On Sunday, I explored a fascinating bit of underground Rome; a site that to me at least, is off the beaten path even though it's a mere stone's throw from the Colosseum.
The Case Romane del Celio -- The Roman Houses of the Celio. This is actually a complex on several levels encompassing at least three layers of Roman history dating back to the earliest years of Christianity.
The Celio is one of Rome's seven famous hills, but one of the lesser known, even though it is nestled right in beside the Palatine and gazes upon the Colosseum. I must confess, I hadn't paid much attention myself to the Celio until a reader, Heidi, asked me about it.
When I visited Sunday, I was very surprised by the extent of the complex that basically burrows into the hill, beneath the massive church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo (Saints John and Paul.) In fact, the church itself was once a pagan building, converted at a time when Christianity was still finding its footing in Rome.
According to legend, the story of the building begins in the 2nd century AD when two homes were built on the Celian hill, near a temple dedicated to the emperor Claudius. In the third century, a third home was built by a man who then purchased the earlier two and combined them into a single building.
Christian decorations dating from this period, as well as a hidden cemetery, have been found on the site. Legend has it that two Roman military officers, John and Paul, were executed for their Christian beliefs and their bodies were buried here. However, it seems that story has been debunked.
Still, the house was venerated by early Christians, to the degree that in the 5th century, a large church was built over the burial area of the house and dedicated to saints John and Paul.
Apparently over the centuries, the earlier homes were built upon; shops set up above; all kinds of uses were made but in that most Roman of traditions, the new was always built on top of the old so nothing was really destroyed, just reconfigured.
Which is fortunate for us. The site, which is not well advertised or promoted in Rome, is a fascinating warren of rooms, large and small, some with lovely fresco fragments, others with marble altars decorated with small mosaics.
The entrance to the Roman Houses complex is on the very picturesque Clivo di Scauro, which translates as the Scairis Climb. There are numerous ruins alongside this street, which dates to the 2nd century BC and was named for the magistrate who built it. Above this ancient street are numerous arches which are actually mediaeval buttresses supporting the church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo.
I think that it's well worth finding this off-the-beaten path spot!