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Travelling by minivan with a maximum of 13 people, you will discover surprising underground sites and the best preserved (as well as the least crowded) Catacombs in Rome. Our specialist guides will provide you with an interactive and personalized experience.
There is another Rome underneath the city we know and love, a silent and humble city beneath the majestic monuments to Renaissance and Baroque architecture. There are centuries of history buried in the subterranean layers beneath the city’s churches and in the tunnels running through the Roman Catacombs – visit them with us on a captivating journey into the bowels of the earth. Our Underground Rome tour has been selected as one of the best walking tours in the world by Independent Traveler.
After the fall of the Roman empire the city endured centuries of hardship and decline - from being the capital of an immense empire, Rome was reduced to a small province living under constant threat of wars and political crises. There were more than 1,000,000 people living in Imperial Rome in the 1st century A.D, and even after Constantine moved the capital of the empire to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) in 330 AD, Rome still boasted around 450,000 inhabitants. And yet by the 8th century, less than 400 years later, the city’s population numbered fewer than 25,000.
This drastic decline in population coincided with traditional political institutions losing their authority, heralding the rise of a new power - the papacy. Meanwhile vast areas of the city within the ancient walls were abandoned or turned into vegetable gardens, and the remains of countless old buildings were adapted to different uses or transformed into the foundations of new buildings – often Christian churches.
What’s more, Rome was a city that was constantly at the mercy of devastatingly violent floods whenever the Tiber burst its banks - it was only at the end of the 19th century that large embankments were built along the sides of the river to guard against the perennial arrival of the floodwaters. Before this, the city’s inhabitants attempted to raise the ground level whenever possible – and so every time a building was destroyed by an earthquake, fire or flood, its ruins were buried and a new building constructed atop the rubble.
These are just some of the fascinating historical anecdotes that will be dealt with on this underground tour by our experts, as they unravel the history of Rome and its continual evolution over the centuries.
San Clemente is a very beautiful 12th-century basilica with wonderful mosaics: one of the most unique represents the Crucified Christ surrounded by beautiful trees and doves. No less impressive is the Cappella di Santa Caterina (Chapel of St. Catherine), where you can see some of the earliest surviving Renaissance frescoes in Rome by Masaccio and Masolino dating from the early 1400s. But that is only the beginning of the riches you will discover: a small stairway takes us to a perfectly preserved lower basilica dating from the 4th century AD, where amazing medieval frescoes recount fascinating Christian legends - including the life of St. Clement himself. Another little staircase takes you to a third underground level catapulting us back into the very first century AD: some of the rooms of this layer were part of an apartment block that extended over several floors, separated from another large building (perhaps the state mint) by a narrow street still visible today.
The many decorations and relief sculptures that refer to the ritual killing of a bull and to the celestial constellations testify to the fact that one of these spaces was used by the followers of the cult of Mithras at the start of the 3rd century – while a Christian sect met only a few meters away. This is not as surprising as you might think: from the beginning of the 1st century both these religions were widely followed in Rome and throughout the empire. Their similarities are also noteworthy: both celebrated ritual banquets with water and wine, and both encouraged the faithful to engage in morally correct behavior in order to reach salvation in a world beyond. Near the mithraeum are 6th century funereal remains complete with sarcophagi, early Christian symbols, and much more.
Not far from the Colosseum, the Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Saints John and Paul) preserves a corner of the middle ages beautifully intact, with a monastery and a bell tower built over the imposing ruins of a temple dedicated to the emperor Claudius. Descending into the underground level below the Basilica, we find ourselves magically experiencing the atmosphere of Roman houses dating back to the 2nd century AD, decorated with beautiful antique frescoes. The earliest complex consisted of a little uphill street and two houses, boasting elegant pagan frescoes and a small garden with a pool. Their story evolved in the 4th century when the space was transformed in a grand domus (the house of a rich Roman) incorporating the pre-existing buildings. The owners of this domus were in all likelihood the titular martyrs Giovanni and Paolo, as suggested by the decorations of the frescoes entailing touching Christian symbols. According to the historical evidence, a small church was built over their tombs in the 5th century where the faithful venerated their relics. With the passage of time the underlying part of the basilica was completely covered and forgotten: the first excavations began in 1887, and the buried areas have only recently become accessible once again.
The Catacombs of Santa Domitilla can lay a strong claim to being the best preserved early Christian catacombs of Rome. As well as exploring these captivating subterranean caves, we’ll discover the only surviving underground Basilica in Rome dating back to the 4th century A.D, named after the martyrs Nereo and Achilleo who are buried here. Stretching over 17 kilometers and containing over 150,000 bodies, it is certainly the largest Christian catacombs in Rome. Marvelling at a beautifully preserved 2nd-century fresco depicting the Last Supper featuring Christ surrounded by the 12 Apostles, we’ll learn about the roots of Christianity’s most enduring rites and rituals. Enjoy the stories of piety from Christians of the early centuries, their life during persecution in the troubled period of transition from Pagan Rome to the Christian one. Our tour will bring you to fascination, witnessing the symbols of the Old and New Testament carved on the walls of the Basilica, through the tombs and galleries of the Santa Domitilla's Catacombs. With our certified historian guide you will have a well planned path through Rome's underground levels and its hidden history.
Join us on what has become one of our most popular group tours of Rome over the last ten years, and treat yourself to a unique and fascinating insight into a rarely seen side of the Eternal City.
We provide skip-the-line entry tickets for the Catacombs and the other underground sites visited on this tour. All tickets are included in the price.
The history of Christian Rome is tightly connected with the pagan ancient world – we recommend pairing this Underground Rome itinerary with our Ultimate Colosseum tour in order to understand how ancient Rome became the capital of Christendom in these dramatic centuries of change.
If you’d like to read more about the Basilica of Saint Clement, check out this fascinating entry from our blog.
Or click here to learn more about the fascinating story of the Catacombs of Santa Domitilla in Rome.
Near the entrance to the Basilica of San Clemente. You will receive full details, including a map and photo, on booking.
This Rome walking tour includes a number of 10-15 minute walks between sites and some steep staircases. Wear comfortable shoes and bring plenty of water.
May 12, 2019
Ai Vee Yeoh
May 12, 2019
Our guides are fluent in English and have a contagious passion for Rome's inspiring cultural heritage. Experts in their fields, they will immerse you in the hidden histories and intriguing lives of history's great protagonists. So much to see, so easy to miss out: with the help of our guides, visit the most absorbing sites and uncover the stories that have changed the world. Don't miss this fascinating journey!