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.
This pilgrimage to Christianity’s earliest underground burial places began with a visit to the catacomb from which all other take their name. The next stop is the St. Calixtus Complex, oldest official cemetery of the Roman Church.
PAST AND PRESENT
Not far from the St. Sebastian Catacomb, slightly nearer the city-walls, the Catacombs of St. Calixtus are reached by a poplar-lined drive off the Appian Way. The St. Calixtus Catacombs probably originated around 150AD as the private open-air burial ground of the noble Cecili family, whose converted Christian members allowed Christian burials on their land. Under Calixtus (third century) this subterranean graveyard, comprising at least five underground cemeteries, originally independent from one another, was organized and administered by the early Chruch. By the fourth century it was one of Rome’s most extensive catacombs – eventually extending over an area of almost twenty kilometres, on four different levels of three to thirty metres in depth, and including approximately half a million tombs.
The St. Calixtus Catacombs owe their creation, and later their rediscovery after long centuries of oblivion, to two remarkable individuals.
St. Calixtus came from a family of Christian slaves in third-century Rome. His extraordinary talent for accounting and administration earned him his freedom and a position with a wealthy banker. Rumours of fraud and embezzlement or maybe simply envy caused Calixtus to be sent off to the Sardinian mines, by during a general amnesty the resilient young Christian appeared again in Rome, where he convinced the reigning Pope Zephyrinus (199-217) to appoint him chief deacon and administrator of the large underground cemetery which now bears his name.
After serving as the catacombs’ guardian and administrator for almost twenty years, Calixtus himself became an important Pope (217-22). He established one of the first house churches (now the basilica of S. Maria Trastevere), and was martyred by being thrown into a well near that same spot. Calixtus was not buried in his catacombs, but in the smaller cemetery of St. Calepodius on the Via Aurelia.
Over the centuries the catacombs, except those of St. Sebastian, were covered up and forgotten – barring some isolated discoveries in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Then in 1849 an enterprising young archaeologist named Giovanni Battista de Rossi (c. 1822-94) tripped over a broken slab of marble in a vineyard on the Appian Way. Reading the inscription fragment “NELIUS MARTYR”, he guessed that the missing part named Pope Cornelius (251-3), who was known to have been martyred and buried in a catacomb nearby. With the help and encouragement of Pope Pius IX, de Rossi began digging in the open fields and eventually excavated this vast cemetery complex.
Excerpt from Hager, June. Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London), 1999.