The catacombs are a place of spiritual pilgrimage, a powerful experience and at the same time a romantic reverie on the passing of time. In fear of epidemics and according to custom the Romans buried their dead outside the city walls: along the Via Appia, stretch the tombs of Romans, Christians and Jews, and, for the less wealthy, the catacombs, whose multi-level galleries and niches (loculi) form a labyrinth carved into the tuff.
Christians and Jews buried bodies, while Romans cremated corpses and deposited ashes in urns. Embalmed or shrouded bodies of Christians were placed on rock shelves, placed under marble slabs in the floor or in family crypts.
The Catacombs of St. Callixtus are among the largest and oldest in Rome. They were built around the middle of the second century. Their name comes from the name of the deacon Callixtus, whom Pope Zephyrinus appointed to manage the cemetery in the early third century. It was then that the Catacombs of St. Callixtus became the official cemetery of the Church of Rome.
The network of corridors in the cemetery complex of which the Catacombs of St. Callixtus is a part is about 20 kilometers long. Sixteen popes and almost half a million people have been buried here.
The holiest and most important place in these catacombs is the so-called Crypt of the Popes, discovered by the great archaeologist Giovanni Battista De Rossi in 1854 and called by him "a small Vatican, the main monument of all Christian necropolises." It was created at the end of the second century as a private cubiculum (burial room). After the area was donated to the Church of Rome, the cubiculum was restored and transformed into a crypt; it became the burial place of popes from the 3rd century. Nine popes and eight third-century bishops were buried in this crypt. On the walls are the original tombstones of 5 popes; their names are written in Greek, according to the official practice of the Church of that time.