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When In Rome, See The Catacombs

By Durand Eckelmann

If you are thinking of visiting Rome, make sure to include in your schedule a trip to the catacombs. They are open throughout the year, with the exception of three holidays: Christmas, Easter, and New Year’s Day. There are five Roman catacombs that you can visit. The largest and most famous of them all is the catacomb of St. Callistus (sometimes spelled Callixtus). Each of the five catacombs is closed one day each week for cleaning and maintenance. When one of them is closed, the other four catacombs remain open. The catacomb of St. Callistus is closed on Wednesdays.

The Catacombs: What Are They?

The catacombs are the underground cemeteries of the early Christians of Rome. Contrary to popular belief, the early Christians did not hide in the catacombs or hold their services there. Most of the catacombs are situated outside of the city walls of ancient Rome, parts of which walls are still standing.

The catacombs were formed by the early Christians digging out a very soft, permeable rock called tuffa. Before it is open to the elements, tuffa rock is very malleable and quite simple to dig out with mere hand tools. Yet, after tuffa has been exposed to air, it hardens over a period of time. That is why the tunnels the early Christians dug out of the tuffa rock became hard instead of crumbling.

The Word “Catacombs”

Where did the word “catacombs” come from? It originally was simply a geographic term. It did not having anything whatsoever to do with the early Christian cemeteries. Ancient maps carried the notation, ad catacumbas, for an area around the Appian Way where the land dipped down and where there were hollows. Ad catacumbas is simply Latin for “near the hollow.” The name for the region was there before the early Christians built their underground burial chambers there.

A short distance from the underground burial chamber named after St. Callixtus, there is another burial chamber identified with St. Sebastian. During the period between A.D. 375 and A.D. 600, many Christian pilgrims came to Rome to view these subterranean cemeteries, where many saints were buried. Vendors sold maps for these pilgrims so they could find the various underground cemeteries.

In these guides and other documents, the Sebastian cemetery was given this name: Cymiterium Catacumbas ad sanctum Sebastianum via Appia. This name was merely giving the location of this cemetery, being one of the cemeteries located in the catacumbas region along the Appian Way.

However, during the early medieval period, people started calling all of the underground burial chambers the “catacombs.” This was simply through ignorance. Yet, the name stuck, and that’s why they are still known as the catacombs.

When the Catacombs Were Re-Discovered

During the late Middle Ages, the catacombs fell into disuse and were eventually forgotten. As a result, vegetation and rock slides had completely hidden the entrance to these catacombs, and no one any longer knew where these catacombs had been located.

However, in the nineteenth century, an Italian archaeologist named Giovanni Rossi was examining different fields and orchards along the ancient Via Appia. He was hoping to find ancient Christian artifacts. One summer day, he was combing the grounds of a vineyard that lay adjacent to the Via Appia. Suddenly he came upon a fragment of hewn marble, which he examined.

The fragment of this marble slab bore the following Latin inscription: “…nelius martyr.” The part of the slab that bore the rest of the description could not be found. So Rossi began brainstorming to think of what letters should precede … nelius. Suddenly it dawned on him: the name “Cornelius.” Could this be the grave marker for the ancient Roman bishop Cornelius, who died as a martyr in the third century A.D.? Rossi knew that Cornelius had been buried along the Appian Way.

Of course, Giovanni was excited about possibly finding this tomb. But there was something even more electrifying. He knew from ancient records that Cornelius was buried right by the early Christian underground cemetery that was known in the Middle Ages as the catacombs of St. Callistus.

Could this be the key to finding one of the long lost catacombs? Rossi hurriedly told the Vatican about his surmise that the catacomb of Saint Callistus lay beneath the vineyard where he had been searching. Based upon his recommendation, the papal office purchased the vineyard, and then commissioned Rossi to begin excavating the site. The archaeological excavation soon proved Rossi to be correct, and the catacomb of Saint Callistus was uncovered. After that, archaeologists began searching for the other catacombs and eventually discovered four more of them.

Durand Eckelmann has written various articles about the early Christians and the catacombs. To take a free visual tour of the Roman catacombs, please visit

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Article Citation
MLA Style Citation:
Eckelmann, Durand "When In Rome, See The Catacombs." When In Rome, See The Catacombs. 2 Jul. 2010. 8 Aug 2014 <>.

APA Style Citation:
Eckelmann, D (2010, July 2). When In Rome, See The Catacombs. Retrieved August 8, 2014, from

Chicago Style Citation:
Eckelmann, Durand "When In Rome, See The Catacombs"

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