It seems clear that the Christian catacombs of Rome are pre-dated by the Jewish catacombs, located in the same general vicinity on the outskirts of the city. The city of Rome is the location of the oldest continuous Jewish community outside of Israel, dating to two centuries before the time of Christ. Additionally, some archaeological evidence indicates that even the Jewish method of burial was copied by the early Christians once they abandoned cremation. There are six known Jewish catacombs, two of which are open to the public.
As many as 60 underground Christian catacombs of Rome are housed in this area,
a veritable underground maze providing a unique glimpse into both the history
of roman catacombs and early Christian life, just as the Capuchin
Catacombs of Palermo provide a glimpse
of Sicilian life from the seventeenth to nineteenth century. The catacombs of
San Callisto consist of a vast maze of passages, galleries, and halls several
stories in depth and reaching as far down as 65 feet. The ancient Romans most
often turned to cremation as burial custom. The history of Roman catacombs begins
with the advent of Christianity. It was desirable that bodies not be destroyed
in order that they be available for resurrection. Since space was at a premium,
the early Christians went underground.
While there is good public bus transportation to the catacombs of San Callisto only guided tours conducted by site staff are allowed. So, you can get to the location independently, but you must book a tour on arrival. This comes included with the price of admission. If you are doing this independently, remember that the Christian catacombs of Rome are closed from noon to 2 p.m.—the traditional extended lunch hour that you will find throughout Italy and in all Mediterranean countries. Doing your tour this way will save money, but you may have to wait a significant period of time for the tour in your language to depart, and sometimes the accents of the guides make understanding difficult. Most vacation packages that visit Rome have this tour included. They generally are timed to arrive at the right time, eliminating waits, and the escort accompanying the group is allowed along on the tour to assist in translation.
The history of Roman catacombs dates to the second century AD when the first of them was excavated. Their relative distance outside of Rome is because it was forbidden to bury the dead within the city limits. Some of the burial places in this vast labyrinth are more “roomy” cubicles decorated with ancient frescoes. These were the burial places of Rome’s wealthy. The fourth century Pope Damasus additionally ordered underground basilicas built in order to better facilitate the worship of Christian martyrs, and several of these also boast early Christian frescoes. In the ninth century, Pope Paschal ordered the relics of martyrs and saints to be moved to churches and entombed in them thereafter. Today they are found in the Seven Pilgrim Churches and other churches throughout Italy. This new practice led to the catacombs being abandoned and lost until rediscovery in 1849.
The Catacombs of San Callisto are the largest and most famous of the 60 or
so that are known to exist today. Thousands of tourists visit each year, and
some say they are a bit “touristy.” This is true, but they are quite an amazing
sight, and well worth putting up with busloads of tourists to view. They are
among the almost mandatory things to do for almost all visitors to Rome. If
you do likewise, you should not be disappointed.