To say I spent a pleasant, sunny, spring day beneath the city of Rome, surrounded by dirt, dust and history doesn’t sound particularly pleasing. You would assume that I, a ﬁrst time tourist to the famous city, would have spent every moment above ground, soaking up the
sights, wandering the Colosseum or climbing the Spanish Steps, and I did, every other day.
Much of the city’s history lies beneath your feet, beneath the footpaths and the Basilicas lining the roads. Indeed, the history that captivated my imagination the most was buried up to sixty feet below ground, 300 km of sprawling tunnels beneath the world longest road, The Appian Way.
My fascination with the morbid and the macabre lead to me to booking a catacombs tour while in Rome. At the heart of the tour was the Domitilla Catacombs, a necropolis of early Christian burial grounds honouring their dead and holy. I remember descending into the plummeting tunnels beneath the Appian Way. If I wasn’t claustrophobic before, I was certainly beginning to understand the fear now. As the catacombs got narrower, the walls of dirt got damper and the air thicker. I felt as if my very lungs were ﬁlling with dirt and my eyes took in grave upon grave, the makeshift mausoleum making me imagine the hundreds of bodies that would have died and decomposed here.
The tour guide was knowledgeable and informed us that until recently, there was only enough air in these mine-like shafts to last your average human a half hour. She delivered this information as we came upon the mosaics and religious frescoes painted upon the walls and ceilings of particularly important members of the Christian body some hundreds of years ago. A miraculous feat then, to achieve such artistry in half hour stints, and such dedication to honouring their dead.
The tour was ﬁlled to the brim with unusual ways of honouring the dead, such as our visit to the Capuchin Monks, whose dead brethren have been pulled apart and washed clean in order to create a halloween-esque mosaic of pelvises and skulls below their humble place of worship. The room below the museum, which stands somewhat nonchalantly roadside, amongst restaurants and souvenir shops, featured fallen brothers whose lilting skeletons had been arranged into varying positions of protection, watching over the remnants of their kin, whose bones formed chandeliers, wall hangings, maze like bricks on the ﬂoor and decorative designs around the doors.
However, the most interesting of the visit was Basilica of San Clemente, a beautiful structure adorning a street nearby the Colosseum, entirely ordinary in church terms, to the uneducated eye.
The Basilica we see today is just the tip of the iceberg in this structure’s history, and is actually three buildings from the 2nd, 4th and 12th centuries. When excavations took place in 1857 the original 4th century basilica was discovered beneath todays San Clemente, and when further investigation took place between 1912 and 1914, in order to insert better drainage, the 2nd century chapel that survived the ﬁre of Nero in 64AD, was discovered. Interestingly, the original excavation only took place when a member of the church was haunted by the sound of running water. Deemed crazy by his colleagues, the tortured soul took to the wall with a hammer and discovered remnants of the frescoed ceiling and walls of the 4th century original, hidden behind the newer splendour.
Sixty feet below him was a cavernous Mithraeum, thought to have been shared by early Christians and Pagans seeking a place of safe worship, as both religions were then considered cults by Rome. Mithraic temples were often built in natural hideaways such as caves, and this particular location is home to some of the freshest running water in Rome. At last, I understood why the poor priest had gone mad listening to ghostly water trickles in 1857.
This article first appeared in The Australia Times Travel Magazine.