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.
REMEMBERING THE APOSTLES
One level above the piazzuola are some tablets with graffiti on the walls. This area is still underground, but archaeologists maintain that at one time it was an open-air trapezoidal terrace (triclinium) with covered loggias, benches along two sides and stairs leading to a well below – built on top of the sand-covered piazzuola. This must have been a type of open-air taverna with country views. In fact, Christian mourners burying or visiting their dead in the catacombs had to trek quite a way out of Rome, so they brought refreshments with them, and shared them here, as a sort of remembrance feast (refrigerium).
There are hundreds of graffiti references here to the Apostles Peter and Paul. And in fact, Roman historians know that around the middle of the third century, an intense cult to the memory of Peter and Paul began at some point along the Appain Way. But why here, when Peter was buried at the Vatican and Paul on the Via Ostiense? This is a mystery, but most scholars offer the following explanation.
In 257 Valerian (Emperor 253-9) began a rigorous persecution of Christians, forbidding them to celebrate the sacraments or assemble for burying their dead. Since the Apostles’ tombs were strictly patrolled, the Christians may have secretly transferred their remains to this less-known cemetery (in 258).
This site, dating from the mid-third century, has always been known as the Memoria Apostolorum. Many of the graffiti inscriptions, in both Latin and Greek, are personal invocations to Peter and Paul (‘Peter and Paul pray for Victor’; ‘I, Thomas Caelius, have taken refreshment here in honour of Peter and Paul’). All this supports the assumption that the Apostles’ relics were temporarily moved here during Valerian’s raids.
LOOKING FORWARDS AND BACKWARDS
Soon after Constantine (306-37) legalized Christianity, the Apostles’ remains were evidently returned to their former shrines. In the fourth century a great basilica was built, perhaps by Constantine himself, over the Memoria Apostolorum and called the Basilica Apostolorum, to recall the earlier sanctuary. By the Middle Ages, however, the basilica had changed its allegiance, and its name, to St. Sebastian, powerful protector against the plague in medieval times.
The early Christian basilica was completely restructured by Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1576-1633) in 1609, and that dull and sterile seventeenth-century church, with its single hall-like white nave and shiny floors, is the one that survives today. there are things to see: an elaborate gilded wood ceiling; Annibale Carracci’s painting, on the right of the entrance, of the medieval St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-73), who frequently prayed here, as did the early Doctor of the Church, St. Jerome (340-420), and Rome’s male patron saint, the sixteenth-century St. Philip Neri (1515-95), shown, respectively opposite St. Bridget and towards the front of the church; St. Sebastian’s altar (to the left of the entrance), with an overly ecstatic marble sculpture by Antonio Giorgetti (d. 1670).
Perhaps visitors can recover some of their earlier awe by visiting the ‘chapel of the relics’, to the right of the entrance. Here, between an arrow that presumable wounded St. Sebastian and the column to which he was bound, are the supposed imprints of Christ’s feet, left, according to legend, when the Saviour met Peter fleeing Rome along the Appian Way. This stone (originally kept in the Quo Vadis chapel, mentioned earlier) has the carved outlines of two feet, and the measurements of the footprints correspond almost exactly with the one foot imprinted upon what tradition has held to be Christ’s burial sheet, the Shroud of Turin.
Excerpt from Hager, June. Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London), 1999.