Treasure Underground

The more you burrow down beneath the surface of Rome, the more history you unearth. Theresa Potenza, expert guide with Context Travel, plumbs the depths to show us a city that’s eternal both above ground and below.

How appropriate that Rome is called the Eternal City.

Despite all the striking architecture — the open-air Baroque masterpieces, the Renaissance piazzas and courtyards designed by Michelangelo and Vasari, the ancient ruins, the medieval towers, the outdoor markets, even the modern offices — there’s more we don’t see. A lot more.

But to truly comprehend how deep the history in this city goes, you have to plumb the depths. It’s hard to imagine, but layers and layers of the old city lie beneath the visible Rome, the remnants of thousands of years of building and rebuilding.

Here are five of the most intriguing underground sites in Rome.

Case Romane del Celio

Clivo di Scauro
Basilica of Saints John and Paul
The dazzling interior of the Basilica of Saints John and Paul.

In 1887, excavation beneath the Basilica of Saints John and Paul revealed something miraculous: a complex of 20 rooms, part of an ancient Roman apartment block, its stunning decorations dating back to the third century. Today, a thorough restoration has turned the archeological site into a museum. Come here to see burial shrines, decorative floor mosaics, and frescoed walls. And to learn about ancient Roman life exactly where it happened.

A fresco in one of the excavated rooms.

Basilica di San Clemente

Via Labicana
Basilica di San Clemente
The Basilica di San Clemente, as it appears on the outside.

The 12th-century church at street level — the Basilica di San Clemente — is a masterpiece all its own. Hop down a flight of stairs and you’ll find that the medieval church stands atop one that makes it seem downright young. But even this basilica, dating to the fourth century and covered in medieval paintings, isn’t the end of the story. Down further still is yet another site, this one pre-Christian. Needless to say, the complex is complex, a literal representation of the many layers of Roman history. You need to see it to believe it.

What you’ll find underneath.

Vicus Caprarius: The City of Water

Vicolo del Puttarello
Trevi Fountain
The iconic Trevi Fountain.

It’s not surprising that just beneath the Trevi Fountain one finds, well, water. But when restoration work was being done to a cinema near this famous landmark around the turn of the (21st) century, archaeologists discovered, to their surprise, ancient structures — including one of the largest water distribution tanks of ancient Rome. Today, it’s more than worth the price of admission to walk down to the ruins and listen to the sounds of water flowing through the aqueduct that feeds the Trevi Fountain, but even better are the exhibits — ancient busts and amphora found during the excavation.

excavations have become a museum
The excavations have become a museum.

Basilica Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Piazza della Bocca della Verità
Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in
Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in “Roman Holiday.”

Perhaps one of the most iconic pieces in Rome, the massive, marble “Mouth of Truth” mask stands in the portico of this church. As Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn stood in front of it in their 1950s film “Roman Holiday,” so too do hundreds of tourists, replaying the scene. Underneath the church, however, you’ll find an ancient temple to Ceres that’s been transformed into a crypt — the 8th-century Pope Hadrian is said to have built it to store relics he removed from the catacombs.

skull of Saint Valentine
The church also holds what is said to be the skull of Saint Valentine.

The Christian Catacombs

Via Appia
Appian Way
The picturesque Appian Way.

While many of Rome’s underground sites help you get a sense of how the ancient Romans lived, it may be just as important to see the diverse ways in which they died. There are five catacombs open to the public, and of them, the Christian catacombs of San Sebastiano and San Callixtus are of particular interest, thanks to their location underneath the ancient city’s most important artery — the queen of roads — the Appian Way. Here you can walk the original cobblestones of one of the world’s most historically significant roads, before descending into the graves of some of the earliest Christian martyrs.

Catacomb of Callixtus
The Crypt of the Popes in the Catacomb of Callixtus.

The best way to experience Italy’s Eternal City is with Context Travel’s Underground Rome Tour, which explores the best of the city’s subterranean ruins. Context Travel offers expert-led cultural and historical walking tours and activities for travelers who love to learn, in over 50 cities around the world. Tablet Plus members receive exclusive discounts on private tours from Context.

Theresa is an art historian and author of the book “Creating and Contemplating the Renaissance Garden.” She holds a Master’s degree in art history and is intensely interested in the many layers of Rome, unearthing the depths of the city through seminar teaching and freelance writing. She is also an expert guide with Context Travel.