A lifetime is not enough to see everything ancient Rome has left us. While there are well-known relics like the Colosseum, many don’t realize that a large chunk of the ancient civilization is preserved underground. Even better, you can go beneath the surface and witness it for yourself.
Inhabited since 10th century B.C., Rome kept increasing in size until the end of the empire in the 5th century. Sites such as the Baths of Caracalla and the Circus Maximus are only a few of the jewels brought to light since the 19th century, when archeology began to be considered a real science. Before then, fires, floods and earthquakes buried one of the world’s most famous ancient civilizations. Yet, somehow the original street level was kept intact underground along with all types of remains, including the houses, shops and thermal baths of Imperial Rome.
One of the must-visit attractions are the catacombs, underground cemeteries where early Christians used to bury their dead when the religion wasn’t tolerated. Though there are a number of catacombs in Rome, only seven are open to the public. You will feel like you’re entering the underworld at the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus in the ancient Appian Way. A 65-foot-deep graveyard of about 12 miles and stretching over 37 acres, this is the burial spot for popes, clerics and thousands of others. Don’t miss the Crypt of the Popes, where nine pontiffs rest from the 3rd century, and the crypt of Saint Cecilia, where a young martyr was buried until Pope Paschal I transferred her remains to Santa Cecilia basilica in Trastevere in the 9th century.
If you prefer staying closer to the city center, explore the Catacomb of Priscilla, named after the noblewoman who’s believed to have donated the land to build the cemetery. The site contains paintings and strikingly well-preserved frescoes, including what’s considered the first image ever produced of the Virgin Mary. To access and fully understand the treasures of Priscilla’s catacombs, your best bet is to join a good tour, such as Walks of Italy’s Crypts & Bones & Catacombs, which will also take you to Via Veneto to see the Capuchin Crypt, where 3,700 friars are thought to be buried.
Some of the most fascinating and enigmatic underground sites are the Mithraea, worship places devoted to Mithra, the Persian god whose cult was thought to be introduced in the Greek-Roman world by the Cilician pirates. The cult started spreading in Rome in the late 1st century as a secret religion, one of the reasons why its rituals were performed in subterranean sanctuaries. In Rome, there are thousands of Mithraea, but only a few are open to the public. While usually kept closed, they are accessible exclusively by booking through a registered guide. If you want to feel the thrill of mystery, join Sotterranei di Roma archaeologists’ tour of the Mithra sanctuary at the Circus Maximus, or follow the CoopCulture cultural association when it enters the Mithraeum of Palazzo Barberini or goes below Santo Stefano Rotondo church. The Mithraeum under San Clemente basilica is the only one that can be visited independently. At about 33 feet beneath street level, this Mithraeum lies in a narrow 1st-century alley beside a two-story building believed to house the Roman mint. This whole site is under an early Christian basilica found roughly 13 feet below the upper basilica.
If digging and unearthing gems is your passion, join the speleologists of Roma Sotterranea to check out other underground sites, such as the Stadium of Domitian below Piazza Navona — the first permanent building devoted to sports competitions in Rome — or the basement of the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to see the remains of ancient baths, frescoes and graffiti.
Photo Courtesy of Walks of Italy