There is far more to see in Rome that you could cram into the average-sized guidebook. This means that one of the pleasures of the city is the tucked-away sights that you discover by chance. For me, one of these was the Case Romane del Celio, a little known underground complex of Roman houses on the side of the Caelian Hill. These houses have a long history and some spectacular frescoes.
The Case Romane And The Caelian Hill
The Caelian Hill (Monte Celio) is one of the seven hills of Rome, running south-east from the Colosseum. In classical times it was a fashionable residential district, and home to the Temple of Claudius. Today the hill is dominated by the grounds of the Villa Celimontana, a former Renaissance palace and vineyard.
There are several historic churches on the Caelean Hill. I discovered the Case Romane del Celio when visiting the Basilica Santi Giovanni e Paolo, about half way down the hill. A medieval church with 5th century origins, this church is dedicated to two Roman martyrs. The Roman houses are beneath the basilica, a hidden remnant of Imperial Rome.
The houses are on the Clivus Scauri, an ancient Roman road. The road is covered by a series of brick arches. These would have been there in classical times, although the arches you see today are medieval.
History Of The Roman Houses On The Caelian Hill
The Case Romane were originally a row of small houses, shops and storerooms dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries. They were subsequently converted into a single residence, and it was here that the saints Giovanni and Paolo (St John and St Paul) lived. Despite their names, they were not the famous apostles, but Roman soldiers, martyrs and brothers. It is said that they were murdered here in 362 CE when they refused to renounce their Christianity.
The saints were buried in the house, possibly together with other martyrs. A church was subsequently built on top of the house, and it became a place of pilgrimage. During the middle ages the Roman houses were mostly neglected, or used for storage. However, one room was converted into a small oratory.
Eventually the existence of the oratory and the Case Romane was forgotten about. The houses were rediscovered in 1887 when archaologists were searching for the remains of the saints. The site opened as a museum in 2002.
Exploring The Case Romane Del Celio
The museum consists of 20 rooms in which you can see different periods of the site’s history. You enter via the medieval oratory, and then move on to the Roman houses. There is evidence here of early 20th century use of the property, with Christian altars in many of the rooms. And, although the Roman houses were later used as a single residence, you can still see how it included houses from different periods. The remains of shops and warehouses, and even a bit of the street, are clearly visible.
But the houses are most remarkable for their frescoes. The images from the classical era cover a range of cultural and mythological concepts, with pictures of gods, monsters, animals and flowers. However, new frescoes continued to be added to the oratory right up to the 9th century, their Christian subjects contrasting with the earlier, pagan, themes.
How To Visit The Case Romane
The museum is located on Clivo di Scauro, and the entrance is by the side of the Basilica. It is open every day except Tuesday and Thursday, between 10 am and 4 pm. It is possible to book tickets in advance. You can also explore the Case Romane del Celio with a guided tour.