Beneath the cypress and pine trees along the Appian Way and other roads leading out of ancient Rome extends a vast city of the dead. Here, in the first centuries AD, early Christians carved out labyrinths of dark tunnels, some on three or four levels, to host underground tombs and secret chapels.
Apart from its reputation as Rome’s first Christian catacomb, St. Sebastian offers the pilgrim two other important discoveries. It was the burial place and shrine of one of early Christianity’s most popular martyrs. It also contains an archaeological mystery – traces of the Apostles Peter and Paul, whose presence here was venerated for only a short period in Christian history.
EVOKING EARLY CHRISTIANITY
St. Sebastian is located at the corner of the Old Appian Way and Rome’s ritual pilgrimage route, the road of Sette Chiese, or Seven Churches. Sometime during the first millennium, pious pilgrims began the custom of visiting Rome’s four major basilicas, sometimes in a single day. Later, in the sixteenth century, three other basilicas were added to the itinerary, and the road which led from one basilica to another was called Sette Chiese. The last basilica was St. Sebastian, built over the catacomb.
This sacred spot is ideal for beginning a pilgrimage through the churches of Rome. Few other Roman sites are as rich in early Christian memories. Poplars and umbrella pines, interspersed with ruined tombs and mausoleums, march along the ancient highway. The visitor can almost hear the tramping imperial legions, off to conquer outlying provinces.
A procession of Christians on the Appian Way around AD 61, greeting the Apostle Paul upon his entrance into Rome, is described in the Acts of the Apostles 28: 14-15. Nearby, according to legend, Christ appeared to St. Peter as he fled from the Mamertine prison. A small chapel down the road marks the spot where the Apostle asked Jesus, ‘Domine quo vadis?’ (Lord, where are you going?). Jesus’s reply, that he was entering Rome for a second crucifixion, convinced St. Peter to return to his flock – and certain martyrdom. Early Christian families walked this route to bury their friends, relatives and martyred dead in underground graves outside the city walls. Many brought refreshments for a discreet banquet in honour of the deceased.
St. Sebastian was considered the first catacomb, and gave its appellation to all the others. It is a confusing archaeological site and only a very limited section is open for visiting. But despite the uncertainty surrounding its history, the following chronology has been conjectured by scholars and archaeologists.
Perhaps as early as the first century, the Christian Catacomb of St. Sebastian began in the galleries of the tufa pit on the Appian Way. Next to the depression stood two country villas and a series of impressive pagan tombs, suggesting that wealthy converts may have allowed the Christians to build on the land. By the third century, the Christians’ underground cemetery was extensive and well known. The site became even more famous because of a much-frequented sanctuary, and as the shrine of the martyr St. Sebastian. in the fourth century a great basilica was constructed over the catacombs, perhaps by Constantine.
Excerpt from Hager, June. Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London), 1999.