Rome Travel Guide

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Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Jewish Catacombs under Villa Torlonia - part of the you-can't-go-there-anyway series

In the you-can't-go-there-anyway series, we explore - virtually - one set of Jewish catacombs under Rome. Yes, Jewish catacombs, which to some - who adhere to the myth (promulgated in films) that the catacombs were where Christians hid their burials from the heathen Romans - is an oxymoron. 

There are 6 known Jewish catacombs in Rome (and something like 70 Christian ones); two of the most extensive sets are these under the popular Villa Torlonia park. The casual tourist could visit those until a few years ago when the precarious condition of the underground tombs made that impossible. (Absent Covid, a few Jewish people apparently are allowed to visit each year.) We didn't make it before the general ban; so we were pleased to participate in Turismo Culturale Italiano's virtual tour last year, as part of its "Roma inaccessibile" (Inaccessible Rome) series (of which the Cloaca Maxima was also one). 

The catacombs of Villa Torlonia are considered to date from the 2nd to 3rd century CE, and lasting until the 5th century; so they are almost 2,000 years old. They were discovered only in the last century, around 1918. We did visit another site underground at Villa Torlonia - Mussolini's Bunker, now closed as well. We wrote about it in our post on Villa Torlonia (link above).

There can be no doubt that these catacombs were Jewish, not Christian, as can be determined from the remarkable wall paintings, including the one at the top with 2 Menorahs, a Torah in its Ark, a Shofar and other markers of the religion.

As with the Cloaca Maxima and the Scajaquada Creek (in Buffalo, New York), you can try to "find" these catacombs from above ground. 

They are in the West corner of the park, at the intersection of via Nomentana and via Spallanzani, underneath the old stables (scuderie vecchie). See the arrow in the bottom left corner in the plan at right.

Their extension is obvious from the plan below, the red arrows showing the two known entrances, the one at left inside the Villa Torlonia park, and the one at right on via Siracusa.

The catacombs of Villa Torlonia are considered in fact two sets of catacombs from different periods ("E" in the plan is later and is 10 meters below the surface), though they are connected. Below are photos from inside Region E of the Villa Torlonia catacombs. Very few human remains are left. There was a market in bones at one time; they were stolen to sell as those of martyrs.

Some of the distinctions from Christian catacombs are that the Jewish catacombs do not contain any centers for worship--the thought now is that, unlike Christian catacombs, they were not sites for visitation and celebration; and that there are no group burials.

Likely there were more than 6 sets of Jewish catacombs in the city of Rome, and some have been destroyed by the enlargement of the city or simply by falling in. The photo at right is of a large vehicle falling into one of them in the Monteverde neighborhood not that long ago. Those catacombs - discovered in 1602 - are now considered almost completely destroyed or swamped with water, although some inscriptions have been preserved - as shown below.

The other very large set of Jewish catacombs that has been open to visitors at times is along the via Appia Antica, those at Vigna Randanini. (Here's a link to one organization - Jewish Roma walking tours - they give tours of these catacombs and [we checked] they are giving them currently - we have not taken their tours ourselves; they have good Trip Advisor ratings.) As were all catacombs - Christian and Jewish - these are along a consular road and outside the ancient city walls.


Besides the paintings and etchings of obvious religious objects, there are some paintings of animals in the Villa Torlonia catacombs - likely here a lion (right) and a peacock (below).

We're hopeful of getting into at least one of these catacombs in the future.