Descending the stairs, the temperature dropped immediately. All around us on the walls were broken remnants from ancient tombs; smashed gravestones that once marked the final resting place of loved ones. The door closed behind us, cutting off the warmth of the summer sun; the only light came from skylights scattered along the path. At one time, small oil lamps dotted the walls, giving enough light for the Christians to pray for their loved ones in the subterranean catacombs of Saint Callixtus. Our guide, Brother Obet Narvaez, was an animated man, originally from the Philippines, his joviality while telling his stories was in stark contrast to the sombre atmosphere of death.
The Catacombs of Saint Callixtus are a labyrinth of tombs dating back to the middle of the second century, when Christians in Rome were often persecuted. They take their name from the martyred Pope Callixtus, who was custodian of the tombs for almost twenty years. Life in Ancient Rome was not easy for Christians. They faced persecution on many occasions and had to fight for their freedom. Very few Christians had ownership of land so they began to bury their dead underground. There are 60 catacombs in Rome but only 6 are open to the public.
As we entered inside, an eerie silence fell over our group. Just minutes before, Brother Obet had been making us giggle uncontrollably in the chapel. Now he was explaining how the Barbarians had smashed their way through the tombs; ransacking everything in their search for buried treasures. They’d left behind such a mess that when Giovanni Battista de Rossi rediscovered the tombs in 1854, there were still human bones littering the floor. Bones that the first visitors to the tombs decided to take home as souvenirs. 90% of the 500, 000 graves were raided and ruthlessly emptied. The Barbarians were efficient; they simply smashed through the marble gravestones and swept out everything inside. Now, only bare shells line the walls.
As we ventured further inside, we came to a small room bearing the graves of 9 popes. This room was named by De Rossi as “The Little Vatican”. The individual stories of each of the popes demonstrate the persecution that early Christians faced. Perhaps the most haunting story of all is that of St. Sixtus II. During the reign of Emperor Valerian, Christianity was not recognised as a religion and the Church was considered a criminal organisation. Valerian sent two letters regarding Christians. The first, in 257, forbade Christians from holding meetings in cemeteries. The second, in 258, ordered that bishops and church officials be put to death. Christian senators and equites were to be stripped of their titles and lose their property. They were also to be executed if they did not perform sacrifices to the Roman gods. On the 6th August 258, while presiding over a liturgy in Saint Callixtus cemetery, Sixtus was ambushed by soldiers and beheaded along with four other deacons. After the persecution ended, the Crypt of the Popes became a frequented place of prayer. It was transformed into a small chapel and two marble stones were inscribed with poems about the buried martyrs.
We continued on through the labyrinth, all the while trying to quell the feeling that something may reach out and grab our legs as we passed. The corridors went on and on, a never-ending catalogue of the dead. Many of the tombs were small; young children who succumbed to disease or persecution, perhaps thrown to the wild animals or burned as human torches. Christianity was the enemy of the Roman Empire; it went against the core Roman principles that encouraged slavery and exploitation in the name of the Emperor.
Symbols decorated the tombs in the final room. The first burial chamber of the earliest Christians; those who gave their lives in martyrdom, fighting for what they believed in. An anchor represented hope in the promise of a future life; symbolising a safe port after death. A dove watched over us as we held a minute’s silence in remembrance of those who died so that Christianity could continue. I’m not a religious person but listening to the stories from Brother Obet, it’s hard not to be moved by a visit to the catacombs.
If you do decide to visit the catacombs of Saint Callixtus, be sure to stay safe from pickpockets with this handy guide.
Factual information for this article was adapted from “The Catacombs; The Fascination of an Unknown World” by Antonio Baruffa, translated by John H Parker, FMS
Read more about the catacombs here