Catacombs and the Appian Way

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Catacombs and the Appian Way

The Appian Way  This was one of the earliest of the great Roman roads which later stretched all over the empire. It was built in 312 B.C. by Appius Claudius, and led to the town of Capua. Later the road was extended as far south as Brindisi and formed an important route to the empire in the East. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Appian Way was no longer used until the time of Pope Pius VI, when it was opened again to traffic.

The monuments along the Appian Way are connected both with pagan and with Christian Rome. Today it is probably most famous for its associations with the Catacombs, although originally the road was lined with the tombs of wealthy pagan Romans.

Catacombs  The origin of the word is uncertain. Perhaps it comes from the Latin word cumbere, to lie or recline. Catacombs were in fact cemeteries, and not hiding places for Christians. The bodies were buried wrapped only in shrouds with a layer of lime in between. There were no coffins and they were laid in the numerous shelf-like compartments lining the underground galleries. It is generally thought that the Christians chose to dig these vast burial places in order to be able to accommodate as many graves as possible. The Catacombs were located outside the city walls since Roman law, for reasons of hygiene, did not allow burial within the city boundaries, except vestal virgins and later, emperors. Thus the Catacombs were in no way illegal resting places for Christians. It was only during the persecutions of the later emperors that there was any danger of the bodies being desecrated by pagan Romans. Funeral rites were celebrated in small chapels in the Catacombs, many of which were decorated with primitive paintings. Look in particular for the sign of the fish which symbolizes Christ. The Greek initials of the phrase "Jesus Christ Son of God, Saviour" spell the Greek word for fish, icthys.

The Catacombs which this Seminar Visit features are the Catacombs of St. Calixtus, the largest of the many in Rome. They are especially important for containing the bodies of Saint Cecilea and those of five popes. The guided tour is excellent and is indeed necessary to understand the historical remains. The passage of the Catacombs are very long, and it would be very easy (and dangerous) to get lost.

After the visit to the Catacombs our Seminar Visit proceeds down the Appian Way. You will the Circus of Massentius (on the left-hand side immediately after the Catacombs of St. Sebastian). This was used for chariot racing and is the best-preserved circus of this kind in Rome today.

Shortly after the circus, there is the Tomb of Cecilia Metella. A great circular tomb, it was the only one of its size built to a woman. Cecelia Matella's identity is uncertain, but she was probably the daughter-in-law of Crassus, the "Rothschild" of the Roman Empire, who financed Julius Caesar in his campaigns. Crassus' part was played by Sir Laurence Olivier in the film Spartacus. It can be visited before 4:00 p.m. In the Middle Ages the tomb was the fortress of the Caetani family. Travelers were stopped here and made to pay a toll for proceeding along the road. It was an excellent strategic spot, being situated on the highest point of the Via Appia. After the tomb, the road is lined with cypresses and smaller Roman tombs. Thanks to the 19th-century sculptor Canova, the remains of some of these monuments have been left in their original position and not placed in museums. (Some of the most valuable items are actually in the Capitoline Museum.)

Before turning left up to the Appia Nuova, point out the Villa of the Quintilli. These are ruins of once-magnificent palaces with baths, and the remains are now scattered across the fields.

The Acqueduct  Point out on the Acqueduct Nuova. It is the largest one in Italy — 22 miles long, and once used to bring water from the Alban Hills.

San Giovanni in Laterano, which you pass coming into Rome. It is a most important basilica, being the seat of the Bishop of Rome. The facade is 18th century, but the church itself is far older. Notice the fifteen gigantic statues on top: Christ, St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, as well as twelve Doctors of the Church. The foundation is 4th century, built over the barracks of the Emperor Constantine's guards. The Church was burned several times, and in the 8th century, damaged by earthquake. There are 13th century cloisters inside. (It closes at 4:00 p.m.) There is also a fragment of Pope Boniface VIII (on the first right-hand pillar in the aisle). Lorenzo Valla is buried inside, also Clement VII. Proceed up Via di San Stefano Frotondo, pointing out the Egyptian obelisk on the left by the side of the church; also on the right, the building of the Holy Stairs — the stairs up which Christ was supposed to have walked before the Crucifixion.

On the left corner of Via San Stefano is the medieval hospital of St. John — once part of the Lateran palace. Turning into the road, one passes the remains of the Claudian Acqueduct on the right, and the hospital gardens on the left. On the left further up the road is the Church of San Stefano. It is most unusual for its circular shape, mostly hidden from the bus by a wall. The composer Palestrina used to write some of his music here. It dates from the 5th century; its design is believed to be inspired by the Holy Sepulcre in Jerusalem. Inside is an antique marble seat believed to be the episcopal throne of St. Gregory.

Further along, Santa Maria in Dominica (9th century), one of many churches built over the Roman house of martyrs. It has a Renaissance facade, and beautiful mosaics in the apse. Portions of Massaccio mosaics are in the side chapel.

Just beyond is the road to SS Giovanni and Paolo, a very important church on the Celio Hill. Below it are the remains of the Roman house on which the church was built in the 5th century or earlier. There was an exceptional discovery of two Christian burial places during the excavating of the house, which dates from the 2nd or 3rd century. The house must have belonged to a Christian. This was unusual, because burial inside the city walls was forbidden. The name of the church is due to the fact that John and Paul, were believed to have lived and been martyred on the Celio Hill.


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