Visit the Catacombs

Information for visiting catacombs

The ICS provides key information to the public who wish to tour the catacombs of Rome and its environs, particularly the Jewish catacombs of Rome.

Private and group tours to Jewish catacombs can be arranged; for further information see “Jewish Catacombs” on this site.

The ICS also facilitates visits to other sites for its members and sponsors through its contacts with scholars and institutes abroad. If you are an ICS member planning a trip to the Mediterranean area, please contact us at :

The ICS social media pages are updated regularly about other catacomb tours, including special openings of closed sites.

What were the catacombs used for?

Our modern term "catacombs" comes from the ancient site name (toponym) in Rome around the third mile of the Appian Way - "ad catacumbas", which seems to translate to "by the cavities". Around the middle of the third century CE, the Christian cemetery "ad catacumbas" develops an association to the memory or relics of the apostles Peter and Paul. Only centuries later in the Middle Ages does the word "catacomb" refer to other ancient burial grounds characterized by underground networks of tunnels. Older terms for these burial sites include "crypts" or "areas", and, of course, "cemeteries".

The growth patterns for catacombs in Rome varies, but many of the larger sites, like the Catacombs of Priscilla, are developed as communal cemeteries between the third and mid-fifth centuries CE. The Roman mortuary business came to include specifically Christian rites, and the enclosed spaces built above many catacombs seem to have functioned as covered cemeteries in which commemorative celebrations and other rituals were held. The Pope's Mass on 2 November 2019 in Priscilla took place in a modern version (early 20th c.) of one of these ancient church cemeteries, where Pope Sylvester I is said to have been buried after his death in 335. While heavily restored buildings over catacombs like the Church of St. Sylvester stand out in isolation today, in antiquity they were part of a mortuary landscape also made up of Roman-era tombs of families and other social organizations.

Why do many people continue to think Christians hid in them?

The story about Christians hiding in the catacombs to escape persecution by Roman government officials and their informers seems to be influenced by references to various popes being present in these cemeteries in sources like the Liber Pontificalis, as well as accounts of the Roman church in times of persecution, especially one famous episode mentioned in a letter of Cyprian that refers to Pope Sixtus II being captured and killed in a burial grounds on the via Appia in the mid-third century.

The creation of memorials to a number of martyrs buried in Rome encouraged pilgrimage to the catacombs, although only a small number of these sites, including San Sebastiano, San Lorenzo, and San Pancrazio, appear to have stayed open to the public since the fourth century. Popular literature of the early Middle Ages - known as 'Passion' accounts - sometimes set the stage for martyrdom in the cemeteries. Many had become well-established church institutions by that time. Most other catacombs, however, soon became inaccessible because of landslides and other structural damage. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the catacombs once again ignited popular imagination as time capsules of the early Church. Some church orders saw this appeal to tradition as the opportunity to extract "new" saints from the catacombs. With thousands of these relics spreading to all corners of the earth - all the way to India, the Americas, and certainly throughout Europe - the old stories were revitalized and retold about the heroic deaths of these individuals, using and in some instances abusing the older hagiographic traditions for apologetic ends.

This is how the archaeological nature of the catacombs became overwhelmingly defined by the presence of the martyrs, and the sites themselves were transformed into holy ground. The story of "Christians hiding in catacombs" continues to have emotional appeal because so much else of the early Church in Rome before Constantine's time remains "hidden". Scientific study of these cemeteries cannot answer all of the questions we have about the lives and beliefs of Christians in Imperial Rome. Church traditions for centuries have had to fill in the gaps in order to identify the church as a unique community within Roman society. The catacombs in their physical context - a civitas subterranea - are a refuge for some for this identity affirmation.

(Photo: Prof. Heidi Wendt visiting the catacombs of Vigna Randanini in Rome)

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