Have you ever wondered what it was like to walk beneath the surface of modern Rome? To explore the ancient Christian catacombs, to explore apartment buildings built-in the first century AD, to see entire ceilings decorated with the skeletal remains of Capuchin monks? When I knew that I would be spending time in Rome after my cruise on the Carnival Sunshine was over, I reached out to Viator Tours and they were able to set up a complimentary Crypts and Catacombs Tour of Rome.
I was so excited! Angeline was fighting a bad cold when we arrived in Rome, so she stayed behind in the hotel while I set out to meet my tour guide. I decided to walk the mile to our meeting place…not such a great idea! Let’s just say that it took me a lot longer than the 20 minutes my GPS told me it would take…but fortunately, our tour included transportation on an air-conditioned bus!
Our first stop was the Catacombe S Domitilla, where we not only walked through some of the oldest catacombs in Rome, but learnt quite a bit about who was buried there, and the history of the beginning of Christian burial.
With Christianity being one of the most popular religions in the world in modern times, it’s quite easy to forget that at one point in time, it was nothing more than a cult. It’s crazy how times change, isn’t it?
As photography is not allowed in any holy place in Rome (or for most of Europe for that matter), we weren’t allowed to take photos during our tour, with the exception of out front of each location we visited.
Our tour guide brought us to the very front of the Catacombes of Domitilla, where she showed us decorative burial signs – what would have been gravestones back in ancient Roman times.
These pictures are called Christographs, and they each represent an iconic symbol in Christianity. As Christianity was illegal at that time, Christians used existing Roman symbols to represent different values of their faith.
For instance, a Sheppard represented a Christian, or a Christ figure. The symbol of a fish represented a Christian, or Christianity – our guide explained that at that time, if you came across someone in your travels, a Christian would draw the top part of a fish in the dirt, and if your acquaintance drew the other half, you would each know that you were Christians.
Isn’t that neat?
Our guide was an art history major, and had lived in Rome for eight years. I’m always concerned about the knowledge of my tour guide when I book a tour, but that worry was put to rest once she began talking.
Our guide knew Rome like the back of her hand! I’ve studied the history of Rome and Italian culture so much over the years, and she told us things on our tour that I had never heard before!
As we drove to our next destination, we passed a section of Rome that still had the ancient Roman walls intact! Of course there has been maintenance and fortification done over the years, but to see this structure in person? It was pretty magical!
Our next stop was the Basilica di San Clemente, which was by far my favorite!
As you walk into the Basilica di San Clemente, you are in a lovely church. And when I say “lovely,” I really do mean LOVELY. So lovely, in fact, that the floor is all an inlaid marble mosaic. Have you ever heard of Imperial Marble? It was a beautiful reddish-purple marble found in Egypt, and it was so desirable that the Romans use ALL OF IT. That’s right, they took every single little speck, and there is nothing left of it today. It is highly valuable – it’s said that Bill Gates has a small paperweight on his desk, which he paid two million dollars for.
So imagine, walking into the Basilica di San Clemente, and walking on Imperial Marble!
Basilica di San Clemente is a three-tiered building. The top floor – the actual Basilica, was built just before the year 1100, and as you make your way downstairs, you find a 4th-century basilica that was once a home! Our guide explained that in the first century AD, it had been a church, and the basement had been a temple in the religion of mithraeum. We were ushered into the very small room which served as the temple and were able to see the altar still intact! As we made our way further downstairs, we found ourselves in an old apartment building that was destroyed in the Great Roman Fire of 64 AD.
The final stop on our Crypts and Catacombs Tour of Rome was the Capuchin Crypt and Museum. I have to tell you, this wasn’t my favorite part of the tour…bones just aren’t my cup of tea! And there were plenty of bones in the Capuchin Crypt and Museum! As you walk through the crypt, you will see the remains of 4,000 Capuchin monks, as they’ve been used to decorate the underground crypt. There are vertebrae chandeliers, skeletons posed in various stances, and literally piles of bones that create art like you’ve never seen before.
With the recent addition of the Capuchin Museum, you can see Caravaggio’s beautiful ‘St Francis in Meditation’, along with many other artifacts that will give you an insight into what the lives of the Capuchin monks was like.
If you have ever wanted to see the ancient Roman crypts and catacombs, I recommend booking your tour through Viator! Each tour I went on with Viator was an excellent experience, and this was no different. These places are not open to the public except through a tour guide, so why not choose Viator? With ticket prices beginning at $74, you can’t go wrong!
You can find out more about Viator and the Small Group Crypts and Catacombs Tour of Rome on Viator.com.