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Inside one of the tunnels under Rome, Italy.

A Labyrinth of Ancient Tunnels Exist Under Roman Streets

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Few visitors recognize that there is a forgotten world below the Roman Colosseum and Forum. The ancient maze of tunnels and quarries  date back to the very beginning of this famous city.

Locals, on the other hand, remember the existence of the underground pathways every time one of the ancient tunnels collapses, damaging the structures above. Hundreds of buildings and streets have fallen victim to the decaying tunnels. Things got so bad that a team of geologists headed below the Roman streets to map out the underground passageways with laser 3D scanning techniques. They hope the information they uncovered can prevent further destruction.

A geologist exploring a tunnel under Rome.

A geologist exploring a tunnel under Rome. (Sotterranei di Roma)

Adriano Morabito, president of the association Roma Sotterranea (Underground Rome) explains:

“Hundreds of kilometers of catacombs run underneath the town and its outskirts. Some of the networks are well known and open to visitors, while others are still scarcely explored. Probably there are a number of lost catacombs, too.”

In the tunnels under Rome

In the tunnels under Rome. (Sotterranei di Roma)

The subterranean structures began as quarries for the Romans. These expanded into tunnels and then were repurposed into a labyrinth of catacombs, space for mushroom farming, and an unofficial sewer system. In World War II, the tunnels were transformed once again as they were used as bomb shelters.

In one of the tunnels under Rome.

In one of the tunnels under Rome. (Sotterranei di Roma)

In preparation for the underground mapping, geoscientist Giuseppina Kysar Mattietti said, “There might be cracks, so they will be showing as veins almost, or openings, so we map the openings and map any kind of detachment.”

Part of the issue is that some areas have ceilings that fall away like cracked plaster. Other sections have completely collapsed – not always to street level, but with little space between the land above and the void below.

A laser scan showing tunnels and structures aboveground.

A laser scan showing tunnels and structures aboveground. (Sotterranei di Roma)

Cement has been used to fill in the weak-spots, instead of just patching up the cracks. However there has been some concern over the use of cement in the catacombs. Specifically, the problem lies in Christian catacombs because they are property of the Catholic Church in Rome. This means that permission has to be granted by the Vatican before anyone can explore those areas. “It's not so easy to get the permission. That's one of the reasons there have been very few archaeological expeditions to less known tunnels in the last decades,” Morabito says.

A catacomb.

A catacomb. (Sotterranei di Roma)

An exploration of the Christian catacombs would provide you with a special look at Early Christian art. Those catacombs are said to have frescoes, sculptures, and gold glass medallions from before 400 AD. Jewish catacombs hold a similar value.

Top Image: Inside one of the tunnels under Rome, Italy. Source: Sotterranei di Roma

By April Holloway

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April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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