For thousands of years, Rome bore witness to the rise and fall of many great empires. The demise of each empire meant the creation of a new one, usually right on top of the last, resulting in layer upon layer of ancient underground ruins.
Exploring the catacombs, palaces, churches and even prisons of the Roman underground will take you back thousands of years to important epochs in ancient Roman times. Nero, Pope Clement, St. Peter and Julius Caesar all have ties to these ancient underground sites.
Basilica of San Clemente
The Basilica of San Clemente has stood in its present spot for over 2,000 years. Hidden below the medieval church are two other basilicas that mark distinct historical periods in Rome's history.
The first structure, built in 88 A.D., was owned by Pope Clement, the Catholic Church's fourth pope. Almost 100 years later, in honor of the Pope, another basilica was built atop his home. This basilica stood until 1084 when it was burned down by the invading Normans. Construction on the present-day basilica was started in 1108. The half-burned church was filled in with dirt and the new Medieval style church built on top. The two lower basilicas were discovered in 1857. Both were excavated and are open to the public for viewing.
Nero's Domus Aurea (Golden Palace)
After a devastating fire that decimated much of Rome in 64 A.D., the Greek emperor Nero built a huge palace surrounded by markets, gardens, a lake and an aqueduct on land that had once been the city's center.
After Nero's death, much of the palace and its surrounding buildings and gardens were destroyed by succeeding emperors asserting their power and attempting to erase the memory of Nero. Much of the grounds were covered with earth, the buildings filled in with dirt or large foundation blocks were put inside as foundational support for other buildings constructed above them. Some of the excavated ruins are open to the public, though reservations are required.
Below the church of San Pietro in Carcere you'll find a dark, dank underground prison built between 640 and 616 B.C. Comprised of two levels, the top level acted as a holding cell before prisoners were lowered to the bottom level. It is said that St. Peter was kept in this prison before he was executed. A natural spring in the floor of the lower level is where he baptized fellow prisoners.
In the basement of the Museo Barracco, a museum displaying some of Italy's finest Roman, Greek and Egyptian sculptures, are the remnants of a fourth century A.D. home. Columns, walls, flooring and a large marble basin give you a glimpse of what was once a grand home with a large courtyard.
Located underground in various spots throughout the city, Rome's catacombs were ancient burial grounds used mostly by Christians, though Jewish and Pagan sites have also been found. Created out of necessity because land for burial was scarce in Roman times, the catacombs were also used as a place to hide for Christians and other religious groups who were being persecuted for their beliefs. Lined with religious and historical frescoes and sculptures, the catacombs are an important look into early Christian and Jewish art.