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Descend into the subterranean layers of Rome's fascinating and forgotten past
There is another Rome underneath the city we know and love, another silent and humble city under its grandiose Renaissance and Baroque architecture. There are centuries of history buried in the subterranean layers beneath the three churches that we invite you to visit with us on this Rome group tour, a fascinating voyage into the bowels of the earth. Our Underground Rome tour was recently selected as one of the best walking tours in the world by Independent Traveler.
There were difficult centuries for Rome, from its passage as capital of an immense empire to a small province living under constant threat of wars and economic and political crises. Even after Constantine moved the capital of the empire to Constantinople in 330 AD, Rome still numbered around 450,000 inhabitants in the 5th century AD. And yet, there were no more than 25,000 inhabitants by the 8th century AD. This drastic decline in population coincided with old political institutions falling into disuse and the rise of new power structures tied to the papacy. Meanwhile vast areas of the city within the ancient walls were abandoned or turned into vegetable gardens, and entire structures were re-adapted, often as Christian churches.
Journey back in time from the Renaissance to pagan Rome at San Clemente
San Clemente is a very beautiful 12th century AD basilica with wonderful and unique mosaics in which, among other things, the Crucified Christ is represented in a festival of trees and doves. No less impressive is the Cappella di Santa Caterina (Chapel of St. Catherine), with some of the earliest surviving Renaissance frescoes from the early 15th century AD by Masaccio and Masolino. But that is only the beginning of the surprising discoveres we will make on this group tour: a small stairway takes us to the lower basilica from the 4th century AD, which is perfectly preserved with medieval frescoes that recount some fascinating Christian legends, including the life of St. Clement himself. From here another little staircase takes us to the third underground level where we are catapulted into the first century AD: some of the rooms of this layer were part of an apartment block of several floors, separated from another large building that was perhaps a state mint by a narrow street still visible today.
From the many decorations and relief sculptures that refer to the ritual killing of a bull and to the constellations, we know that one of these spaces was used by the followers of the cult of Mithras at the beginning of the 3rd century AD, whilst a Christian sect met only a few meters away. This is not such a surprise, as from the beginning of the 1st century AD both these religions were widely diffused in Rome and 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 behaviour in order to reach salvation in a world beyond. Nearby are remains from 6th century AD burials complete with sarcophagi, early Christian symbols, and much more.
Explore ancient life in the Roman houses beneath Santi Giovanni e Paolo
Not far from the Colosseum, the Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Saints John and Paul) preserves intact a little corner of the middle ages in the form of a monastery and bell tower built upon the imposing ruins of a temple dedicated to the emperor Claudius. Its history begins in the 2nd century AD with a little uphill street and two houses, one of which had elegant pagan frescoes and a small garden with a pool. The story continues in the 4th century AD with a grand domus (the house of a rich Roman) which incorporates the pre-existing buildings and is decorated with frescoes of Christian subjects. The owners of this domus were in all likelihood the titular martyrs —Giovanni and Paolo. In the 5th century AD a small church was built over their tombs, where the faithful venerated their relics. With time the underlying past of the basilica was completely covered and forgotten: first excavations began in 1887 and the buried areas have only recently become accessible once again.
After a lovely walk past gardens still cultivated today by the nuns and the Circus Maximus, an immense area where the horse races of republican Rome were held, we will reach the third site of our subterranean Rome group tour.
Witness the meeting of pagan and Christian Rome at San Nicola in Carcere
The church of San Nicola in Carcere (St. Nicholas in Prison) is in fact absolutely unique in the world. Even at a distance we realize that there are six imposing columns of an ancient Roman temple built into the side walls of the church. Indeed, the church is entirely constructed on three temples of the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, one of which is fully incorporated into the church. Descending to the underground level we find ourselves catapulted into a remote and magical time. We are actually in the spaces—at the time open to the sky—between the three temples. We are on the beaten path of the Romans who for centuries passed this way on their daily comings and goings to the vegetable and cattle market a few steps away. The foundations and the massive load-bearing structures of the temples amazingly survived the devastation of the centuries. During the reconstruction, around the 9th century AD, it seemed a good idea to reuse the strong arms of the temples in order to anchor a church. Amongst the many interesting historical details in the resulting church, we will note an 8th century engraving in one of the columns, whilst the bell in the medieval tower is still the original one from the end of the 13th century AD.
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.
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!