A Rome underground tour is essential for any complete Rome itinerary. Exploring the streets of Rome above the ground is really only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Rome is a city of layers. There are layers upon layers spanning thousands of years from the beginnings of the ancient Roman civilization.
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Why You Need to Book a Rome Underground Tour
When you visit Rome and wander the streets, there’s a great deal of history beneath where you’re walking, too. As you walk around Rome, you’ll spot ancient Roman ruins around every turn. Many of these ancient ruins aren’t completely excavated. So, you can only imagine the layers and layers beneath them. This is where you’ll go for a underground Rome catacombs tour.
There are miles of burial sites, underground tunnels, and cult temples lying beneath the modern roads. Justin and I wanted to see more and learn more about these ancient underground places. In an effort to discover Rome and many of its layers, we booked a tour with Walks called Crypts, Bones, and Catacombs: Underground Tour of Rome. We were really excited to visit Rome catacombs and crypts.
Seeing the Best Crypts and Catacombs in Rome
For our Rome underground tour with Walks, we met our friendly tour guide, Julia, in Piazza Barberini. We appreciated that there weren’t too many people touring around with us. Walks tours are only small group tours for an intimate experience. The tour group operates at a maximum of 15 people.
You’ll have full access to seeing all of the sites without the crowds. Most importantly, you’ll be able to hear your guide and interact with her. We could hear Julia clearly as she explained the details of the ancient sites. Also, you can’t take photos at any of the sites, so you don’t need to bring your camera. I took a few exterior photos of the buildings on the tour. Our first stop was just a short walk from the meeting point, the Capuchin Crypt.
Julia asked our group, “Why did you want to take this tour?” We heard a couple of people exclaim, “For the bones!”. And yes, on this Rome catacombs tour, we saw plenty of bones. In fact, the Capuchin Crypt is also called the “bone chapel”.
There’s something incredibly eerie about walking among the bones of the Capuchin friars. Nowadays, Christians bury or cremate the body, and honor that life with a tombstone. While the practice of exhuming and displaying bones is no longer permitted, the bones of the monks were arranged as a reminder of our own mortality. The Catholic order wanted to remind everyone that life is short. It is important to be a good person and to make the most of our own short lives in this world.
Short History of the Capuchin Crypt
In the early construction of the crypt in 1631, the monks brought 300 cartloads of deceased friars from their old location at a monastery. Soil came from Jerusalem by the order of Pope Urban VIII. When monks passed away, they were buried in this soil at the crypt.
The bodies of monks that decomposed in the soil for the longest amount of time became part of the display. Typically, their bodies took 30 years to decompose in the soil. Then, the bones were separated and spread to the various crypts. In total, approximately 3700 bodies of friars produced the intricately designed presentations.
In 1851, this bone church was open to the public for viewing for a small admittance fee. Shortly after Italy became a country, the practice of displaying bones came to an end and the remaining buried friars stayed in the ground. Nowadays, it’s a popular attraction in Rome, especially on crypts and catacombs tours.
A Tour of This Roman Crypt
The crossed mummified arms in the above photo is the Capuchin logo. In some circumstances, individual bones decorated the crypts. In other cases, there would be entire bodies of friars wearing their robes. We don’t know the true reason for this. Our tour guide speculated that the full body displays might involve bodies that were exhumed too quickly. These individual bones were still connected by skin.
The sheer amount of human bones was astounding. There were various body parts decorating every wall space, with bones piled on top of one another. Lighting fixtures created out of bones that hung from the ceilings. There was even a decorative bone clock on one wall to remind us that our time on this earth is ticking away.
The Six Crypts
There were six crypts in total, five of which display parts of the human skeleton. The Crypt of the Resurrection showed a picture of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead to depict the Christian belief of the everlasting life. There were three crypts that specialized in particular body parts, including the Crypt of the Skulls, the Crypt of the Pelvises, and the Crypt of the Leg Bone and Thigh Bones.
The Crypt of the Three Skeletons depicted an oval for birth, a scythe for death, and the scales for judgment. This symbolizes life, death, and the good and bad deeds for which you are judged in the afterlife. A placard at this site reads, “What you are we used to be, what we are now you will be.”
The Mass Chapel, used to celebrate mass, did not contain any bones. There was a plaque there containing the heart of Maria Felice Peretti, the grand-niece of Pope Sixtus V and supporter of the crypt.
Walking through the Capuchin Crypt was a little bit creepy, but also quite humbling. Our lives here are far too short. I hope to make the most of things while I’m here.
Catacomb of Priscilla
Our tour boarded a small air conditioned van and took a quick drive to the Catacombs of Saint Priscilla. It is one of the least visited catacombs in Rome, perhaps due to its distance from the city center. However, it is a highly important historical site to visit in Rome and I highly recommend that you check it out.
Furthermore, I suggest that you book this Rome catacombs tour and visit the catacombs with a guide. If I didn’t take this Rome underground tour with our knowledgeable guide, I wouldn’t have learned about any amazing historical facts or details.
Also, the numerous tunnels of the catacomb make it very easy to get lost. Who knows, I might have been lost in the catacombs! We were the only visitors viewing the catacombs at this time, and it was nice to have the place to ourselves.
History of These Roman Catacombs
The Catacomb of Priscilla has about 13km of galleries at various depths. They were used for Christian burials from the 2nd to 4th century.These galleries are dug out of tuff, a soft volcanic rock used to make bricks and lime. The first level of galleries that we visited was the most ancient and was the only one to contain “cubicula” (bed chambers), small rooms for the tombs of wealthier families and martyrs.
We also discovered “arcosolia”, tombs of upper class families that included religious paintings. Some early popes were also buried here, including Pope Marcellinus and Pope Marcellus I.
Most of the tombs throughout the catacomb were the “loculi”, as pictured above. The bodies were laid within the loculi, directly on top of the dirt. Then, they were wrapped in a shroud, sprinkled with lime to restrain the decaying process, and closed in with tiles. Sometimes there were inscriptions written by the tombs or small objects were placed to help identify the remains.
What This Tour of Roman Catacombs is Like
I immediately noticed that the loculi were mostly empty. You could see narrow spaces in the dirt stacked one on top of the other, yet there were rarely bones or remains to be seen. Many marble tiles or frescoes that would have once been displayed on the walls or the tombs were smashed or had vanished completely. You could see fragments of tile now and again, particularly terracotta tiles.
Vandals in the past had struck the catacombs, and in one instance, had done so by the demands of the Vatican. Pope Innocent X and Pope Clement IX sent treasure hunters into the depths of the catacombs in the 17th century. Another theory as to why the catacomb was plundered was due to the belief that it was haunted and cursed.
Christians weren’t the only ones buried here. It was a Christian belief that it was every person’s right to have a burial. This was the final resting place of all people, no matter their religion or status. There were many small chambers for children. It’s possible that unwanted children that died from exposure had a proper burial here. It’s a sad fact we learned on this tour of Rome catacombs.
Oldest Known Image of the Virgin Mary
The Catacomb of Priscilla is highly notable as it contains the oldest known image of the Virgin Mary.
The image is likely from the 3rd Century, depicting a veiled woman holding a baby. The fresco is quite small and placed in a very strange location, up high on the side of the vaulted ceiling. Other sections of the fresco have crumbled away over time, though the image of Mary holding the baby Jesus partially remains.
Basilica San Clemente
For our last stop of the Rome underground tour, we visited Basilica San Clemente, a prime example that shows the layers of Rome in plain sight. From the ground level, you’ll walk into the present day church, built during the height of the Middle Ages in the 12th Century. Below this church lies a 4th Century church, the first basilica. Beneath that church is a Mithraic temple from the 2nd Century. And lastly, that temple is on top of a building from the Roman Republic that burned down in the Great Fire of 64 AD.
2nd Century Mithraic Temple
Julia started this section of our Rome underground tour at the lowest level of the building. This space was used as a mithraeum, a sanctuary by the cult of Mithras. The majority of Mithraea were built inside caves or beneath existing buildings. Some had a hole in the ceiling to allow natural light to pour through. This possibly connected the worship site to the universe or conveyed the passing of time. Worshipers may have sat on the rock couches lining the walls for a common meal.
4th Century Church
The lower level of the building, including the mithraeum, was filled in with dirt. Then, the first basilica of the 4th Century church was constructed. This church was dedicated to St. Clemente (Pope Clemente).
It’s notable because the largest collection of Medieval wall paintings are located here. One fresco depicts the earliest known writings in the Italian language. It’s quite funny because the first known recordings of Italian include curse words, and they’re on a fresco in a church!
The story illustrated how the Pagan man, Sisinnius, demanded that his servants drag the captured St. Clemente behind them. He cursed at them in Italian. The cursing details Sisinnius’ personality. He was furious that his wife was secretly Christian and worshiped St. Clemente. The men thought that they were pulling the captured saint behind them, but in reality, they were actually moving heavy columns. In Latin, St. Clemente says, “Duritiam cordis vestris, saxa trahere meruistis”, meaning “You deserved to drag stones due to the hardness of your hearts.”
12th Century Church
Historians don’t know there is a second basilica on top of the first one. It’s possible that the imperial opposition pope, Clemente III (the Antipope), had ties to the lower basilica. Today, it is one of the most highly decorated churches in Rome.
We saw detailed mosaics, intricately painted ceilings, beautiful marble floors, and lots of glimmering gold all around. We were able to see part of the 4th Century church protruding through the floor of this second church, mainly to support the weight of this church.
Julia explained to us that many people view Basilica San Clemente as a “lasagna” with its many layers. She said that it isn’t quite a lasagna because the layers aren’t that evenly stacked. There is some overlap between the layers, so that’s definitely something to keep in mind.
Book Your Crypts and Catacombs Tour
The tour lasted around 3.5 to 4 hours in total. Not only was it an incredibly informative tour, it was also super interesting and engaging. I highly recommend that you book this tour if you love history. Or maybe you simply want to see Roman catacombs. Or like some of my fellow group members, you’re fascinated by the idea of seeing bones.
You’ll visit unforgettable areas of Rome with an energetic and knowledgeable guide. These might be trickier spaces to reach on your own, and you won’t want to see them without an educated guide. Otherwise, you’ll miss all of the intriguing details and notable points of interest. Be sure to make this Walks Rome underground tour part of your travel plans in the city. Some of the best catacombs in Italy are here, so…when in Rome!
Interested in other underground tours? Check out this Paris catacombs tour of the largest grave in the world. If you love caves, you should read more about seeing glowworm caves in New Zealand, the Crystal Caves of Bermuda, the Hell Holes Nature Trails and Caves in Canada, or the Bonnechere Caves near Ottawa.