Tag Archives: Roman cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #134: Appian Way

L'Appia Antica001Appian Way
Rome, Italy
Founded: After 312 BCE
Size: Only 10 miles remain, not all of it lined with tombs
Number of interments: none anymore
Best time to visit: on Sundays, when the road is closed to traffic
Hours of the tomb of Cecelia Metella: Closed Mondays (except Easter Monday), Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Open every other day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The ticket office closes an hour before closing time.
Admission: The 7-day ticket is valid at 3 sites: the Baths of Caracalla, the Villa of the Quintilii, and the mausoleum of Caecilia Metella. Visitors 17 and under and European Union citizens 65 and over are free. European Union teachers and citizens age 18 to 24: € 3. Full price tickets are € 6.

Perhaps the most famous ancient road was Rome’s Via Appia, the Appian Way. Begun in 312 BCE by Counsul Appius Claudius, it was envisioned as an easy way for Rome to move its army southward during the Second Samnite War. The road is 14.5 feet wide, wide enough for 5 soldiers to march abreast or for two wheeled carts to pass in opposite directions.

The first Roman highway began at the Roman forum, then extended eventually to Brindisi on the Adriatic Sea, a total of almost 350 miles. Called the “Queen of Roads,” the Appian Way allowed trade with Greece, Egypt, and North Africa.

The Appian Way may be best known these days for its role in the slave revolt lead by Spartacus in 73 BCE. Once the Roman army quashed the revolt, they crucified more than 6000 slaves and lined 130 miles of the Appian Way with their bodies.

About 10 miles of the Appian Way is preserved today as the Via Appia Antica. You can bike or walk over the same stones as Julius Caesar and St. Peter. Rick Steves suggests you catch #118 bus from either the Piramide or Circo Massimo Metro stops, but I took the hop-on, hop-off Archeobus without a problem, although TripAdvisor doesn’t seem to be a fan.

On the Appian Way, one can clearly see the road base made of large volcanic stones, cemented together with softer gravel. Along the road lie two of the early Christian catacombs, St. Calixtus and St. Sebastian. Part of it is lined with Roman-era grave monuments.

Following the lead of the Etruscans, Rome prohibited burial inside the city walls. This meant that the roads out of town were lined with ever-grander monuments. Two of these tomb-lined roads were preserved in Pompeii. In Rome, along the Appian Way, only fragments remain.

Vintage postcard of the tomb of Cecilia Metella

Vintage postcard of the tomb of Cecilia Metella

One of these, the Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella (Via Appia Antica 161; 39 06 7802 1465) is huge. Cecilia was daughter of Quintus Metellus Creticus, the conqueror who gave his name to Crete. She was also the daughter-in-law of Crassus, the richest man in Rome, who made his money trading slaves – and was the Roman general who crushed the Spartacus slave rebellion. Crassus formed the First Triumvirate with Pompey and Julius Caesar in 60 BCE, which ended democracy in Rome.

Not much is known about Cecilia herself. Her tomb was built between 50 and 40 BCE by Crassus’s eldest son, also fabulously wealthy. Cecilia may have died young, but as Tikitaly.com points out, “her tomb is the finest surviving Roman monument on the Appian Way.”

Cecilia’s reasonably well-preserved tomb is 60 feet in diameter and was once faced with travertine marble, long since looted away for other building projects. In the Middle Ages, Pope Boniface VIII gave the mausoleum to his family, from which to collect tolls along the heavily traveled road. The Caetani family fortified it as a castle and tollbooth, adding towers and battlements.

The tomb inspired Lord Byron to daydream about Cecilia in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. JMW Turner painted the Tomb of Cecilia Metella in 1830 and the finished product hangs in London’s Tate Britain Museum. Charles Dickens visited in 1845, writing in Pictures from Italy, “Here was Rome indeed at last; and such a Rome as no one can imagine in its full and awful grandeur! We wandered out upon the Appian Way and then went on, through miles of ruined tombs and broken walls…”

Now the tomb is a museum dedicated to the family of the Roman noblewoman who had been laid to rest there. It is one of nine Rome museums/archaeological sites that can be visited using the Rome Archaeological pass.

Via Appia sunset001Out beyond Cecilia Metella’s mausoleum there are fragments of other tombs lining the old road. Among them are the tombs of Emperor Gallienus, who was murdered in 268 AD, Romulus (14-year-old son of Emperor Maxentius), Seneca (the Stoic Roman philosopher), Marcus Servilius (a Roman historian, about whom not much is known), and many others. On the tomb of the family of Sextus Pompeius Justus in an inscription that tells of the grief of a father burying his young children.

Other cemeteries in Rome worth visiting:

Cemetery of the Week #8: the Protestant Cemetery of Rome

Cemetery of the Week #29: the Pantheon

Cemetery of the Week #32: the Mausoleum of Augustus

Cemetery of the Week #15: the Capuchin Catacomb

Useful links:

The National Geographic walking tour of the Appian Way

A View on Cities page on the Appian Way

Rick Steve’s advice on how to visit

The Rome Info overview on the Appian Way

Information and map of Cecelia Metella’s tomb

Rome Archaeological Pass

Archeobus tickets

Or you can explore the Appian Way by bicycle!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Big

During the last years of the Roman Republic, after Caesar conquered Egypt and vanquished Cleopatra, Egyptiana became the fashion in Rome. Access Rome says, “Numerous pyramids sprouted all over Rome.” I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that the only Roman-era pyramid still in existence sits across the street from the Piramide stop on Rome’s subway line B.

The estate of Caius Cestius built his pyramid in 12 B.C. His tomb claims he was a praetor and tribune, as well as an epulo: one of seven priests who offered sacrificial meals to the gods. Other than the pyramid, he left no mark in recorded history. Only his tomb ensured the survival of his name.

Unlike the other tombs—long destroyed—which once lined the road to Ostia, Cestius’s pyramid survived because it was incorporated into the eleven-mile wall Emperor Aurelian built to protect the city from barbarians in 271 AD. During the Middle Ages, people believed the tomb belonged to Romulus, founder of Rome. I’m fascinated by how different ages mythologized the pyramid to suit their needs. Their veneration kept the tomb intact. In fact, the pyramid owes its continued existence to serving as a landmark as much as to the protection of the Popes, even though it was as pagan as pagan could be.

My husband Mason and I came up out of the Metro to see Cestius’s hundred-foot-tall pyramid directly across the road. Aurelian’s old brick wall connected right up to it. The crumbling bricks looked fragile in comparison to the older pyramid.

Half of the pyramid lies lower than the modern surface of the ground, which seems strange because the Protestant graveyard beside it rises much higher. The cemetery was built on a hill where Rome dumped its garbage, I understand. For how many hundreds of years had this area served as a dump? What treasures lie in the soil accumulated around the pryamid?

Outside the moat around the pyramid, an historical plaque said that in his will, Cestius stipulated that he wanted his Egyptian mausoleum constructed before a year had passed after his death. The project bankrupted his heirs.

A frescoed burial room inside the pyramid spans twenty-by-fifteen feet. Apparently, one can enter the pyramid through an entrance cut into its walls during its restoration in 1663. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that when we visited. It probably wouldn’t have helped if I had. My sources, published over a span of forty years, disagree on how one might get permission to visit the interior of the tomb.

The pyramid’s marble façade glowed bright white in the late April sunshine. Although Cestius’s inscription was still legible, grass and wildflowers had sprouted from toeholds between the stone blocks, bright crimson and lavender and deep pink. I hoped my photos would capture the colors.

The pyramid as seen from inside the Protestant Cemetery

The Protestant Cemetery lies directly beside the pyramid.  It was my Cemetery of the Week #8: The Protestant Cemetery of Rome in Rome, Italy.

Cemetery of the Week #79: the Archaeological Site at Ancient Pompeii

Tomb outside the walls of Pompeii

Ancient Pompeii
Pompei Scavi
Via Villa dei Misteri 2
Pompeii, Italy
Porta Marina Superiore ticket phone +39 081 8575348/9
Buried: August 24, 79 AD
Size: 165 acres
Number of interments: unknown, but estimated at 2000
Open: April 1 to October 31 from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Last admission is at 6 p.m. November 1 to March 31 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last admission is at 3:30 p.m.
Closed: January 1, May 1, and December 25

During the Roman Empire, the Law of the Twelve Tables forbade burial or cremation inside Roman towns. Without embalming, bodies needed to be taken care of quickly. Notable or wealthy families might be granted space to build their tombs right outside the city walls. The poorer or less important you were, the farther your survivors had to carry your body to have it cremated.

From the ramparts looking out over the maze of buildings excavated from the volcanic debris, dead Pompeii seems enormous. Some villas have red tile roofs — modern restoration work — but most remain mere walls. In the background stands the murderer, Vesuvius, a little more than five miles away.

In 1748, almost 1700 years after the Roman city of Pompeii was wiped from the map, the discovery of the first tombs outside its walls on the old road to Noceria gave the world of glimpse of Roman mortuary customs.

The mausoleums look like square or rectangular boxes, built of simple bricks or volcanic stone, some faced with remnants of marble. Michael Grant’s Cities of Vesuvius reports that “The interiors of the tombs [had been] magnificently painted; and one of these edifices, closed by a single pivoted slab of marble made to present the illusion of a double door, contained extensive funeral furniture, including several urns and lamps, a gold seal ring, a miniature terracotta altar, two wine jars, and bottles of scent.” Of course, all the tombs have long since been looted of their expensive contents.

Barchilla’s tomb

One of the grandest Pompeian tombs is a large drum-shaped building with a modern marble plaque that remembers Barchilla. Although weeds sprouted from its roof when I visited — and parts of its stonework have been replaced with anachronistic stone and cement — the mausoleum stood in magnificent solemn stolidity.

Other tombs take the form of small temples with round or square pillars holding up their roofs. High overhead lurk shadowy figures, larger-than-life portrait sculptures of people whose ashes had reposed below. Unlike the Renaissance sculptures of saints guarding their tombs in Rome, these statues might actually have been carved from life.

The discovery of the tombs at Pompeii altered grave ornamentation throughout the Western world. After archaeologists excavated urns in the tombs (where they’d held sacramental water used to wash the corpses or ashes from cremations), stone carvers engraved urns on headstones that can still be found throughout Europe and the United States.

I was surprised to discover that the external necropolises (there are two at Pompeii) did not contain all the dead of the ancient city.

Pompeii had been a market town, home to 20,000. In 62 AD, a small earthquake caused damage to the city still being repaired seventeen years later, but the mountain appeared to go back to sleep. What Pompeians didn’t know was that the quake hadn’t eased the volcano’s internal pressure. Instead, gasses built up until they blew off the mountain’s crown. Rocks flew from the volcano, raining down to crush the city five miles away. Constant tremors flung down roofs and walls on people who’d just sat down to lunch. Most survivors grabbed what they could and fled.

Others, who remembered the previous earthquake, gathered provisions and hunkered down in their wine cellars to wait out the eruption. Some, like the priests of the Temple of Isis, spent too long collecting up their treasures. Everyone who did not flee died in the city. More than 1500 bodies have been found. Others are still being discovered. At this point, 20% of the buried city has yet to be excavated.

Vintage postcard of two bodies cast in plaster at Pompeii

Together in Pompeii speaks of the numbers of skeletons recovered in various places around the city. The soft parts of the buried bodies dissolved over the centuries, leaving bones inside people-shaped cavities in the volcanic ash and debris. One of the later archaeologists guessed that he could fill the holes with plaster and see the shapes of people long gone.

Over the ramparts from the road to Noceria, in the Garden of the Fugitives, stands a greenhouse that shelters plaster casts of bodies of dead Pompeians. A range of people lay crumpled under the glass. The lumpy figures are gray, as if modeled out of ashes. The rough surface of their skin looks like overlapping scales or the ruffled shape of feathers. The details of their clothes are smudged, but their gaping mouths show they’d struggled to pull in one more breath as the pyroclastic flow buried them.

Legs drawn up toward their torsos, they stretch their arms out as if the city wall could save them. Thirteen contorted figures are spaced pretty evenly, not laying atop each other, so it’s simple to distinguish between genders: the men were larger, with muscular legs. A mother reached toward her toddler. A man’s arm extended toward his wife.

Vintage postcard of Pompeiian victims and artifacts at the National Museum in Naples

I couldn’t get a good photo of the casts remaining at the death scenes in Pompeii, but my postcard collection contains several images of plaster casts displayed at the National Museum in Naples (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli). Apparently, the casts are no longer made in Pompeii, because they destroy the delicate skeletons within.

As many as 2.5 million people pay their respects at the ruins of Pompeii each year.

Useful links:

The official website

Pompeii tourist information

After some buildings have collapsed, government funding will help preserve Pompeii

Information about the plaster casts

Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Naples

Other Roman-era tombs on Cemetery Travel:

The Mausoleum of Augustus

The Pantheon

The Catacomb of St. Sebastian

A Scholarly Look at the Christian Catacombs of Rome

The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, InscriptionsThe Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions by Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this one up in a gift shop in Rome after visiting the Catacombs of St. Sebastian on the Appian Way. Now, after reading it, I want to go back to Rome and explore other underground cemeteries. Apparently, St. Sebastian’s was one of the earlier ones and others have beautiful mosaics or other decorations still in place. One even still has a saint’s bones in their original location. Sebastian’s catacombs have been thoroughly emptied over the years. Its namesake saint’s bones now lie in the basilica upstairs.

Rather than the tourist-friendly text I was hoping for, The Christian Catacombs of Rome is a scholarly work, full of terms like cubicula and arcosolia and phrases like “richly decorated with wall revetment in opus sectile.” (None of which my spell-check is liking.) Rather than the extensive bibliography of works in Italian, I would have prefered a glossary and a timeline. The book does include a removable map of 121 Early Christian Monuments in Rome and its Suburbs. Who knew there were so many?

I’m glad for the book’s extensive photo illustrations, capturing the murals, mosaics, and architectural details of the many Christian catacombs. The full-color pictures are much crisper than any tourist could capture. I wish, however, that the book was divided up so that it examined each of the more than 60 catacombs in order. I would like to be able to compare one to the next and know which are still open to visit.

A newer paperback edition is available from Amazon: The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions

Cemetery of the Week #67: the Catacomb of St. Sebastian
View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Cemetery of the Week #67: the Catacomb of St. Sebastian

Entry ticket for St. Sebastian’s catacombs

Catacombe di S. Sebastiano
Via Appia Antica, 136
00179 Rome, Italy
Telephone: 06 7850350
Founded: 1st century AD
Size: Nearly 7 miles of tunnels
Number of interments: none
Open: Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last entrance is at 4:30. Closed Sundays, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and from the third week or November until the third week of December.
Admission: Adults €8,00
Reduced ticket for children 6-12 and military personnel €5,00 Children under 6 and caretakers of the disabled are free.

Beyond the third mile marker on the old Appian Way stands a yellow church, the Basilica of St. Sebastian Outside the Walls. From the plaza, a door on your right leads to the Catacombe di San Sebastiano.

Buy your ticket at a window barred like an old train station. The lobby occupies a long low room full of fragments of marble and terracotta, many clamped tightly to the brown walls. Each item has a bird, a fish, or a lamb: symbols of Christianity to people who couldn’t read.

Guides of many languages lead tours of the catacombs, which you are not allowed to explore on your own. You’ll have to wait until there’s a large enough group that speaks your language before you begin.

The tour passes through only a fraction of the second of the four levels of the catacombs. The other levels are unlocked only to archaeologists blessed by the Pontificia Commissione di Archaeologia Sacra, a bureau of the Vatican.

You should know going in that there are no longer any bodies in the tunnels. Most were removed in the 4th and 5th centuries, when the catacombs suffered at the mercy of barbarian hordes that couldn’t breach the walls of Rome.

Yellow globes, hung at intervals near the tunnel’s ceiling, do little to brighten the gloom. You might want to bring a flashlight. With its help, you’ll be able to see scars left on the ceiling by pickaxes. Early Christians called Fossores, special miners in service to the early church, excavated the catacomb by hand. The ground here is tufa, a lava rock that is easy to dig. They carried the earth away in baskets.

The walls of the tunnel look as if bunks have been carved into the stone. The shallow niches are just large enough to tuck a body inside. The dead would be wound in a sheet and placed here without a coffin, then a slab of marble — if they were wealthy — or terracotta would seal them inside. The early Christians filled the graves on top first, then dug the floor down below them. In the tunnel where our tour group stood, the floor had been lowered five times.

Try to conjure a sense of what the place must have been like when bodies filled it. There was, of course, no embalming in the Roman world of the second and third centuries. When people died, their survivors had to cart them out of Rome, since the Law of the Twelve Tables forbade burial inside the city walls. Most Romans would not have owned a horse or an ox, especially not Christians, who tended to come from the lower and slave classes. I suspect that transportation of a cadaver presented a pressing concern in the Roman summer.

The pagan majority of Romans disposed of their dead by cremation. They burned corpses on a pyre, then collected the ashes into an urn. These urns of ashes were placed in tombs that lined the Appian Way, the road to Ostia through the Porta San Paolo, and all the other old roads leading out of Rome.

Jews practiced inhumation — burial in earth — in observation of Genesis 3:19: “Earth you are and to Earth you shall return.” We hear it most commonly as “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” from the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer. Early Christians pursued this custom, burying their dead because Christ had been placed whole in his tomb. Early Christians anticipated bodily resurrection, the way Christ had come back.

Romans called a collection of graves a necropolis: a city of the dead. Christians, many of whom spoke Greek rather than Latin, referred to their burial places as coemeteria, equivalent to dormitories. The root of dormitory, of course, means to sleep. Christians believed that their dead were merely resting (ideally in peace) until Christ came again and ushered them into heaven. This is why we refer to a graveyard as a cemetery.

Our guide led us into a room unlike any of the shadowy hallways we’d visited. Marble sheathed its floor. Its walls were whitewashed. In contrast to the rest of the catacomb, this room was brightly lit. On my left stood a simple stone table, draped with a spotless white cloth edged in lace. Across from that, on a pedestal, balanced a polished marble bust of a man in pain or ecstasy. Bernini, the architect who decorated St. Peter’s Basilica, carved the bust.

Prayer card for St. Sebastian

Sebastian was a Roman soldier who decided he could no longer persecute Christians. The other soldiers tied him to a tree and shot him with their arrows. They left him to die, but he recovered from his wounds and started to preach. They captured him a second time and killed him. Christians buried his body beneath this altar. When Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, he had a church built above the catacombs and Saint Sebastian’s bones moved into the basilica, directly overhead. One of the relics stored in the basilica is an arrow embedded in part of the pillar against which Sebastian was bound.

Our tour made one final stop. At some point during the excavation of the catacomb in the late 1800s, church archaeologists had discovered three Roman-era tombs. These little villas had been perfectly preserved when the low area where they stood had collapsed during an earthquake, then been been filled with rubble to support the church above. You can peer into these wonderfully preserved Roman tombs. Delicate mosaics brighten the surprisingly roomy interiors. One tomb had a staircase that stretched down to the tunnels below it.

“Here is the origin of the word catacomb,” our guide Maria said before we left the area. “This place was called cata cumbas, meaning the low place near the quarries. Here stood a crevice between the tufa hills where the Romans cremated their dead. Since it was already a necropolis, it made sense for the Christians to bury their dead here.”

From this place, the word catacomb spread to refer to any hall of Christian tombs, from the ossuary in the quarry under Paris to the aboveground mausoleum complex at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, California.

Useful links:

Italian homepage about the catacombs in translation

Rick Steves’ history of the catacombs

Overview of all the catacombs in Rome

Information on the bus routes to the catacombs

The Archeobus site (a tour bus that makes the rounds of Rome’s archeological sites)

My review of The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions

Other cemeteries in Rome worth visiting:

Cemetery of the Week #8: the Protestant Cemetery of Rome

Cemetery of the Week #29: the Pantheon

Cemetery of the Week #32: the Mausoleum of Augustus

Cemetery of the Week #15: the Capuchin Catacomb