Exploring Ancient Rome Underground
Treasures of the Roman Empire
by Marianne Scott
Many travelers fantasize about being able to leap centuries, imagining themselves in a future utopia or experiencing a medieval joust. So when my husband, David, was speaking at a climate change conference in Rome, Italy, I chose to time travel in a real place in real time by touring some of Rome’s underground sites. More than once, I wondered if I would have walked Rome’s streets as an affluent housewife or as a slave!
Without knowledgeable guides, I wouldn’t have appreciated the rich history and evolution of the three churches/crypts I visited on my first tour, nor the Palatine Hill and Colosseum on the second. Booking with small-group operator, Through Eternity Tours, I met two guides, Gracelynn Monaco and Enrica Armementa, both well schooled in Rome’s heritage.
Like most ancient metropolises, Rome, 2,700 years old, is a city of buried history. Gracelynn called Rome the “big lasagna,” while Enrica described it as a “fat layer cake.” Rome’s architectural environment is a tale of continuous building, tearing down, recycling stone and debris, rebuilding after fires and incorporating fallen masonry after earthquakes. When consuls and emperors succeeded each other—often resulting from assassination—they renovated or rebuilt the palaces of their predecessors on Palatine Hill—the highest of Rome’s seven hills. “I wish we could X-ray the ground beneath us,” said Gracelynn. “Much of Rome is interred beneath its own remains in layers up-to-30 feet deep. Only three percent has been excavated.”
On my first day, Gracelynn, seven others and I met outside the Basilica San Clemente, named after the first-century Pope Clement. The hollowed-out threshold—worn by millions of footfalls—gives entry into the richly decorated Romanesque-style church built between 1098 and 1125. “See those pillars,” Gracelynn pointed. “They’re marble, granite and other stone. All recycled from other sites. In Latin, it’s called scolia, or ‘spoils.’ Those mosaic floors were also carved from leftover stone, some incorporating prized Egyptian porphyry.”
In the 1850s, Irish Dominican priest/archaeologist Joseph Mullooly began excavating the 4th century Christian basilica beneath San Clemente, installing staircases and reinforcements. Sniffing the earthy scents as we descended the staircase, we found remnants of the fourth-century Christian church with large blocks of tufa (a form of limestone) supporting the weight of the basilica above. Nineteenth-century fading copies of original frescoes depicting Christian scenes festoon the walls. Bits of sculptures and relics are imbedded in the buttressing walls’ plaster.
Then, a surprise on the third level down. I’d read about the rivalry between the worshippers of Jesus and Mithras in the first three centuries AD. A mithraeum, a shrine displaying statuary of this disappeared cult was near the old Christian church. “Mithraism attracted soldiers and didn’t allow us women to take part in their rites,” said Gracelynn. “That altar reflects the belief that Mithras was born from a rock. He’s plunging a sword into a sacred bull.”
We emerged from the dark caverns to walk a quarter hour in glorious October sunshine to the church of Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Saint John and Paul), who are thought to be Christian martyrs. The edifice has had many iterations and has no pastoral function today, but is a popular wedding venue.
Descending to the crypt excavated between 1857 and 1958, we found many colorful, well preserved frescoes, intricate brickwork, living quarters, parts of apartment buildings and a wealthy family’s mansion. I was pleased to see how Romans had increased comfort by including a bathhouse, fountain and latrines. Like many places today, the mansion had replaced former, lower-status apartment buildings when the area was gentrified.
To reach San Nicola in Carcere (St. Nicholas in Prison), we strolled past the Circus Maximus, an immense area where the horse races of republican Rome were held (reminding me of Ben Hur), and reached our third subterranean site. Again, it’s a church of many layers, with six columns from the 200 BC temple of Juno embedded in its 10th-century church’s outside wall. Three temples (honoring Juno, Janus and Spes) and remnants of an Etruscan vegetable market and slave market rest under the church. The temples once served as a jail.
According to Roman mythology, the Palatine Hill, part of my second-day tour, contained the cave where twins Romulus and Remus were found by the she-wolf Lupa, who suckled them. Later, in a power struggle, Romulus killed Remus, became king and named the city after himself.
Enrica led us on a brisk walk up the most central of Rome’s seven hills, rising 40 meters/131 feet above the Roman Forum—once the site of market places and a location for celebrating military victories. From on high, I relished the terrific views we had of these mythic places, now containing a hodgepodge of preserved and ruined buildings, pillars, arches, walls, niches, bits of mosaics, courtyards and the remains of palaces. Some excavations show former underground chambers; other wall openings reveal dwellings and meeting places. What especially caught my eye are the many levels of “the big layer cake” revealed by the hill’s sides.
Palatine Hill was the favorite dwelling place of Rome’s affluent one percent. “Its height provided cool breezes and rose above the Tiber’s frequent floods,” said Enrica. “These people had running water. There were tunnels where slaves would light fires to heat the floors of rooms above. When emperor Augustus took office (27 BC), it became the residence of emperors alone. And after the great fire, Nero rebuilt his palace here.”
Along the paths, placards describe the structures left in place, and which potentate was responsible for their construction. I learned that Rome lost much population after the Teutonic tribes ended the empire around 475 AD. “As buildings were abandoned, people used whatever they could carry away,” said Enrica. “After the 10th-century earthquake, stone-robbers got more pieces. It was the original ‘reuse, waste nothing.’”
My visit to the underground portions of the Colosseum— the largest amphitheater ever built—completed our tour. This six-acre site has a similar evolving past as the other buildings I’d visited. Emperor Vespasian started it in AD 72; the theater could hold up to 80,000 fans who came to watch gladiator fights, animal hunts, mock sea battles and executions. After the sack of Rome by invading Visigoths in August 410AD, this city’s vast structure was used for housing, workshops and a monastery. This was the first time in almost 800 years that Rome had fallen to a foreign enemy.
We walked among many corridors that divide the Colosseum’s central oval. The chambers that once housed lions and gladiators gave me twinges of distress. A replica of a cage showed how a system of ropes and pulleys could lift lions through trapdoors to the spectacle floor. This history is real, but the fact that men, trained to fight to the death or defending themselves against hungry predators, is horrifying. Yet these bloodsports—and the bets placed on their outcomes—were part of the popular entertainment that kept the populace from revolution.
My two tours were a terrific introduction to a small part of this multi-layered city. Although these sites can be visited on one’s own, having a well-informed guide makes the history and evolution of these churches and heritage venues vastly richer.
Follow Up FactsMany underground tours are available in Rome; to see all the sites could take months. I chose Through Eternity Tours (www.througheternity.com/) because they lead small groups and my time was limited. Registration provides detailed instructions on public transport. Registration on line is the easiest way to secure a spot.
The first day lasted four hours, including the walks between the three venues; the second Underground Rome Tour, lasted about 6.5 hours, with a short break for lunch. To participate, you must be able to walk for those number of hours and capable of climbing hills and stairs. Floors underground are often uneven and lighting is sparse. I brought a small flashlight, snack and water. Sturdy walking shoes are a must.
Based in Victoria, British Columbia, Marianne Scott writes for numerous publications in the U.S., Canada and the UK. She also writes as a volunteer for some non-profit organizations. Marianne is the author of Naturally Salty — Coastal Characters of the Pacific Northwest, and Ocean Alexander, the First 25 Years. Her website is www.saltytales.com.
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Exploring Ancient Rome Underground