As you walk around Rome you'll see reminders of its past everywhere but if you go underground, you'll see even more ancient Roman ruins. One of the best places to explore below street level is the Basilica of San Clemente, near the Roman Colosseum.
Basilica of San Clemente and Mithraic Altar:
We took the Small Group Catacombs Tour with The Roman Guy, which starts at the 12th century Basilica of San Clemente and takes an in-depth look at the layers of history below the church as well as a short tour of the frescoes and mosaics in the current basilica. Our guide, who was very knowledgeable about both Roman history and Catholic religion, gave an excellent tour that was scholarly yet engaging and entertaining. While you can visit the ruins without a guide, which I have done, I found it much more interesting to have his explanations and he pointed out things that I hadn't seen on my own.
Below the current church is the original 4th century Basilica which was decorated with beautiful frescoes over the centuries it was in use, some depicting scenes from the life of Saint Clement. Also in the 4th century basilica are the tomb of Saint Cyril and a marble sarcophagus.
Descending via a 1st century staircase we reached the bottom level where there are remains of 1st century Roman buildings, one that was most likely a commercial building and another a block of apartments. Part of the apartment building was modified for use in the following century by followers of the Mithraic cult which flourished in Rome until it was outlawed in 395. There's a chamber with a 2nd century altar to Mithras next to a room that was the Mithraic school. Our guide gave us an interesting overview of this mysterious ancient religion.
Appian Way and Catacomb Tour:
Following our church tour we were picked up in a mini-van and driven to the Via Appia Antica, the ancient Appian Way. We again delved into the first century with a tour of the Catacomb of Domitilla, the oldest and one of the best preserved of the Roman catacombs.
Our guide led us through part of the labyrinth of tombs, explaining the burials and talking about some of the people who were buried in this catacomb. We also saw some very interesting remains of frescoes that included an early depiction of Jesus Christ, different from what we envision today.
Catacombs can only be visited on a guided tour and although some tours can be booked directly at a catacomb ticket office, these can be large groups and don't always have an English-speaking guide. Because this tour has a maximum size of 12, I found it much more enjoyable than the standard big group tour I had gone on at a different Appian Way catacomb a few years ago. I could hear and see everything easily as our guide led as along and he was able to answer our questions and explain things we didn't understand.
After the catacomb visit, we walked on a small part of the Appian Way, the ancient road built by the Romans, and learned about its history before being transported back into Rome.
I highly recommend The Roman Guy's San Clemente and Catacomb tour. Our guide was excellent and gave us a unique look into ancient Roman culture and underground remains of Rome.
Tours with The Roman Guy:
- Small Group Catacombs Tour Details
- Colosseum Top to Bottom Tour
- Before or After Hours Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums Tour
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary tour for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.