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Itinerary: The Catacombs of the Appia Antica

Our itinerary calls for a visit to three of the largest and most important catacombs in Rome: San CallistoSan Sebastiano and Santa Domitilla.
All three lie close to each other in the Appia Antica zone, between Via Appia and Via Ardeatina. 

Before beginning our descent into these underground labyrinths full of history and intrigue, take a few minutes to enjoy the peace and tranquility of this bucolic zone at the crossroads of Via Appia and Via Ardeatina. Then, start with the Catacombs of San Callisto.

Via Appia Antica, 110 – 1.8 km (approx. 1 mi) 
Built sometime between 250 and 300 A.D., the Catacombs of San Callisto (St. Callixtus) hold the graves of 500,000 Christians, including dozens of martyrs and 16 pontiffs. Catacombe San Callisto Statua Santa Cecilia www.juanantoniomosquera.comThese galleries occupy a total of 15 hectares and count almost 20 km (12.4 mi) of underground passageways 20 m (66 ft) deep. At times, they branch out into five levels, lined with dug-out niches two or three rows high. 

The Tour
In the upper levels of the complex (above-ground), two small basilicas are visible. They each contain three apses (“Tricore”). It is in the eastern part where S. Zeffirino and the young martyr of the Eucharist, S. Tarcisius were most likely buried. 
The subterranean area consists of several diverse zones. 
First, the Papal Crypt is the most important. Referred to as “the Little Vatican,” this area preserves the remains of at least five martyred and beatified Popes. Also highly-interesting is the Crypt of S. Cecilia, who was buried where today we can see the astounding sculptural masterpiece of Stefano Maderno. In the year 821 the relics of S. Cecilia were transferred to her dedicated Basilica in Trastevere. The Crypt was decorated entirely in frescoes and mosaics, and on the wall of the skylight one can admire the depiction of three marytrs: Saints Policamus, Sebastiano and Quirinus. 
At the end of the Crypt visit, we cross through a prominent gallery full of burial niches and arrive in a chamber with five rooms called “the Cubicles of the Sacraments”: familial tombs painted with frescoes dating to the beginning of the 3rd Century A.D. Here, the sacraments of the Baptism and the Eucharist are represented symbolically; one of these symbols is the prophet Jonah, representing the Resurrection. 

Nest, we move on to the Catacombs of San Sebastiano and the homonymous Basilica


Via Appia Antica,136 – 2.4 km (1.5 mi)

Catacombe San Sebastiano photo by Oggie Dog-flickrIt is here that we can find the first Christian tombs to be defined as “catacombs,” a term that is associated with hollow or valley. 

The tour
The Catacombs of San Sebastiano are very similar to those of San Callisto. They are four floors deep, and inside are several paintings from the early days of Christianity (still visible), along with graffitied stucco and mosaics. 
The primary part of our itinerary comprises the Basilica of San Sebastiano, one of the seven destinations for pilgrims to Rome. 
The church is done in the Baroque style. In the first chapel to the left, we see a statue in polished marble designed by Bernini and created by Antonio Giorgetti. The statue is of San Sebastiano being pierced by an arrow. Next to the statue are stair-steps leading to the crypt, where the remains of the Saint are preserved in an urn. 

In the chapel of the right apse, we can view some sacred relics: a stone with an imprint attributed to Jesus Christ (from when he met St. Peter fleeing Rome); the arrows said to have pierced S. Sebastiano and the column to which he was tied; and the hands of S. Callisto and S. Andrea (St. Andrew). 

Leaving the Appia Antica, we turn towards Via Ardeatina, where we will visit our last stop: the Catacombs of Santa Domitilla (which are said to include the Saints Nereo and Achilleo (Nereus and Achilleus). 


Via delle Sette Chiese, 282Catacombe Santa Domitilla Basilica photo by archer10 (Dennis)-flickrThese catacombs, not very far from the previous ones, are among the vastest and most ancient. They are comprised of 15 km (9.3 mi) and 150,000 graves covering four levels. The bodies of the deceased are shelved in small crevices superficially dug in rock. Meanwhile, the rich were buried in more spacious tombs (individually or with their families), often with elaborately decorated arches overhead.  

The tour
The tour begins first with a descent into the basilica, then down into the catacombs. 
Moving along a staircase realized in the modern era, we enter into a small basilica done in masonry and dedicated to Saints Nereus and Achilleus. Martyred by Diocletian, the Saints’ bodies were deposited in a crypt transformed into a worship site by Pope Damasus around the turn of the 4th Century. 
The Basilica is made up of three naves separated by two rows of four columns.  
In the central altar we can admire the only column intact, decorated with the story of Achilleus’s decapitation; it is a rare work of Christian art. Here we also find the tomb of Santa Petronilla, and behind the apse stands a sort of cubicle with Petronilla inside a fresco. 
From the left nave we can move into a very ancient section of the church (from the second half of the 2nd Century): it holds tombs of some of the members of the family Flavi Aureli. This chamber was constructed as a private pagan hypogeum during the 3rd Century, and later came to contain Christian graves decorated with scenes from the Sacred Scriptures. 
On the top floor we come across a rather small, painted chamber, dated to the end of the 3rd Century A.D., and narrating the pagan myth of Amore and Psiche. 
On the lower level, there is a chamber painted with a remarkable third-century fresco depicting Christ the Good Shepherd
Finally, we come to the “area of the Madonna,” where third- and fourth-century paintings are visible; of note are the four Magi visiting the Virgin and Child. 
Among the most beautiful frescoes are those from the 4th Century featuring Saints Peter and Paolo, standing at the sides of the dark, spectral image of the deceased. 
Additionally, under the tomb’s arch, if we stoop down we can see the very ancient painting of The Last Supper (this one is thousands of years older than that of Leonardo). 

Useful Information

The History of the Catacombs on the Appia Antica

Catacombs of San Callisto  
In the 1st Century A.D. several Roman families began to bury their dead in these caves of lava rock on the Appia Antica (Ancient Appian Way).
At the end of the 2nd Century, the Emperor Commodus, tolerant of the Christians, freed members of the Church who had been condemned to forced labor in the mines.
Among these Christians was Callisto (Callixtus), a slave accused of both fraud and fighting inside a synagogue. In 199, Pope Zeffirino named Callisto deacon and guardian of the Roman Church. 
In the 3rd Century, he became Pope and was then proclaimed saint upon his death. He then claimed title to the cemetery, even though he is not one of the Popes buried there. In successive years, Pope Damasus I was able to convince the Emperor Teodosio to recognize Christianity as the State religion. Damasus then decided to restore these Catacombs to demonstrate that the glory of Rome was Christian and not, after all, pagan.

Catacombs and Basilica of San Sebastiano
In the 1st Century A.D., three mausoleums were built first for the burial of pagans, and later Christians. During the persecutions initiated by the Emperor Valerian, the bodies of Saints Peter and Paul were hidden here for 40 years. 
In 288 S. Sebastiano, a Roman official, was condemned to death for having preached Christianity to his troops. He survived an attempted execution by bow and arrow, but was then beaten to death at the command of the Emperor Diocletian (and thus martyred).
In the 4th Century the Emperor Constantine, the so-called “Defensor Fidei” (Defender of the Faith), wished to construct a basilica atop the pre-existing tombs where lay the body of San Sebastiano. It was on this same basilica where the architect Flaminio Ponzi realized the church (1609-1612) that stands today. 

Catacombs of Santa Domitilla
Flavia Domitilla, part of the important Flavi family, was a relative of Titus Flavius Clemente (a Roman consul), who was the grandson of Vespasian and cousin of Domitian. Domitian condemned his cousin to execution for his religious beliefs, while Flavia Domitilla was sent into exile on the Island of Ponza. Santa Domitilla was made a martyr in 95 A.D., and left her land in the Ardeatina area (near Tor Marancia) to her fellow Christians, and thus it was transformed into the largest Christian underground cemetery in Rome.