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§       The Crypt of the Popes       §

• Did you know that the nine of Rome's early bishops were buried in the Crypt of the Popes?
Catacombs Rome

The Catacombs of Rome film documents the history of the Crypt of the Popes, in the catacombs of Saint Callixtus. The Crypt is one of the most important historical monuments discovered in the catacombs. The story of the crypt illustrates the complete history of the catacombs in general.


Study Guide
Crypt of the Popes

What is the historical importance of the Crypt of the Popes?
Catacombs Rome

The Crypt of the Popes is located in the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus along the Appian way. Discovered in 1854 by the noted archeologist, Gian Battista de Rossi, the Crypt of the Popes was thus named because nine of Rome's early bishops were buried there.

De Rossi's scientific research of archeological and historical sources led him to the conclusion that there was a very important chamber to be found somewhere within the catacombs of St. Callixtus. Confident of this, he continued his excavations, overcoming many difficulties.

The pioneer archeologist unearthed the crypt, and the fragments which had remained buried within for centuries, proved to be an astounding discovery. The marble tomb slabs belonging to six popes were discovered. The epitaphs of three popes however were missing. All were popes of the third century!

In chronological order, their names were:

  • St. Pontianus (230-235) - banished by the Emperor Alexander Severus to forced labor in the Sardinian mines, where he died from ill treatment. Pope Fabian had his remains brought back to Rome and laid within the crypt.
  • St. Antherus (235-236) - his 43 day pontificate was spent in prison where he died.
  • St. Fabian (236-250) - the large part of his pontificate was during a period of little persecution. He was decapitated when the persecutions of the Emperor Decius began.
  • St. Lucius (253-254) - his short pontificate was during a period of violent persecutions.
  • St. Stephen (254-257) [epigraph not found] - he was pope during the violent persecution of the Emperors Valerian and Gallienus.
  • St. Sixtus II (257-258) - beheaded along with his deacons by soldiers of the Emperor Valerian.
  • St. Dionysius (259-268) [epigraph not found]
  • St. Felix (269-274) [epigraph not found] was martyred under the Emperor Aurelian.
  • St. Eutichian (275-283)

    The Popes have always served as bishop of Rome, following in the steps of Rome's first bishop, St. Peter. In the marble tomb slab of Pope Fabian we see his name written in greek: FABIANOS followed by the first three letters of the greek word for bishop, EPI, (episcopos). Lastly we note the letters MR, the abbreviation used to signify martyr.

    Catacombs Rome

    In the fourth century, Pope Damasus dedicated the crypt as a chapel commemorating the holy martyrs that were buried there. In the large central inscription, dating back to the 4th century, Pope Damasus, poetically offers us a description:

    know that here lies united an army of saints
    these venerable tombs contain their bodies ...
    here the followers of Peter, here lie the friends of Sixtus,
    here young men and boys, the elderly with their offspring
    here too, I, Damasus, confess, would like to be buried,
    were it not for the fear of profaning the ashes of these holy martyrs

    Catacombs Rome

    The Crypt was venerated because it contained the early martyrs of the faith. Pope Fabian for example, suffered martyrdom in the year 250 during the persecutions of the emperor Decius. The marble slab above that of Pope Damasus sealed the tomb of Pope Sixtus II, who was decapitated, along with his four deacons, by the soldiers of the emperor Valerian.

    The persecutions of the christians, which began under the emperor Nero around the year 64 AD, occurred at intervals until the year 313, when they were ended by the emperor Constantine, who promulgated the Edict of Milan. From that point onwards, the tombs of the martyrs became places of great veneration, visited by countless pilgrims and the christian faithful of Rome.

    The crypt, like most of the other catacombs, underwent serious pillaging and destruction, because of the barbarian invasions of Rome. Tribes like the Goths and Longobards opened tombs in serach of precious objects.

    Following the invasions, the bodies of many martyrs were moved into the churches of Rome for safekeeping. When the emperor Constantine ended the persecutions and recognized christianity as a religion, basilicas and churches began to be built throughout the city of Rome. In the process of removing many of the martyrs from their tombs in the catacombs to be transferred into the basilicas and churches, many frescoes and mosaics were destroyed and countless marble slabs were shattered.

    These historical events signaled the definite abandonement of the catacombs. Although their memory did not vanish completely during the Middle Ages, many of the catacombs were forgotten. Whereas the churches and basilicas built above certain catacombs insured their memory, for example the Basilica of St. Lawrence or that of St. Peter, others had no monument above ground to mark them.

    With the social upheaval of the barbarian invasions, it was a task in itself to safeguard the churches, basilicas, and other monuments throughout Rome. The catacombs were located outside the city, because Roman law prohibited burial within the old city walls. Thus, many of the entrances and skylight shafts of these catacombs, were filled with dirt by farmers who tilled the fields outside the city walls, not knowing what lay below ground but concerned about safely working the land and not falling in with his the oxen.

    In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, catacombs began to be rediscovered, most of the time by sheer accident. With the birth of the science of archeology in the eighteenth century, the catacombs began to be discovered with scientific critera. (See ARCHEOLOGY for more information.)

    In our present day, the catacombs open to the public offer its visitors a place where they can discover faith. Whether it be the pilgrim, who specifically visits the holy places, as did so many pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, or the modern tourist, regardless of his faith, the history of the catacombs is a testimony to the early christians, many of whom gave their life for their belief in Jesus.

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