The mysteries of subway Rome

Rome is a city with many works of art, but the underground of the city hides unique wonders. We take a look at some of them.

Stefano Grossi Gondi-September 19, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes
catacombs Rome

Photo: Christian symbolism typical of the catacombs. ©Wikipedia Commons

Rome is a famous city, frequented throughout the year by tourists who take the classic routes to visit monuments from the time of the Roman Empire, as well as works of art from the centuries when the Church ruled the city. The basilicas, the numerous churches, as well as the famous reminders of Roman life such as the Colosseum, the Forum, the Pantheon, etc., welcome tourists from all over the world on a daily basis; it is estimated that there are more than 4 million visitors a day.

Not only are there places in the sunlight, but the city hides many hidden places with a long history, in some cases little known.

The city has been built in overlapping layers and, thanks to them, there is a visible and an invisible city, which extends under the feet of unwitting tourists, available to those who like to make discoveries in the field of art and archeology. 


The best known, with a long history to tell, are the catacombs, which began to develop in the second century and were created in areas loaded with tuff and pozzolana. They are mostly found in the southern part of Rome, especially between Via Appia and Via Ardeatina, and are a unique experience. In the subsoil of Rome, some 40 catacombs that extend along 150 kilometers of tunnels.

Not all of them can be visited, but there are at least two that absolutely deserve the attention of tourists: the Catacombs of St. Callixtus and those of San Sebastiano. In the former were buried no less than 16 Popes, as well as an undetermined number of Christian martyrs, making it the official cemetery of the Church of Rome. The catacomb of San Sebastiano, on the other hand, is artistically more important. It is not only the frescoes and stuccoes contained in the subway burial niches, but also the Upper Basilica, which contains what was perhaps the last work by the great Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the Salvator Mundi, which the artist himself wrote that he had sculpted "only for his devotion". In history, in addition to these two catacombs, the catacombs of S. Pancrazio, S. Lorenzo, S. Agnese and S. Valentino have never been abandoned.

Churches of Rome

Four churches in particular are famous for the richness of their subway areas. Starting with San Clemente (near the Colosseum), where, going down the stairs, one passes from the medieval church to the early Christian church, rich in frescoes of incredible polychromy, and from there, further down, to the discovery of the Mithraeum and of an ancient imperial building considered by many scholars to be the ancient Mint of Rome, rebuilt here after the tremendous fire that devastated the Capitoline in 80's. There is no other place in Rome that provides such clear evidence of the great stratification of the Urbe.

S. Cecilia is located in Trastevere, and here, in a tangle of buildings, one passes from an important domus nobiliare to a modest insula popolare, enriched by a subway crypt. The place was probably occupied by the house where the young martyr lived with her husband Valeriano and where she suffered martyrdom. In the church there is a masterpiece of art: the moving sculpture by Stefano Maderno of the martyr Cecilia in the position in which she was found during the Jubilee of 1600.

More wonders of Rome

Also in the Trastevere area is the church of St. ChrysogonusUnderneath, the original church, built in the 5th century A.D., remains. About 8 meters below the road surface, you will enter the ancient nave, where you can admire the remains of frescoes with images of saints and stories from the Old Testament.

S. Lorenzo in Lucina is located along the ancient route of the Via Lata (now Via del Corso); in addition to being one of the oldest churches in the city, it houses a number of works of art and important religious testimonies, such as the relics linked to the martyrdom of the saint after whom the church is named: the famous grill and the prison chains. The excavations carried out have brought to light an archaeological area with an extensive mural stratigraphy that allows us to reconstruct the construction dynamics from the second century AD. Of extraordinary importance was the discovery of the ancient paleochristian baptistery of the 5th century AD.

Palaces of Rome

More difficult to visit are the examples of the most ancient times, which have become known thanks to the use of technology. We are referring, for example, to the Domus Romane of Palazzo Valentini, patrician buildings from the imperial period, belonging to powerful families of the time, with mosaics, decorated walls, etc. - and the Domus AureaThe famous urban villa of Nero, inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List since 1980. It is a huge construction, which to date is only partially known.

Thanks to multimedia projectors (in the first case) and sophisticated individual viewers (in the second), it is possible, in fact, to bring buildings to life in all their splendor, making it possible for the public to see them come alive around them, giving them the thrill of being able to walk on those floors, between those walls, with those lights.

Museum of the Baths of Caracalla

This museum was inaugurated in December 2012 in the basement of the thermal complex, and with the occasion the mithraeum was also reopened.

The exhibition route runs along two parallel galleries, leading from the access stairs first to the two exhibition islands dedicated to the gymnasium, then to the "frigidarium", and continuing in the second gallery containing the islands of the "natatio" and the library.

Neo-Pythagorean Basilica

Found by chance in 1917, during the construction of the railroad at Porta Maggiore, the oldest pagan basilica in the West was discovered, which still attracts many mysteries due to the lack of reliable information. It is said to be the work of a mystic-esoteric sect, whose function is still uncertain: tomb or funerary basilica, nymphaeum or, more probably, neo-Pythagorean temple.

It is still almost inaccessible, and for some years now some visitors have been able to visit these rooms on Sundays, with prior reservation. This is an example of the enormous potential for discovery of ancient Rome, which has certainly not come to an end.

Maximum Sewer

It is not classified in the list of works of art, but it is undoubtedly an important component of Roman civilization, lasting for centuries and centuries, the oldest sewer in the world that is still fully functional. The system of water management, both incoming and outgoing, allowed Rome to gather a population that had not been reached again until the nineteenth century, and the Cloaca Maxima is one of the foundations of this system. The origins of the artifact date back to the 6th century B.C.; conceived by Tarquinius Priscus and realized by Tarquinius the Superbus, it was designed as a drainage channel to channel the waters coming from the "Spinon" stream that flooded the "Argiletum", the valley of the Roman Forum and the Velabro.

However, probably its most important function was to quickly return to its bed the waters of the Tiber that periodically flooded. Studies have revealed that certainly in imperial times the Cloaca already fulfilled its function as a sewer serving a vast territory that included, in addition to the forensic area and the Velabro, at least the Suburra and the Esquiline.

The Cloaca Maxima has always functioned, although at the time of the Renaissance probably only the section below the Velabro was active. Towards the end of the 19th century, when Roma Capitale was created, an attempt was made to restore the old sewer pipes, re-establishing their operation. Since 2004, Roma Sotterranea has carried out a campaign of works that has extended the exploration of previously unexplored sections. Today, the Cloaca can be visited in the part that begins just outside the Forum of Nerva, near the Tor de 'Conti (today's Via Cavour ).

The authorStefano Grossi Gondi

Read more
In collaboration with
Do you want independent, truthful and relevant news?

Dear reader, Omnes reports with rigor and depth on religious news. We do a research work that allows the reader to acquire criteria on the events and stories that happen in the Catholic sphere and the Church. We have star signatures and correspondents in Rome who help us to make the background information stand out from the media noise, with ideological distance and independence.

We need you to face the new challenges of a changing media landscape and a reality that demands reflection, we need your support.

In collaboration with
More on Omnes
La Brújula Newsletter Leave us your email and receive every week the latest news curated with a catholic point of view.