Rome's Secret Gems Revealed

Rome just celebrated its 2,761st birthday and keeps on spilling out its ancient clues and secrets. The city was founded near the Palatine Hill by twin brothers Romulus and Remus, who, according to legend, were nurtured by a wolf in its den.

The Lupercale, as is it is known, came to be a place of pagan worship for the earliest Romans. Last year an Italian archaeologist claimed that he had discovered a den, 50 feet under the Palatine. Still unexcavated, a camera was dropped down through a hole to reveal the domed chamber decorated with shells and mosaics.

Experts have disputed the claim, but all agree that archaeological treasures are always unearthed and ancient secrets revealed anytime anyone digs below Rome's surface.


The ancient artifacts often leave the experts guessing as to their purpose and origin. Historians must piece together the puzzle of these long-hidden historical finds.

Trudge through the woods on the Janiculum Hill overlooking modern Rome, and you will see the little-known Syriaic Sanctuary. It is believed to have been a place of dark worship of the demon goddess Furrina. This site -- discovered 100 years ago --- contained skulls without teeth or lower jaws.

Look Out Below

Behind the humble gate of a garage and past a small metal door just off Via Salaria is a subterranean monument covered with frescoes and mosaics known as the Livenza Hypgeum. The scenes depicted here have been a mystery to scholars -- one theory is that it was a place of worship for the Baptai -- those immersed in water. The cult was known for its debauchery and orgies.

Ancient pagan temples of worship known as mithraeums, where the followers of Mithras gathered, can be found unexpectedly deep down under Rome's well-trafficked streets.

Pass through a modern government building near the famous Bocca della Verita tourist site and find a hidden entrance to a mithraeum under the Circus Maximus, ancient Rome's largest stadium, where chariot races took place.

The most famous mithraeum is deep in the lowest chamber of the church of St. Clemente. You can still glimpse the sacrificial altars and painted symbols of two millenniums ago. The religion, which competed for influence with Christianity in the first three centuries, became fashionable to the elite of ancient Rome for a while.

Some of Rome's underground secrets have nothing to do with the occult or ancient religions, but have remained hidden for centuries.

Not far from Rome's famous Campo dei Fiori Market is an underground pool that was once the tomb of a trusted lieutenant of Caesar. It was flooded when the Tiber River was diverted and is now covered by the huge Renaissance Palazzo Cancelleria. It can be visited only with permission from the Vatican, which owns the building.

The 8,000-year-old Obelisk of Psammethicus II still stands in front of the Italian parliament building, its ancient significance all but forgotten by the hundreds who pass it each day. The 60-foot spire was once a sundial built in the center of a huge piazza laid out in such a way that the shadows cast were prophetic to the emperor and his rule.

The only remains of the square's ancient function are buried deep under the parliament building. It is reached from a small courtyard by means of a ladder, where you can descend 25 feet underground to see a small piece of the original marble structure.

City of 900 Churches

But it is Christianity that has bestowed the greatest number of stories of miracles and mystery in Rome. There are relics of saints and clues to practices of the faithful tucked away in many of Rome's 900 churches.

In a cemetery under St. Maria della Concezione, a church looked after by the Italian Interior Ministry at the end of the famous Via Veneto, the Capuchin order of monks have arranged the bones of 4,000 of their deceased members into works of art. Originally buried beneath dirt from the Holy Land, the corpses were interred and rearranged in this way to make room for new arrivals.

Another little secret of the Capuchin Order: In the 19th century people believed they could pick winning lottery numbers. The mobs got so obsessed that Pope Gregory XVI had to banish one monk from Rome.

Miracles associated with Christian beliefs have been reported in places throughout the city.

There are 637 madonnas, or les madonelles, as they are called here. From the fourth century, they watched over passersby, protecting them on their journeys but also, they say, sometimes appeared in these representations. In 1796 there were 36 reported sightings of these madonnas moving their eyes.

The Virgin Mary is also said to have spoken to St. Gregory from a painting in a small chapel of the church named for him. And she appeared to Alphonse de Ratisbonne, a Jewish aristocrat who converted to Christianity on the spot in this church, St. Andrea delle Fratte, while he was waiting for his friend. There is a shrine marking the place.

On the ancient Appian Way, a church was built where Jesus convinced St. Peter not to flee Rome by appearing to him in a blinding light. Peter uttered the words Quo Vadis, Domine -- Where are you going, Lord? Quo Vadis is the name of the church.

But what about those secret spots that most tourists miss that have nothing to do with saints or gladiators?

Pasta, Anyone?

There are a number of small museum gems, such as the Museum of Pasta, everything you ever wanted to know about Italians' favorite food.

Or the Museum of the Christmas Cribs, dedicated to nativity scenes, with more than 3,000 representations of where Jesus was born.

The Museum of Musical Instruments shows all kinds of ways to make music. Or, for the kid in you, there's the Museum of Playful Memory, dedicated to preserving childhood recollections.

The new discoveries continue each day. Just this month, while digging a new line for Rome's subway, an Imperial staircase was found. Previously unknown, archaeologists will have to unravel the latest secret find of the Eternal City.

With 26 centuries of history and mystery, there are many more secret spots, past and present, and the secret places at which to eat haven't even been mentioned.