Catacombs of San Sebastiano history
Exactly when the Catacombs of San Sebastiano were constructed is difficult to say. What the historians do know is that the catacombs were built in the first place and that the basilica in turn was built on top of them. The catacombs were built mainly as a cemetery for Christians and as a place to hold secret religious meetings during the worst times of the Christian persecution.
The Basilica of San Sebastiano
As mentioned, the Basilica of San Sebastiano was constructed after the catacombs. More precisely, the originally basilica was constructed in the 4th century. Its official name is “San Sebastiano fouri le mura”, meaning “San Sebastiano outside the walls”.
This name refers to the fact that the basilica is built outside the Aurelian Walls. The reason for using this name is to differentiate the basilica from the Church of San Sebastiano on the Palatine Hill in Rome. The basilica is dedicated to a popular Roman martyr of the 3rd century; St. Sebastian.
However, this dedication only dates back to the 9th century. The basilica was initially known as “Basilica Apostolorum”, meaning the Basilica of the Apostles. The reason for this is that the legend has it that both St. Peter and St. Paul was temporary buried here in the 3rd century.
This legend is why the basilica was constructed over the catacombs in the first place. Later, the apostles’ remains were moved to their respective basilica of today.
While the remains of the two apostles are gone, this basilica still holds the remains of St. Sebastian. Today, his tomb is located inside the basilica, but his original resting place was in the catacombs underneath it.
His remains were temporarily moved to a safer location in year 826, due to fear of a Saracen attack. The Saracen actually did attack not long after St. Sebastian’s relocation, an attack which destroyed the entire basilica.
It didn’t take long until the whole building was reconstructed. The basilica of today does however not date back to the 9th century. Some parts of the current structure were built during the 13th century, but the majority dates back to the 17th century.
Why visit the Catacombs of San Sebastiano ?
The Catacombs of San Sebastiano have always been the most accessible of the many underground cemeteries which can be found in the region. For this reason, it is also one of the least preserved ones and also one of the smaller ones when it comes to sheer size.
However, the word “smaller” really has to put into context here, as the tunnels have a total length of around 11 kilometers. So the fact that it is one of the smaller catacombs doesn’t take away the fact that it is absolutely huge.
An underground world
There is a lot to see here at the Basilica of San Sebastiano and its catacombs. Visitors to the tunnels can discover ancient mosaics, graffiti and other wall paintings. One can also see the old Christian burial chambers and sarcophagi, although the bodies have since a long ago been relocated.
There is also a small underground Christian altar located within the tunnels. This altar was used to hold services during times of the Christian persecution.
There are also features in the basilica which deserves a special mention, for example the Relics Chapel directly across the nave. It holds several holy artifacts, such as one of the arrows which struck St. Sebastian together with a part of the column to which he was tied during the martyrdom. It also holds a stone with a relief that is said to be the footprint of Jesus.
The basilica is also home to a beautiful bust of St. Sebastian, which has been attributed to the famous Italian renaissance artist Bernini.
Former pilgrim church
This place was until year 2000 one of the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome; a place all Roman Catholics were expected to visit. Despite the fact that is now has lost that status, many pilgrims st ill include it in the list of must visit places. The site has also not lost its popularity as a tourist destination and it is visited by thousands of people each year.
Catacombs of San Sebastiano location
The Catacombs of San Sebastiano is located in Rome, Italy. The catacombs can be found along the ancient Roman road known as the Appian Way. The whole area is well served by public transport, but is also easily accessed by foot or bicycle, as the Appian Way is a popular hiking road. For the exact location of the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, check out the location map to the right.