The Catacombs of San Sebastian
After a hairy drive from Palatine Hill we eventually turn on to the Via Appia, or what some may remember from school as the Appian Way. It’s the most famous, historic road in the world. I’m assuming they’re still teaching this stuff in school but I could be wrong. It’s been quite a while since I attended school.
There are a number of catacombs in Rome. Dr. Flavia suggested the Catacombs of San Sebastian as this is where she brings her grad students.
The first thing I notice on arrival is there aren’t a lot of people here.There are no gaggles of vendors hawking selfie-sticks and Saint Sebastian bobble head dolls riddled with arrows.
I take that as empirical evidence we’re officially outside the cattle crush of the main tourist rodeo in central Rome. We book one of the tours and we’re assigned a guide named Francesco.
K, I don’t actually remember his name, but I didn’t want it to be “the guide guy.” I did Google the most popular male name in Italy and the interweb decreed Francesco the winner with 28 per million babies in the 80’s… or something. I”m sure that it’s correct. It’s on the internet, right?
Anyway, prior to heading underground Francesco gives us a briefing on the rules. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the catacombs. This could be a pretty long article if I’ve got to replace every photo with 1,000 words so I’ll give the discount version.
There are 40 catacombs of varying lengths at various depths around the suburbs of Rome. Originally they were Christian burial grounds and at times served as sanctuaries for Christians who were being persecuted.
The Catacombs of San Sebastiano are maybe a half mile long and we never go deeper than 20 feet underground. They’re mostly dim passageways with the occasional chamber for relief. While I hate to disappoint those hoping for the macabre, but there are no cobwebbed skeletons anywhere to be seen.
A Shallow Descent Through History
While the lighting is adequate, you’re always aware of your subterranean status. The temperature is cooler and there are shadowy, human body sized niches cut into the rock in the passageways that once stored remains that left me feeling vaguely unsettled. It’s kind of creepy, but hey. It’s a crypt. I see dead people.
This place had it’s start in the 1st century as a pozzolan mine and I know what you’re thinking but no. It isn’t a cheese mine which was was my first thought as well. But apparently pozzolan isn’t an exotic Italian cheese but calcified volcanic ash which the Romans used for making concrete.
At some point in the first century it evolved into a pagan burial ground for both slaves and freedmen. The pagan burial chamber was naturally the last and deepest level we would visit.
At some point in the second century, this became a Christian burial ground. On occasion we would see the Christian symbol of the fish carved here and there in the surface of the walls. The simple artwork both pagan and Christian throughout the catacombs is surprisingly well preserved.
A Deep Ascent to the Present
There were a number of chambers but one in particular stood out for me.
As mentioned in a previous post, the Colosseum provided a dark epiphany. Standing in a place where thousands of people were killed in the most brutal ways imaginable for no reason other than spectacle gave me a dark pause.
I was about to enter into a chamber which would offer a different type of epiphany.
There is a rather large Christian burial chamber which contains a bust of San Sebastian which is attributed to the sculptor Bernini. The short version of Sebastian’s third century story is he declared himself a Christian and upon chastising Emperor Diocaletian the despot ordered him tied to a tree and shot full of arrows.
In fact, this did not kill him. He subsequently went back to the Emperor and admonished his cruelty towards Christians. The emperor had him beaten to death and thrown into a sewer, however his body was recovered and he was buried in this chamber in which we were standing.
An Unanticipated Reaction
Normally, I would read this and be left shaking my head at what seems to be an incredibly stupid act of senseless self-sacrifice. I’d be angry.
However, all I felt in that moment was a deeply serene warmth staring at that bust in this place where the first Christians sheltered from persecution. This is the chamber which held the bones of the apostles Peter and Paul.
I was overcome by the incredible amount of dedication and faith in the sacrifices made by these early Christians.
I’m not a religious man, however I do consider myself spiritual. Until recently I’ve always identified as an agnostic. Around a year and a half ago I become a Christian. I’ve told very few people because while I now consider myself a Christian, I am a “heterodox” Christian.
All that means is I have my own beliefs about Christ independent of religious influence. It’s personal so I don’t speak about it as a matter of course. I don’t feel compelled to proselytize. There are many Christians who would not even consider me a Christian and that’s fine.
Cancer as Catalyst
There’s no doubt that cancer has certainly been a catalyst for change in my life in pretty much every sense including spiritual. I tend to think that the disease provokes a spiritual examination at some point for pretty much anyone who receives a cancer diagnosis. I’m pretty sure even hard core atheists may have their faith in their beliefs challenged after a cancer diagnosis.
I bring this up because it was an unexpected moment of clarity in this place and it affected me. It’s left me with a different perspective to consider and it’s one in which prior presumptions are challenged. I guess personal growth is a perpetual motion machine.
That peaceful feeling stayed with me as we exited the catacombs through the Basilica above. The Basilica of San Sebastian contains beautiful artwork, including the last known work by the sculptor Bernini, The Salvator Mundi.
The tour takes about 40 minutes in total and costs 8 €.
That was a long stretch of a more sober type of reflection, so to lighten up before I leave…
One Last Vignette
Stefania drove us back to the convent. I can’t speak to any of the sights along the route as I had my eyes screwed shut and I was holding on to Joanne’s arm for dear life as we careened around the streets of Rome. I can speak to the “careening” part because closing your eyes doesn’t dampen your sense of motion.
When I was a kid we’d go to the exhibition and there was a ride there called the “Tilt-A-Whirl” and with my eyes closed… well, it certainly evoked that particular childhood memory.
The vintage ride itself was a teacup kind of affair that rotated in quick, violently sick kind of way. The cup itself orbited through bumpy revolutions on a segmented, circular and uneven track. That’s what being in Roman traffic felt like. Although I don’t remember the carnival ride being so fraught with terror.
The ladies dropped us off and we said our reluctant farewells. They had given us such a delightful day and we were richer in so many ways for having met them.
However, my stomach cares little for such schmaltzy sentiment and was clamoring for attention. We headed for a light supper at the Trattoria Pizzeria.
We’d become good at waving off street vendors hawking tourist goods, but initially it was difficult. I’m a guy who likes to talk too much so it’s counter-intuitive to avoid eye contact and not engage.
That being said, we had six vendors approach us the first time we ate at this sidewalk restaurant so I adjusted to the new paradigm of snooty tourist quickly. The only other place I’ve seen street vendors match Roman aggression are in Manhattan and Hollywood.
On this particular evening, we encountered a fellow from Ghana named Ali Baba. Yes, that’s right. Ali Baba. I don’t really think it’s his real name, although if you’re hawking wares on the street you might want pick a name that isn’t immediately associated with “40 thieves.”
He had an infectious smile and his manner didn’t really feel aggressive. He was just full of joy. Ali Baba had a gift for remarkably engaging patter. He’d come from Ghana with six of his cousins who lived with him in an apartment where they hand made these collapsible wooden bowls he was selling.
Right. I didn’t buy the story, but we did buy a couple of his bowls. However, we weren’t really buying bowls. The charm of his entertaining company alone was worth the price of admission and we consider the bowls were a bonus gift. He certainly did weave quite the tale.
The meal arrived and Ali Baba departed. As we ate we decided that rather than heading to Venice the next morning, we would stay in Rome and see the Vatican. We’d have to come back to Italy some day if we were to take in Venice.
Last time on TTWTH: P-Rome-nade on Palatine Hill