Touring Rome's Underground

underground passageway

Rome's underground contains some fascinating artifacts and Roman history. Much of the ancient city of Rome has literally been buried and built upon. Beneath today's wide-open squares and magnificent buildings lies a cavernous structure of ancient temples and hidden catacombs. Therefore, many of today's buildings can actually provide access to an ancient underground abode, although much of this "secret city" remains inaccessible to the general public. Some tour companies do, however, now offer you opportunities to view parts of this subterranean world.

Rome's Underground: The Catacombs of St. Callistus

Going along a section of the ancient Appian Way, for example, you'll reach the entrance to the Catacombs of St. Callistus, and here you'll find many very old frescoes and inscriptions. When Callistus became Pope, he ordered that these catacombs should be enlarged and transformed into a cemetery for bishops and popes; you can now descend into this ancient setting (where you'll find the temperatures are 10-20 degrees cooler).

Along the Appian Way

Further along the old cobble-stoned Appian Way are the Catacombs of Pretestatus (with crypts and cubicles that are adorned with paintings primarily from the second century AD), the Jewish Catacombs (where Jews in Rome were buried in the early centuries), and the Basilica of St. Sebastian (where the bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul were reportedly kept for many years - and where the crypt of St. Sebastian and multi-storied catacombs are to be found beneath the church). In fact, the Via Appia is bordered with many tombs, sepulchres, and remnants of ancient buildings for several miles - reminders of the life here more than two thousand years ago!

Circus Maximus

One of these testaments to Rome's history is what's left of Circus Maximus, an ancient track (built in the sixth century BC) which had been used primarily for horse races. It had seating for about 300,000 spectators - and included the ancient equivalent of today's stadiums' modern skyboxes (with reserved, special seating such people as the Emperor, senators, and financial backers).

The Basilica of San Clemente

The Basilica of San Clemente (its entrance is on Via di San Giovanni) is also one of the most interesting places to visit to learn about the fascinating history of Rome's underground. It was here, in 1857, that one of the Friars (Friar Mullouly), who was living in the monastery at the time, followed a hunch and began excavating beneath the "modern" church (which dates back to the 1200's) and discovered that an earlier basilica (dating around 350 AD) was buried beneath; a staircase now leads you down into the remains of an earlier apartment building and temple. Upon yet further excavations, it was learned that an even more ancient structure (dating from the first century) was buried beneath this discovery! An ancient altar and stone pews are still visible, and it's thought that worshippers used to gather here to pray to Mithra (an ancient Persian god). Therefore, this awesome structure is often referred to as "Rome's Layer-Cake Church" - and it's a wonderful way to discover the different "layers" of Rome's history.

Rome's Underground: Domus Aurea

Another popular underground tourist destination is the Domus Aurea (Golden House), located inside Oppian Hill Park. This immense structure, one of the Ancient Wonders of the Roman Empire, was Nero's villa, and it remained buried under layers of earth for several centuries. However, in the ruins of this very large complex (which had been built atop the ashes of Rome's inferno of 64 AD), there are still remnants of the Trajan Baths - and parts of the structure's once magnificent rooms, including Octagonal Hall and Vaulted Hall. It even contained a gigantic (37 metre high) statue of Nero himself (the Colossus Neronis) near the entranceway.

Other Underground Places of Interest

Other interesting places to check out on a visit to Rome's underground include the Baths of Caracalla (which were actively used in the first six centuries, AD), the Insula of Ara Coeli (a large ancient structure which served to house the working class), the Catacombs of Domitalla (where a staircase descends into crypts and cubicles), the Augustus Mausoleum (a monumental tomb built by the emperor for himself and his family), and the Crypta Balbi (which includes a section of the ancient Museo Nazionale Romano). Under Rome's present social center, Piazza Navona, lies an ancient stadium built in the first century AD (for games and chariot races) - and under St. Peter's Basilica, excavations have revealed a necropolis (where tombs are set in two parallel rows) that dates back to the second century AD.

For More Information:

Italian Government Tourist Board:

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Touring Rome's Underground