The San Callisto catacombs of Rome

Early Christians didn’t have it easy. The cult was persecuted on many levels, including the prohibition of burying the dead members with the other citizens of the Roman empire. The wealthier ones ended up donating part of their lands to be used as burial grounds for their fellow believers, but of course this practice was not sustainable in the long run. Thus the concept of “modern” catacomb was born: large underground complexes of tunnels and chambers lined with niches in which the dead were put to rest. This solution offered several benefits, including the protection of the bodies from pillagers and desecrators, the possibility of praying to one’s ancestors in a more personal fashion and – most importantly in this case – the creation of actual pilgrimage routes. Many catacombs in fact cleverly placed the remains of saints and other famous characters on an obligatory path decorated with artworks that encouraged Christian practices.

With time catacombs lost much of their purpose, as the “new” religion grew into acceptance in the first place, and because they had become prime pillaging grounds when the Empire fell, and invading populations sweep the riches of the former oppressor. To counter this, all the important relics were transferred to above-ground churches and sanctuaries, which were now safer than the hidden tunnels. While this gave origin to a whole industry of pilgrimage, art and more, the net effect for the catacombs was to phase them out of the public discourse. In just a few years most of them were completely forgotten and they disappeared as nature claimed the ground around their entrances, hiding them for centuries.

The 1500s saw a renewed interest for archeology, including the underground cemeteries. Many catacombs were reopened and excavated in the frequent cases in which earthquakes and plain neglect had their walls crumble down. Strangely, the most important complex wasn’t studied and explored until the 1850s though – and this is probably why it is now one of the better preserved ones in Roman archeology. The San Callisto complex is just outside Rome and extends over a mind-bogging 20,000 meters of tunnels on up to five levels: the average depth is 20 meters, and the above-ground area includes many interesting archeological and religious pieces. The underground part, however, is clearly unique and will take several hours to be fully appreciated.

Dug between the second and the fifth century, the San Callisto catacombs include several different “regions” with varying characteristics. The most important one is called Little Vatican, as it held the remains of nine popes and many bishops and other Church higher-ups. While the tombs themselves are empty now, the walls are still full of commemorative stones and carvings from which you can grasp a sense of the history and the cult as it was practiced in the past. The various regions are differently preserved, but most of them have been ransacked and there is little trace of the mosaics and frescoes that made a visit to this complex a unique art experience too. The architectural design however still stands as a monument to ingenuity, and it is a frequently overlooked marvel in itself. The most touching areas are probably those in which the commoners were buried, as their relatives and lovers used to write extensive memories of the dead, and they offer a rare, direct glimpse to the minds and troubles of those who lived almost two millennia ago. The most famous one can be found in the so-called Sophronia’s cubicle, in the form of a series of lines apparently written over time. They read:

O Sophronia, may you live with your loved ones;
O Sophronia, you will live in the Lord;
O sweet Sophronia, you will live in God forever;
Yes, Sophronia: you will live!

And indeed, her memory lives on.