventeen in 1897, compared to five now. Also, it was possible to obtain permission "from any Cardinal or archbishop" to visit an accessible area which was not part of an ordinary pilgrim tour. This happy situation was not to last.
Modern times Edit
In 1929, the Lateran Treaty was signed. The Vatican City became an independent state, and the Christian catacombs of Rome were made Vatican property (although still part of the territory of Italy). It was stipulated that this included any discovered after 1929. Maintenance and further excavation is the responsibility of the Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra, the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology which had been founded in 1852 as a result of De Rossi's discoveries.
New discoveries continue to be made. Currently about sixty catacombs are known, about fifty of them Christian. But there are very likely to be more to come, especially since some listed in the Itineraries of the 8th century have not yet been traced. One problem in this respect is that they are most likely to be on private land, and the landowner might be reluctant to report his findings to the authorities should he stumble across one - the compensation for loss of facility in the annexation of a newly-discovered catacomb to the Vatican is quite low.
After 1929, the number of open catacombs steadily declined. Part of the reason was the damage being done to delicate frescoes by the pressure of visitors, but from the mid 20th century the lack of human resources available to the Church was also a factor. Several sets of catacombs also fell into disrepair owing to lack of maintenance.
At the start of the 21st century, the discipline of catacomb archaeology was described as being in some difficulty. The Pontificia Commissione is allegedly very reluctant to entertain new proposals for excavations or studies in the catacombs, and scholarly access to those catacombs closed to the public is with the stipulation that no photographic or media record may be taken during any visit.
On the other hand, the Commissione is right to defend the catacombs against a growing lunatic interest, sometimes masquerading as scholarship, concerning such matters as the alleged hiding-place of the Holy Grail.
Catacombs open to the publicEdit
List of visitable catacombs Edit
Most of the catacombs are closed to visitors. There are currently five open regularly to the public, where you can just turn up during the opening times and buy a ticket:
- Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura
- Catacombe di San Callisto
- Santa Domitilla
- Santa Priscilla
- San Sebastiano fuori le Mura
The Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra website gives a useful summary here. Note that the catacombs are not open every day. Closure occurs one day a week and one month in the year, varying between catacombs.
It was hoped at the start of a century that a sixth set of catacombs would also be opened in the same way:
This has not happened, and the details on the website here advise that a prior booking is needed to visit.
A seventh set of catacombs is open about once a month (2017), on the initiative of a local group of enthusiasts:
Finally, an eighth set is now open as part of a parochial scheme to raise money for local charities:
Which to visit? Edit
All the catacombs are worth visiting, but visitor pressure varies enormously between them. San Callisto is preferred by tourist groups, and can be impossible in summer. Also, if there is pressure of numbers the tour guides will shorten tours by missing out bits. This is profoundly irritating to serious visitors. San Sebastiano and San Domitilla can also be crowded, but the visitors are noticeably more pilgrim-like. Santa Priscilla is quiet, but needs a special trip out of the city centre to see it as there is nothing else of interest in the vicinity. Sant'Agnese is the quietest of all.
If you only have the time to visit a single set of catacombs, my own recommendation is Santa Priscilla for its extremely interesting frescoes, quiet ambience and a civilised pace to your tour. Also, Santi Pietro e Marcellino is excellent for its quantity of frescoes and because the need to pre-book filters out the mildly interested so keeping numbers low.
When to visit Edit
The Pontificia Commissione is responsible for all visiting arrangements, and has imposed almost uniform opening hours:
9:00 to 12:00, 14:00 to 17:00 (17:30 in summer). BUT Sant'Agnese opens in the afternoon 16:00 to 18:00 (according to the Vatican website -these times might be an hour earlier in the winter).
Each set of catacombs has a different weekly close-down day, and a yearly close-down month:
San Callisto Wednesdays, February;
San Sebastiano Sundays, mid-November to mid-December;
Santa Domitilla Tuesdays, mid-December to mid-January;
Santa Priscilla Mondays, mid-July to mid-August;
Sant'Agnese Sundays, November. (Also mornings of Solemnities.)
Santi Pietro e Marcellino Thursdays (close-down month not publicised).
As in 2017, the full ticket price per person is eight euros (five euros for those entitled to a discount).
Visitors must take a guided tour -this is not optional. This is simply a matter of your safety, as it would be all too easy to get lost down there. Guides are expected to count heads in and out (and there are urban legends -does San Callisto keep a sniffer dog to find lost visitors, and is there a problem with Goths wanting to find a quiet corner in which to commit suicide?).
Members of religious communities are responsible for many of the tours, except at Sant'Agnese which is run as a diocesan parish church. Those responsible are good at providing guides speaking different languages, so it is usually possible to get guided tours in Italian, English, French and German - at times other languages are offered as well, such as Spanish and Polish. Again, Sant'Agnese differs as the tours are usually in Italian only.
If you are travelling in a group, it is a good idea to make a previous booking - it might even be possible to have guides provided who speak other languages than the ones mentioned.
If you are visiting as an individual you might have to wait a while before the next tour in your language starts. So, bringing a book or something with which to occupy yourself might be a good idea. There are also the inevitable, and insanely expensive, mobile food and beverage stall outside most of the catacombs in the tourist season, in case you get hungry while waiting.
If you go to Rome off-season, you might be able to apply for an extended tour but this is not guaranteed.
Mass is celebrated in the catacombs by pilgrim groups, and it is possible to attend as a visitor if there is one taking place. This is a very special experience, which I highly recommend. However, the catacombs are not public liturgical centres and Masses are not celebrated according to a set timetable.
If your pilgrim group wishes to celebrate Mass in a catacomb, you need to contact the Director of that catacomb (not the Pontificia Commissione) well in advance, owing to the limited space available.
During Holy Years, pilgrims can obtain indulgences by assisting at Mass in the catacombs.
Catacombs formerly open to the public Edit
At the end of the 19th century, as well as the six listed above the following eleven catacombs were open to pilgrims, although some only on certain days:
- Basilica e Catacomba di Sant'Ermete (Via Salaria Vetus, administered by Jesuits)
- Catacomba di Massimo (Catacombe di Santa Felicità) (Via Salaria Nova)
- Catacomba di Sant'Ippolito (Via Tiburtina)
- San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (Catacomba di Santa Ciriaca, Via Tiburtina)
- Catacomba Maggiore (Via Nomentana)
- Catacomba di Ponziano (Via Portuense)
- Catacomba di Pretestato (Via Appia)
- Catacombe di Santa Tecla (Via Ostiense)
- Catacomba di Trasone (Via Salaria Nova)
- Basilica e Catacomba di San Valentino (Via Flaminia)
None of these are now accessible, except by the conditions set down by the Pontificia Commissione for "Catacombs not open to the public". See below.
The catacombs at San Lorenzo were still to be found open towards the end of the 20th century, and apparently a personal contact with one of the friars administrating these two churches was sometimes enough to obtain access. This is now very unlikely to be the case.
The catacombs at San Valentino have been seriously damaged in a landslide, and are apparently not visitable at all.
Catacombs not open to the public Edit
A map published by the Pontificia Commissione in 1985 showed a total of forty-five known catacombs outside the walls, although the Complesso Callistiano is shown as eight separate sets of catacombs instead of one conjoined complex and Santa Tecla is shown as three. Also shown were sixteen "private funerary enclosures" or ipogei under the control of the Pontificia Commissione.
The Commissione 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 is 220 euros, increasing after 75 minutes. See the PDF file Rules Regarding Visits to the Catacombs Closed to the Public.
The Commissione does not publish a list of those catacombs that it regards as accessible, possibly because safety factors may change suddenly (roof collapses, floods and so on).
See here for a comprehensive and searchable list of all its underground properties published online by the Commissione, with links to a map, photos and information.
Below is a list of closed catacombs, including the eleven listed already. It derives from the Italian Wikipedia (the English Wikipedia is not very good on the subject), and lists them in order of distance down the road concerned. The roads are listed anticlockwise from the Vatican, and the sites in order of distance. Use the above link to access sources.
Via Aurelia Nova -Via Cornelia (now Via di Boccea):
- Catacomba di Anonimo di Sant'Onofrio (Claimed to be Catecomba di Santi Processo e Martiniano)
- Catacomba di Sante Rufina e Seconda (noted in 1960's excavation)
- Catacomba di Santi Mario e Marta (known to exist, but unexplored)
- Ipogeo di Scarpone
- Catacombe di San Pancrazio (Catacombe di Ottavilla)
- Catacomba di Anonimo di Villa Pamphilj (Claimed to be Catecombe di Santi Processo e Martiniano)
- Catacomba di Calepodio
- Catacomba di Commodilla
- "Tomba di San Timoteo" (inaccessible, possibly destroyed according to Commissione.)
- Catacomba di Santa Tecla (three separate little complexes noted.)
- Catacomba di San Ciriaco (seven miles out, inaccessible owing to construction of railway)
- Via Ardeatina, Basilica Anonima della (Part of the Complesso Callistiano. Most of the Complesso is not open to ordinary visitors. The identity of this basilica is controverted; San Marco or San Damaso or Santa Sotere are candidates known from the sources, and all these are regarded as somehow parts of the present Complesso.)
- Catacomba della Nunziatella
- Catacomba di Santa Balbina (regarded as part of the Complesso Callistiano.)
- Ipogeo dei Cacciatori
- Ipogeo di Vibia (pagan and Christian together? Probably entirely pagan, for worshippers of Sabazius.)
- Ipogeo dei Quattro Oranti
- Catacomba del Santo Croce (across the road from San Callisto)
- Catacombe di Pretestato
- Ipogeo Appia Pignatelli
- Ipogeo al Circo di Massenzio
- Ipogeo Polimanti
- Catacombe dei Santi Gordiano ed Epimaco
- Ipogeo di Villa del Vecchio
- Ipogeo di Trebio Giusto
- Catacombe di Aproniano
- Ipogeo di Via Dino Compagni (erroneously called Catacombe di Via Latina, as it was a private ipogeo.)
- Ipogeo di Cava della Rossa
- Catacombe Ad Decimum (included in the city's catacombs, but not in the municipality or Diocese. At Grottaferrata.)
- Catacomba di San Castulo (apparently unsafe and inaccessible.)
- Ipogeo di Centocelle
- Ipogeo di Villa Celere
- Catacomba di San Zotico (on boundary of city)
- Catacomba di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (Catacomba di Santa Ciriaca)
- Catacombe di Novaziano
- Catacomba di Sant'Ippolito
- Catacomba di Santa Sinforosa (just outside city boundary, not in Diocese. Recently excavated, identity is under scholarly dispute.)
- Catacombe di San Nicomede
- Ipogeo di Via dei Villini
- Catacomba Maggiore (Catacomba di Sant'Emerenziana)
- Catacomba Minore (not excavated, apparently.)
- Catacomba di Sant'Alessandro (thought to belong to the ancient Ficulea, not to the city.)
Via Salaria Nova:
- Ipogeo Corso d'Italia
- Catacomba di Massimo (also known as Catacomba di Santa Felicita)
- Catacomba di Trasone
- Catacomba dei Giordani
- Catacomba di Sant'Ilaria (shares an entrance with the last; the connecting tunnel is modern.)
- Catacomba di Anonimo di Via Anapo
Via Salaria Vetus:
- Ipogeo di Via Livenza
- Catacomba di San Panfilo
- Catacomba di Sant'Ermete (Catacomba di Bassilla)
- Catacomba ad clivum Cucumeris (officially undiscovered, although there is a rumour that its discovery in the Fifties was corruptly suppressed in favour of private landowners.)
- Catacomba di San Valentino (apparently unsafe and inaccessible.)
Archeologiasacra resource page (click for map)