Explore Subterranean Wonders Beneath Rome

The rest of Rome's history is there, it's just underground

Herb Neufeld Follow Parco Regionale dell'Appia Antica, Rome
••• Herb Neufeld/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Perhaps you've been to Rome. You've probably seen the Coliseum, the Forum, a dozen or so churches, and the Vatican. If so, you've only scratched the surface.

Underground, beneath the Coliseum lies a rabbit-warren of rooms where the death-defying spectacles were prepared. Beneath that, archaeologists have excavated the skulls of tigers, giraffes, bears, and other animals used in the shows.

And those churches you've visited for their renaissance art most likely harbor pagan secrets below their floors as well.

Basilica of San Clemente

One of the most fascinating adventures one can take is to descend into the underground below the 12th-century Basilica of San Clemente. Here there are two excavated levels, one revealing the plan of a 4th-century Basilica, and the other some 1st century Roman buildings. In one of these is a perfect example of a temple of Mithras, a Persian God who probably migrated back to Italy with soldiers and slaves. (More on Mithras)

(In summer, the Basilica offers classical music concerts in the enclosed outdoor courtyard. The Rome New Opera Festival is to be held there. If you'd like to spend an enchanting evening, find the dates of the concert posted outside the Basilica. You can purchase tickets at many of the small tabacchi (cigarette stores) across the street.

In general, the cult of Mithras had its meetings and meals underground, so if you see a sign to a Mithraeum it will usually represent an opportunity to get underground, as you can for example in ancient Campania at the Mithraeum di Capua.

Case Romane del Celio

Below the Basilica of Ss. Giovanni e Paolo are a complex of Roman houses restored by the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma and the Soprintendenza per i Beni Artistici e Storici.

Nero's Domus Aurea

Nero's enormous pleasure palace called Domus Aurea is in the process of some restoration and remedial work, but visitation with a reservation is possible.

Getting there: The Domus is on the Viale della Domus Aurea across from the Coliseum. The easiest way is to take the Metro LINE "B" getting off at the Station Colosseo.

Crypta Balbi

Visitors point to the many layers of the Crypta Balbi as a way to put into perspective the forces that buried classic Rome. Inside is a section of Museo Nazionale Romano where you'll learn about the occupation layers you'll see.

  • Cost: 4 Euros
  • Address: Via delle Botteghe Oscure, 31

Necropolis - St Peter's Basilica

Here's an acclaimed site that needs some planning in advance to visit. Besides two-story high mausoleums, there's an entire city under the Vatican.

St. Peter's tomb is reported to be here, but the excavation seems to have been bungled, in part due to the suspiciously watchful eye of the Vatican.

You can read the whole story in the entertaining and informative "When in Rome: A Journal of Life in Vatican City" by Robert J. Hutchinson.

Underground Rome (Roma Sotteranea)

There are other subterranean visits to be made in Rome, and an enormous compendium of information on just about everything underground in Rome is to be found at Roma Sotteranea (English) which also organizes tours.

Roma Sotteranea has recently updated their website and expanded their tour offerings. You can now visit many sites, above and below ground, normally closed to the public through the organization, whose main activity is to document and explore underground archaeological sites in collaboration with the Superintendent of Archaeology. Even if you don't go on a tour, you can find out a wealth of information on this site about many of the "invisible cities" lurking underground in Rome.

They also offer a newsletter of their activities.

Underground Tours and Excursions Near Rome

Many towns in Lazio and nearby Umbria sit atop ancient and recent excavations in the relatively soft tufa rock. Folks have been creating everything from bomb shelters to wine cellars, underground churches to pigeon-breeding rooms in these excavations--some of which threaten to collapse the cities that are built over them.

Mary Jane Cryan describes many of them in Mysterious Underground Sites near Rome. We recommend the Orvieto underground tour (you can also visit the Etruscan Tombs a bit down the hill from Orvieto as well).