Underground Fun: European Edition

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. A freelance science and health journalist, Maggie lives in Minneapolis, brain dumps on Twitter, and writes quite often for mental_floss magazine.

A team of archaeologists, architects and computer scientists have put together the first fully comprehensive three-dimensional images of Rome's catacombs, using laser scanners. Which is both cool, and reminds me of a couple of underground adventures in Rome that I wanted to tell you about.

The Golden Palace of Nero
As you may or may not know, the Emperor Nero pissed a lot of people off. However, to use the words of noted archaeologist Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Nero also "gave the best parties, ever." The Domus Aurea is sort of a testament to both aspects of the Emperor's public persona. Built purely as a pleasure palace (Nero actually lived elsewhere), the entire complex is thought to have encompassed anywhere between 100 and 300 acres. Gilded within an inch of its life, the Domus Aurea also featured tons of marble, intricate mosaics, frescoes, and an artificial lake. Basically, the Domus Aurea was where the magic happened--the hippest party pad this side of "Cribs".

Then, after some particularly bad press that ended in a coup, Nero killed himself in A.D. 68.

Photo of interior from the Domus Aurea via Sarah Goldsmith under Creative Commons.

Over the next 1400 years or so, the Domus Aurea went from being a symbol of that guy everybody hated; to a sort of proto-Home Depot/scrap yard for less-reviled construction projects to pick over; to a completely forgotten ruin buried under layers of other buildings. Despite sitting on a hillside overlooking the Colosseum, nobody knew it was there until the 15th century, when artists discovered a weird "cave" filled with beautiful works of art. The Domus Aurea ended up becoming the inspiration for many of the Renaissance-era churches of Rome. In fact, there's period graffiti in the Domus Aurea signed by the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael (and, also, incidentally, the Marquis de Sade).
Still in the process of being excavated, the Domus Aurea is open to tourists, but on a limited basis. Baker and I went through it in 2007. Besides being an amazing experience (you wear hard hats and the in-English tour is led by an archeologist), it's also a great insider-y feeling thing to do as a tourist. You can't just walk into the Domus Aurea whenever you please. Hell, you probably wouldn't know it was there if you weren't informed. Instead, to get a tour, you have to call ahead to order advance tickets for a specific time slot. I think there's only something like 5 per day.

If you're in Rome and you want the tour, you can call 06.39967700, which is the current ticket request number according to The Beehive, my favorite hostel in Rome.

The Basilica of San Clemente
On the surface, San Clemente looks a lot like many of the other ornately decorated churches of Rome. Dating to the 12th century, the interior is gorgeous, but, if you're an average tourist who's spent two or three days church-hopping in Rome, somewhat unremarkable.

Photo of 12th century basilica interior courtesy Juan Desant via Creative Commons.

What makes San Clemente special is what lies beneath. Take the stairs down from the 12th century church, and you'll find yourself in a previous incarnation of the Basilica that dates to the 4th century. The light is bad down there, but below you can see a crappy, but passable, picture I took from that level of the church.

But you know what's even cooler than an old church with an older church underneath it? An even older building underneath that. You can actually go further down, and further back in time, to the ruins of 1st century AD Roman buildings, which were likely the location of a temple to Mithras, a sun god whose mystery cult some scholars think may have heavily influenced early Christian ritual and belief. It's pretty badass. Unfortunately, the lighting really sucks down there. I've got no photos from that level and I wasn't able to come up with creative commons shots from other sources, either. Although the church's official Web site has some neat renderings and a few pics that you can see. I didn't get a guided tour of the Basilica, so I know less about its history. But it's definitely worth a peek if you're in Rome and love old, underground things.


  1. What’s fun about this story is that it’s in blog form so that in order to read what’s beneath the first church you have to scroll down, and to read what’s under the second church you have to scroll down some more, like descending in the church itself. Thanks for this post.

  2. Oh rats! If only you’d posted this a week ago! I’m leaving Rome in about 12 hours. Next time…

  3. Reminds me of the bits from the Discworld novels that talk about how what Ankh-Morpork is built on is, mostly, Ankh-Morpork.

  4. Nice story. Could someone clear something up for me? I really enjoys all of these stories about buildings being built on top of other buildings you hear about in older cities, but how does this happen? Does no one own a broom? “Oh, the basilica is nearly covered, time to build on top of it.” Why don’t they just knock it down?

  5. They fill it in when the building becomes unsafe, and the old building becomes the foundation of the new one. At least, that’s what it said at the official website.

    This church must be the real-life model for the one in a mystery by Ngaio Marsh called “When in Rome.” I’m sure there must be some details that are added for dramatic effect, but she describes a church layered like a cake, with a Mithraic temple below the oldest layers. The big scene takes place in this crypt. Although it’s not Marsh’s best novel (it’s a later one), it’s still worth a read.

  6. You had me at subways, but you’re into catacombs too? Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeez don’t go!

  7. It’s hard for me to imagine a situation where a building is unsafe for occupancy but is safe for a new building to go on top… but then I’m not from the fourth century.

  8. As strange as it seems, this was common practice for a couple of reasons. Property was costly. It was cheaper for the architects and churchmen to fill in and build on top of the old church than it was to buy a new plot of lans and build from scratch. The site was also a sacred location. The land had already been consecrated, and St. Clement’s relics were located there, making it important to rebuild the church in the same place.

  9. I was in San Clemente last month. It’s way cool. Top level’s a nice old church that unfortunately got baroqued-up in the 17th C. Next level down is the Romanesque basilica, with some interesting old wall paintings, and a nifty shrine with relics of SS. Cyril and Methodius. Under that are the 1st C. house that got used as a church and the Mithraeum, and underneath that is a hollow place with a spring in it.

    DCulberson, street levels rise in part because when there’s a lot of destruction, people tend to level out the rubble and build on top of it. At San Clemente, the original street level is sixty feet below the current one. When Bob Dylan sings about the streets of Rome being filled with rubble, he’s telling the literal truth.

  10. The other reason to keep an eye on the stone floors is that some of the decorative stone is highly figured because it’s full of fossils. (For example, there’s a pair of really good stone slabs on the front porch of St. John Lateran that have white fossils on a jasper-red background.) This may or may not help explain why the RCs have a long history of being relatively sensible about evolution.

Comments are closed.