Hidden Underground, an Ornate, 2,000-Year-Old Sepulchre

Colombarium of Pomponio Hylas, Rome
I’ve done a lot of cool things in Rome — but visiting the Columbarium of Pomponio Hylas is one of the coolest.

And it’s one of Rome’s best-kept secrets.

First off, let’s debunk the idea that Christians were the only ones who got neat underground burial chambers in Rome. In fact, the practice of interring the dead below ground went back to the pagan Romans. One popular way to do this was with a columbarium — an underground chamber built and decorated to hold the urns of Romans’ ashes, either for one family or many. (Later, around the time of Trajan in the 2nd century, pagans would stop incinerating their dead and start burying whole bodies in catacombs. The Christians took up the same idea and, along with continuing to bury their dead side-by-side with pagans in mixed catacombs, also started building catacombs just for Christians).

Needless to say, every once in a while, a new columbarium is discovered below Rome’s ground level. This one was found in 1831. And it dates way back — back earlier than the Christian catacombs — to between 14 and 54 A.D. The incredible thing? Many of the frescoes and decorations still look fresh. And lots of the burial urns are still there.

The columbarium likely was founded by Pomponio Hylas for his family in the 1st century B.C. How do we know? The extraordinary mosaic that faces you as you descend down the stairs into the space. Mosaic from Columbarium of Pomponio Hylas, Rome

The chamber itself is small. But it’s filled with beautifully-detailed, and preserved, frescoes and decorations, from mythological scenes to delicate, winding vines. Detail in Columbarium of Pomponio Hylas, Rome

There’s nothing quite as extraordinary as standing in the small chamber designed, so intimately, by a family for its dead, seeing the frescoes that they hired artists to paint, viewing the inscriptions with their individual names — and the urns that once contained their ashes. If it weren’t so beautiful, it would give you the shivers.

And you’d never guess any of this from the outside.

Columbarium of Pomponio Hylas, from outside, at Parco degli Scipioni

To book, you’re supposed to have a group of at least 10 people. Book by calling 060608. It costs €3 per person. Just promise one thing: If you go, you will not touch the frescoes, or anything else in there. That’s what destroys the artwork.

The columbarium is located in the Parco degli Scipioni, nearest to Via Latina 10. For a map, click here.

Want to find out about Rome’s other hidden gems? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!


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12 comments

  1. The place it’s incredible but they don’t have enough staff to open everyday and they just open the site there is no guide included. How can you promote this place without a guide?

  2. Hi Francesco,

    I’m not really sure what you are suggesting. It’s an off-the-beaten path site that people can reserve in advance if they are more than 10, and while a guide is of course very helpful, it’s not necessary to have one for the comune to open this particular site for you.

    In general, I write about a variety of places in Rome, including those that require a little bit of forethought (like having a group together and booking in advance) to visit… and this is one of them!

  3. I tried calling the phone number listed for a reservation, but it appears to be missing some digits. Any chance you have the full number?

    Great Site!

  4. Hi Jon,

    Glad you’re trying to book! There actually aren’t any digits missing in the 060608 number, but if you’re calling from the U.S., you have to call 011 (country code out of US) 39 (Italy country code) 060608. Hope that helps! Let me know how it goes!

  5. I’d love to see this, but I am afraid to call and make a reservation and then not be able to find it. I’ve tried Street View and I think I know where this is, but not if I can get there safely on public transit. Have you got any advice?

  6. Sarah-
    You “can,” but really shouldn’t. They send a custodian all the way there just to open the gate for you and wait while you’re there, and he probably won’t be too pleased if only 2 people show up.

    Hope-
    The area is perfectly safe, and quite pretty. You can get there on the #360 bus from Termini. I recommend using the ATAC site (atac.roma.it) to figure out how to get where in Rome by public transport—very useful!

    I hope that helps!

  7. This sounds fascinating. My family of 4 plus a friend will be in Rome in June. Do you have any advice of how to find other people who would like to go to this place with us so we could have a group of 10? or could the five of us pay the cost of 10 (30 euros)?

  8. Hi Stuart,
    I feel your pain! When in June, exactly, will you be in Rome? Perhaps another interested traveler will see this and you can join up 🙂 (I’m happy to connect you to each other if something so fortuitous does happen). Otherwise, I would try calling the number, asking for someone who speaks English, and explaining the predicament. You never know—the issue is the money more than anything else, so if you say you’ll pay the full amount, they might say fine and book it for you.

    Let me know if you have any luck!

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