We had quite a full day planned for ourselves beginning with a visit to Saint Sebastians Catacombs not too far from where we were staying while in Rome. We opted for a taxi ride to the catacombs although you can easily take the metro there. Rome is quite literred with many different catacombs that you can visit (all found outside the city walls). We choose to visit this one because it was one of the oldest.
Below is a little history of the catacombs followed by some history on the catacombs we visited and a few photos of the Basilica and the exterior as you are not allowed to take any photographs inside the catacombs themselves (although some people in our tour group did any ways).
In ancient Roman times, no one was allowed to be buried within the walls of the city. While pagan Romans were into cremation, Christians preferred to be buried (so they could be resurrected when the time came). But land was expensive, and most Christians were poor. A few wealthy, landowning Christians allowed their land to be used as burial places.
The 40 or so known catacombs are scattered outside the ancient walls of Rome. From the first through the fifth centuries, Christians dug an estimated 375 miles of tomb-lined tunnels, with networks of galleries as many as five layers deep. The volcanic tuff that Rome sits atop — soft and easy to cut, but hardens when exposed to air — was perfect for the job.
The Christians burrowed many layers deep for two reasons: to get more mileage out of the donated land, and to be near martyrs and saints already buried there. Since they figured the Second Coming was imminent, there was no interest in embalming the body.
When Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in A.D. 313, Christians had a new, interesting problem: There would be no more recently persecuted martyrs to bind them together and inspire them. Instead, the early martyrs and popes assumed more importance, and Christians began making pilgrimages to their burial places in the catacombs.
In the 800s, when barbarian invaders started ransacking the tombs, Christians moved the relics of saints and martyrs to the safety of churches in the city center. For a thousand years, the catacombs were forgotten. In early modern times, they were excavated and became part of the Romantic Age's Grand Tour of Europe.
When abandoned plates and utensils from ritual meals were found, 18th- and 19th-century Romantics guessed that persecuted Christians hid out in these candlelit galleries. The popularity of this legend grew — even though it was untrue. By the second century, more than a million people lived in Rome, and the 10,000 early Christians didn't need to camp out in the catacombs. They hid in plain view, melting into obscurity within the city itself.
The underground tunnels, while empty of bones, are rich in early Christian symbolism, which functioned as a secret language. The dove represented the soul. You'll see it quenching its thirst (worshipping), with an olive branch (at rest), or happily perched (in paradise). Peacocks, known for their purportedly "incorruptible flesh," embodied immortality. The shepherd with a lamb on his shoulders was the "good shepherd," the first portrayal of Christ as a kindly leader of his flock. The fish was used because the first letters of these words — "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior" — spelled "fish" in Greek. And the anchor is a cross in disguise. A second-century bishop had written on his tomb, "All who understand these things, pray for me." You'll see pictures of people praying with their hands raised up — the custom at the time.
One of the smallest Christian cemeteries, (The Catacombs of San Sebastian) this has always been one of the most accessible catacombs and is thus one of the least preserved and located on the Via Appia in Rome.
San Sebastiano’s crypt is located below the 13th century church which sits atop the Catacombs. His restored crypt is marked by a new table altar which has been built over the site of the original. Worth noting is the bust of St. Sebastian which has been attributed to the famous artist Bernini. Peter and Paul were believed to be buried here in the rear of the basilica.
All tours inside the catacombs are guided as you are not allowed to wander them alone, for many reasons. It is quite dark and cold down inside the catacombs so bring something warm to wear. If you are claustrophobic I suggest you sit this one out.
(images sources 1, 2)
HOW TO GET TO THE CATACOMBS:
Catacombs of San Sebastiano:
You can reach the Catacombs of San Sebastiano from the San Giovanni Metro Station. Once you get off here , take the bus nr 218 and get off near the Fosse Ardeatine. Walk along via delle Sette Chiese to the catacombs entrance.
You can also take a taxi there. The price will depend on the distance you need to be driven. We paid around 8 Euro for our ride to the catacombs from our hotel in the Ancient Rome neighborhood.