The Catacombs of Rome
If you’ve ever been in a catacomb when the lights are off, you’ll get a foretaste of death. The darkness is total, overwhelming.
At right is a well-lit corridor in the Catacomb of St Priscilla. Nice and safe, and these days probably crowded with tourists. It was not always so.
Catacombs were ancient underground cemeteries with narrow winding tunnels normally about 8ft. high. The home of the dead. Not for the early Christians to hide in, as some movies suggest – everyone at the time knew they were there.
Why have catacombs?
They were used by the early Christian and Jewish communities for burial of the dead – early Christians rejected the custom of cremation, because they believed that bodies would one day rise from the dead.
At first the catacombs were used for funerals and then for memorial services, but later they became centers of devotion and pilgrimage.
Then, when relics became popular, they were greedily stripped of their contents.
Christians and catacombs
The Christians of Rome were for the most part ordinary people. They lived in densely populated neighborhoods in the suburbs, near the places that offered the chance of good trade in supplies for the capital, or along the banks of the Tiber, or near industries like the transport services on the Appian Way.
Strangely enough, soldiers in the army seem to have been ready to listen to Christian teachings, and there were also many Christians among entertainment workers – in the circuses, amphiteatres, theatres, and naumachias dedicated to the public spectacles which were so important in Roman life.
Many more came from the great number of slaves who worked in Rome – from the imperial palace and the rich patrician residences to the city at large, where they made up the swarms of public servants employed in construction work, in the maintenance of aqueducts, road and drainage systems, and in fire-fighting and street cleaning.
See Slaves in the ancient world of the Bible for case studies of three slaves who appear in the Old and New Testaments.
But there were also rich and powerful figures among the Christians of Rome. By the end of the first century even the niece of the Emperor Domitian, Flavia Domitilla, had been sentenced to exile as a Christian and had ended her life on the island of Ponza with a ‘longum martyrium’ as St Jerome says. The Roman coin at right shows the head of Domitilla the Elder, grandmother of Flavia Domitilla.
After all, who but the wealthy could provide the economic means for organizing the Christian community? Believers gathered in their homes
- for the performance of eucharistic and baptismal rites
- to receive religious instruction
- to organize help for the needy.
During the 3rd century a certain number of these rich homes became established centers of Christianity, much like modern parishes today.
An underground cemetery
Because of the enormous population, residential Roman architecture developed upwards rather than outwards.
The limits of the city walls forbad urban sprawl. Buildings in Rome, unlike the ones in Pompeii and other cities, were up to four or five stories high.
So, in a sense, were the cemeteries. They were not built underground out of a desire for safety from persecution, which is a romantic fantasy shown in the movie ‘Quo Vadis’ where Christians use the catacombs as hiding places.
In fact, it would have been impossible to live in them for any length of time.
The ancients willingly made use of underground land when it could be easily and safely excavated. The soft tufa of Latium was ideal for a vast network of subterranean tunnels for waterworks, of chambers and galleries for graves, and even of recreation areas concealed in places called ‘cryptoporticus’ beneath summer villas.
The Christians and Jews of Rome simply used underground cemeteries to solve a problem which the large number of community members, and the choice of burial rather than cremation, had made increasingly difficult in a city where space was at a premium.
Without too much trouble, the multi-levelled network of catacomb galleries could be brought to a height of five meters. The chambers offered room for thousands of tombs along the walls and in the ground.
Burying the dead
Each corpse was wrapped in a sheet before being placed in the tomb, which often contained two or more members of the same family.
The name of the deceased was painted or sculpted on the brick or marble slab serving as its door, together with other information, usually the day and month of death. Small terracotta lamps and vases for perfume were often placed above the tomb, like the lights and flowers in cemeteries today.
The sombre galleries lit by the dancing lamp flames must have made an impressive sight. See at right the rectangular burial niches in the Catacomb of St Priscilla, Rome.
The simplest niches were the loculi, rectangular cavities dug one above the other in the tufa walls.
A richer type of tomb was the arcosolium, a cell for the dead hollowed out of the tufa and often plastered and frescoed, with a horizontal slab for a lid over the grave, surmounted by an arch.
Arcosolia are most often found in cubicula, small rooms constituting family or corporation vaults. They are sometimes illuminated by pit-like openings in the vaulting like a skylight, which originally allowed for the removal of earth during the excavations.
The catacombs were used as cemeteries until the early fifth century. They became enormous underground cities, especially after the cult of the martyrs began, since ordinary people wanted to be buried closer to the sacred tombs as a near guarantee of salvation.
Saints, relics and pilgrims
When burials in catacombs came to an end, they became holy places. Immense numbers of pilgrims thronged to Rome from every part of Europe.
In spite of the wars against
- the Goths in the sixth century,
- the Longobard raids of the seventh and
- the growing insecurity and poverty of the Roman countryside
the martyrs’ sanctuaries were still regularly restored and embellished by the popes.
The Itinerari, guides for pilgrims written in the seventh and eighth centuries, show that devotion to them was still alive at that period. Nearly all of them were restored again in Pope Hadrian’s time.
But during the first decades of the ninth century the catacombs were looted for the relics they contained, which were transferred (perhaps for safety) from the original tombs to churches within the city walls.
Each and every catacomb was doomed to extinction, for the cult of the martyrs had been the only reason for their maintenance. When the relics disappeared, upkeep stopped.
The entrances to that dark underground world vanished beneath subsidence of the earth and an overgrowth of vegetation. Except for a few galleries, the catacombs remained unknown until the sixteenth century, when Antonio Bosio, “the Christopher Columbus of subterranean Rome” (!) began uncovering them.