The catacombs of Rome are both significant and popular tourist attractions in Italy’s ancient capital. Technically, they are underground burial places, but they also serve as important monuments to the early religions that used this form of entombment to bury their dead. Most of the best catacombs in Rome are associated with the early Christian church. This has everything to do with the social, political, and religious mix of the day in the Roman Empire, which as of yet, did not recognize Christianity as a legitimate religion. Indeed, centuries later it would be made the very religion of the state, but in the second century, Christians were persecuted and needed to turn to alternative methods of entombment to bury their dead according to the traditions of their religion. Places such as the Catacombs of Domitilla, the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, and the Capuchin Crypt and Catacombs in Rome, are tremendously interesting and unique places that are well worth a visit if you are planning a trip to the city.
In the second century, the areas in and around Rome were facing overcrowding, population control issues, and a shortage of land to bury their dead. The policy of the Roman government forbade burying the dead within the city limits, and many of the Christians and Jews in early Rome were not able to purchase land to for the purpose of burying the dead in their respective traditional fashions. At the time, it was the practice in Rome to cremate the dead, whereas the belief in a resurrection of the physical body by early Christians, and in fact Christians to this day, compelled them to look further for a way to enshrine their dead according to their own customs. Most of the catacombs of Rome represent the response of early Christians and Jews to a Roman state that made it difficult to carry out their religious practices, but also persecuted them for doing so. The secret catacombs of Rome were not only used as burial places, but also as gathering places for worship and ceremonies to honor martyred Christians.
The catacombs are dug out of what is called tufo rock. It is a soft rock that is compounded with volcanic ash that makes tunneling and digging much easier. Nonetheless, many of the early Christian and Jewish catacombs represent very impressive building feats. They range anywhere from 20 to 60 plus feet below ground, and some of them occupy nearly 600 acres of land. Many of the best catacombs in Rome to visit are multi-tiered burial sites that feature amazing art. Over the centuries, they have served as the repositories for some of the most historically significant early Christian art. Much of the art has been moved to museums and churches in recent centuries as excavations and archaeological interest has increased.
The Capuchin Crypt is interesting in that the monks took to a completely different manner of enshrining their dead, one that included using their bones and sometimes mummified bodies to decorate the tombs. Because of the amazingly ornate and elaborate designs made completely of bones, this is one of the most alluring of all the catacombs in Rome, if not a little creepy. The catacombs are actually decorated with the bones of over 4,000 monks who have resided at the monastery. If you are planning a trip to Rome and have an interest in seeing some of the most impressive monuments to ancient Rome, consider visiting the best catacombs in Rome. The Capuchin Crypt and Catacombs in Rome is just one example.
The Catacombs of San Callisto are another of the most popular of all the ancient Roman catacombs. The catacombs comprise nearly 40 acres and have enshrined in them the remains of over 50 martyrs and some 16 pontiffs, including the remains of Saint Cecelia. These catacombs can be found on the Appian Way a mile or so outside the ancient gates of Rome.
There are many other catacombs in and around Rome that allow visitors. The Catacombs of Domitilla are the only catacombs to still contain bones, while the Catacombs of San Sebastiano have been one of the most accessible catacombs for ages and are located under a small basilica in Rome.