While the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus are not the only early Christian catacombs in Rome, they are definitely the most exemplary, a reputation sustained by both their tourist popularity and by the fact they were deemed “catacombs par excellence” by the very founder of Christian archeology, Giovanni Battista de Rossi, which is of no little importance for their prestige from both a scientific and a tourist point of view.

The catacombs bear the name of Callixtus who, at the time they were constructed (in the 2nd decade of the 3rd century), filled the position of deacon of Rome (under Pope Zephyrinus). Callixtus was later elected pope, and eventually martyred for his Christian beliefs. It is believed (though not known with certainty) that he was the one who commissioned the construction of the catacombs. The basis of this impressive 19 kilometers long network of stratified (5 layers) underground tunnels already existed before the decision to turn it into the nowadays spectacular catacombs (that is, the preexisting “hypogea”, meaning precisely “under the ground”).

The catacombs were created as repository for the tombs of popes and Christian martyrs. The crypt of the popes (capella dei papi) inside the catacombs, as well as the rest of the tunnels, hosted the tombs of 16 popes (placed here until the 4th century, when the crypt became to crowded) and hundreds of thousands (500,000 even) of tombs of early Christians persecuted, in most cases, for their religious beliefs. Tourists who enter the catacombs nowadays will not, however, be able to see the tombs, since the catacombs were completely evacuated before the 9th century and the tombs were placed in view of safekeeping in the Church of San Silvestro in Capite (as well as in other places of worship in Rome), the menace which determined the papal authorities to do that being the fact the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus were located outside the Aurelian Walls, which made them vulnerable to the barbarian attacks.

The site undeniably remains a place worth visiting. The spectacular and winding tunnels, which reach to even 20 meters below ground, are embellished, so to speak, with paintings and sculptures, as well as with inscriptions, which can hardly be deemed artistic achievements. On the other hand, their documentary value is unchallenged: they offer information on the life and customs of the persecuted Christians, constituting an invaluable resource for the study of the early period of Christianity. One can also easily notice the abundance of Christian symbols, such as the fish (symbol of Jesus, Son of God), the dove (symbol of the liberated soul and of the Holy Spirit), the phoenix (symbol of resurrection), and the anchor.

Catacombs of Saint Callixtus (Catacombe di San Callisto)
110 / 126, Via Appia Antica, 00179, Rome, Italy
0039 06 5130151
0039 06 51301567
[email protected]