Bones Abroad: Catacombs of San Callisto

I am back in Rome again, doing some research and excavation at a museum here. On a previous trip to Rome I visited Pompeii and a couple of mortuary related locations in the city: the Capitoline Museo and Capuchin Crypt. While details on my own work will have to wait, I have been able to do some more mortuary archaeology related visits in the area.

Tomb of the Popes

According to the Twelve Tables, ancient Roman laws predating the Republic, the dead had to be buried outside of the city. It is because of this that there are a number of large catacombs dating to the Empire found in close vicinity to Rome. If you hop on the ArchaeoBus tour of Rome (definitely worth the €25) you can see the Catacomb of San Callisto and the Catacomb of San Sebastino. Since I am technically here for research rather than pleasure, I was only able to visit the former- but it was totally worth it and I picked the right one to visit!

Unlike many other catacombs, the catacombs of San Callisto are one of the first and most important Christian catacombs. They were opened in 150 CE and was one of the official cemeteries for the Roman Catholic Church. They were named after Pope Alexander Callixtus I, who was matyred for his faith in the early 3rd century and canonized soon after. The site is important for a number of reasons. First, it is the burial location for more than fifty martyrs and sixteen pontiffs, as well as a number of popes. This is known by the presence of inscriptions bearing the names of a number of important church officials throughout the 3rd century, many of which were also killed for their faith and bear the mark of the martyr on their tomb.

The Incorrupt body of Ste Cecilia, 16th c. Statue

Second, it is the burial location of Saint Cecilia. She is the patron saint of music because it is said while she died she sang to god. Cecilia was sentenced to death in the late 2nd century for being a Christian. They attempted to smother her and chop her head off, but she refused to die until she received holy communion. It took three attempts on her life and three days before she finally died. She was almost immediately canonized. When the catacombs were opened in the 16th century, it is said that her body was found just as it was when she was buried- incorrupt and not decomposed. While there is no proof of this, a sculpture has been placed where she was found in the manner in which she was found in. The relics from her body are said to be located in the Church of Saint Cecilia in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome.

The catacombs themselves are quite impressive, containing over a half million niches for the deceased, both singular ones and larger rooms for family crypts. The niches are dug directly into the volcanic rock, and there is often a smaller next immediately next to the grave for placement of an oil lamp. An interesting fact we learned from our guide was that the tombs were made in such a way that the oldest graves are the highest ones up. The workers created the catacombs and when they needed space they simply lowered the floors. In addition to the niche graves you can also see a number of frescoes displaying Christian themes like the Last Supper and Jonah, themes of rebirth are prominent.

If you plan on visiting the tombs, make sure you go on either before 12 or after 2. Wear sturdy shoes (it isn’t the easiest walk to make down the crooked stairs, some of which are original) and bring a sweater even if its July (it is quite cold that far underground). Sadly you won’t get to see any bones. While they did find numerous bones during the past two centuries of excavation they are all now located in an ossuary at the level that cannot be visited. The site is still used as a religious place, and you can actually take communion in the catacombs in one of the oldest parts. While this is an upside for practicing Christians, it is a downside for the rest since it means you can’t take any photos. Regardless, it is totally worth the trek outside of the city center.


8 responses to “Bones Abroad: Catacombs of San Callisto

  1. Pingback: CHW 3M 2012: A look at life in Wartime Berlin « Mr. Pedrech's Classes at Holy Cross·

  2. Thankyou for such an interesting post,especially the video.I keep meaning to go to Rome, Your explanation of the catacombs has inspired me to do just that. Thankyou for sharing.

    • As long as it shows me as the primary author (which it does if you reblog) then its not an issue! I’m glad that you liked the article and that it inspired you. I’m sad I didn’t get to see the other catacombs, but I’m told if you can only get to one in Rome, that San Callisto should be that one.

      • Many thanks for your nice reply Kate.You may be interested in a post on my blog called” More on the Hagios Charalambos Cave” Burial.

  3. Pingback: Presenting at UMMA « Bones Don't Lie·

  4. Hi, Katy.
    Congrats on your studies, and thanks for your post.
    Do you know much about roman burial practices in 1895, and/or where I would look to find more?

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