You always hear about Rome’s underground and generally, within that context, you hear that there are catacombs in Rome. Catacombs seem pretty cool, and they are certainly an interesting experience, but just what are they?!
I feel like most people, myself included, thought that they would be some really cool network of underground tunnels that were used to house things and to generally get away from danger. However, they are really just places for graves. Mainly, they house Christians. So, the catacombs are really just a subterranean grave yard. They are a network of tunnels that have holes in the walls where bodies were placed and this is where the creepiness ‘creeps’ into the journey.
There are around 45-49 known catacombs in and around Rome but you can only visit a few of them. I visited one outside the Roman walls. It contained 11 miles of tunnels and, at least at one time, housed around 150,000 bodies – yikes!
So, as you are walking through these tunnels, you see holes in the walls where people were buried and crypts with holes in the wall where wealthier people were buried. Generally, each person was wrapped in a cloth with perfume sprayed on top and then placed into a hole in the wall. After that, a terracotta headstone (marble was used if they were wealthy) was placed over the hole and sealed. As you are walking through these tunnels, you notice that there are many tiny holes that even a kid could not fit into; these were for babies.
One reason there were so many holes for babies is because the Romans had a sort of pro-choice policy whereby the man of the house could get rid of a new-born baby shortly after birth. If the baby was abandoned, the baby ended up outside the walls to die; this is where the Christians came in to save the babies, which didn’t always work. This combined with generally high infant mortality rates lead to lots of babies in the catacombs. This is why it’s kind of creepy to be down there. You are walking past holes that once housed dead abandoned babies and children as well as entire families.
However, I do highly recommend taking a tour of one of the catacombs. It is really interesting to learn about the history of the tunnels and why the Christians had to bury their dead underground (Christianity was illegal initially) and it is something that you don’t see every day or ever.
The other cool thing about the catacombs that I visited was that it had an underground basilica within it. This was really neat and kind of made you feel like you were in a sacrificial chamber from one of those demon/devil movies where a virgin or something has to be killed on an altar. This was a church, but it still had that macabre feeling to it since it was underground, there were no real windows, and it had columns in the middle of the room that didn’t come close to the ceiling but formed a path to an altar.
The only bad thing about this tour is that you were not allowed to take any pictures. This just means that you will have to go and see it for yourself!