Reading time: About 4-5 minutes.
What do you know about the Roman catacombs? If you’re like me, I’m guessing not a whole lot. At least, not until I some research.
You probably know they were located underground and used for burials. You may have also been taught they were places were early Christians hid to avoid Roman persecution. That’s pretty sketchy information, like a lot of our knowledge of history, but even some of that is inaccurate.
How they originated
The area around Rome is composed of a relatively soft, easily dug limestone known as tufa. Roman catacombs began as limestone mines dug by the Etruscans, who predated the Romans in Central Italy.
Rome’s laws mandated that all burials take place outside the city walls. So, the old Etruscan quarries and mines were a prime spot for a necropolis, or underground “city of the dead”. The word catacomb is actually derived from the Latin phrase “next to the quarry”, or the Greek “down in the hollows “. I’ve seen it defined both ways.
The physical layout
There are at least fifty distinct catacombs outside the city of Rome. Combined, they have layers of passageways that cover over eighty miles. Rome was a very large city as the capital of an empire and the catacombs were used for four centuries.
The upper level of the catacombs were about thirty to fifty feet below the surface. The passageways, or galleries, were over ten feet high. Along the sides of each gallery, laborers hollowed out rectangular recesses for bodies, sometimes four or five high. Most were the size of adults, but many others were the size of children and infants.
Jews began using Rome’s subterranean passageways for burials in the second century AD. Underground burials was a tradition they brought with them from the Middle East where they had been taking place for thousands of years. In Rome, the dead were buried underground because land on the surface was so costly. Jews and Christians often located their catacombs beneath property owned by people of their religion.
Christians followed the Jewish burial customs since they were still basically a sect of Judaism at that time. Pagans also used catacombs for burial, but Romans preferred cremating their dead. For religious reasons Jews and Christians chose not to cremate their deceased. Apparently, Christians believed that at the time of the anticipated bodily resurrection, it would be easier for God to restore life to dried bones than to ashes.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1963 that the Catholic Church began to allow cremation of their adherents. They still put strict rules on what could be done with the ashes.
The process of burying the dead
The newly deceased were taken to a preparatory chamber where workers removed their internal organs. They would often place straw in the body cavities to speed the process of desiccation. Next, they treated the bodies with fragrant oils and spices to reduce the smell of decomposition, then covered them shrouds. They placed the corpses in their resting places and usually sealed them in as air-tight as possible behind stone slabs, dried clay slabs, or bricks. All this was then sealed with plaster, and the plaster painted with frescos.
The artwork in the Roman catacombs is extremely important because it exhibits examples of the earliest Christian symbols and writings. The symbols consisted of few crosses because the cross wasn’t adopted as the primary symbol of Christianity until at least the fourth century. Mostly, there were the symbols of fish, ship anchors, lambs, doves, good shepherds, and the chi-rho, a monogram of the first two letters of the word Khristos (Christ).
After sufficient time, usually a few years, the bodies decomposed to the point where almost nothing remained except bones and teeth. If the burial occurred on the surface, bodies were often placed in stone coffins called sarcophagi, which means “flesh-eating”. If they were wealthy and so inclined, families took the bony remains and placed them in smaller stone boxes known as ossuaries. The ossuaries were transportable and could be kept anywhere the family desired.
Catacombs and Christian persecution
The catacombs were not known as being hiding places for persecuted Christians. Many people believe they were because of fictional books or movies about early Christianity and because that’s what they learned in church.
Roman persecution of Christians was a rare event during the first three centuries. The emperors decreed a few persecutions, but those usually didn’t last long and were not uniformly enforced. That was until the “Great Persecution”of Diocletian, which began in AD 303. It lasted up to ten years in certain regions of the eastern half of the empire. Even if the persecution was empire-wide, it didn’t specifically target Christians. They were aimed at anyone who wouldn’t sacrifice to the Roman gods.
However, the victims were mainly Christians because most of them refused to be perceived as honoring any god other than their own. On the other hand, pagans from across the empire usually had no trouble acknowledging and honoring other gods. Refusal to honor Roman gods resulted in the charge of treason, so Christians were found guilty of that crime, not for “being a Christian”.
What did go on in the catacombs?
Other than burials, people used catacombs for memorial services, sharing meals with departed loved ones, and seeking blessings from the tombs of saints. These activities were not carried out in secret. Romans knew the locations of Christian catacombs and usually left them alone.
In the fourth century laborers dug ventilation shafts to the surface to let in light and fresh air. In AD 380, when Christianity became the only religion allowed in the Roman Empire, most burials began taking place in Rome’s church cemeteries. That was much more convenient, better lit, and healthier for visitors. The catacombs would continue to be used for burials until the fifth century.
What was it like to venture into the catacombs?
To visit the catacombs in ancient times must have been quite an experience. You’d light your torch at the entrance before heading into the cool darkness. As you walked down the passageways, you’d probably hear little other than your own breathing and footsteps. Leaving the fresh air behind, your nostrils would first experience the smell of burning torch fuel. That would later become mixed with whiffs of mold and decaying bodies, if they weren’t properly sealed. It certainly wasn’t a place for the squeamish or the claustrophobic. At your destination you did what you came below ground to do and then departed.
I can’t even imagine the job of digging all those tunnels and recesses. Working underground for hours, using only torches for lighting, and often having insufficient ventilation. Some chiseled away at the rock while others transported the mined debris to the surface. It must have been an incredible ordeal, but not that different from working in other mines.
The Roman catacombs during the Middle Ages
Beginning in the fifth century, there were seemingly endless barbarian invasions of Italy. The city of Rome was sacked on several occasions. By the ninth or tenth century the Roman catacombs were completely forgotten.
It wouldn’t be until seven or eight centuries later, in 1578, that they would be accidental rediscovered along the Via Salaria. In 1593, young Maltese scholar, Antonio Bosio, arrived in Rome with an intense curiosity about the catacombs. He spent the rest of his life, until 1629, systematically exploring, mapping, and documenting what he found in them. His book, Roma Sotterranea (Subterranean Rome), established him as a pioneer of Christian archeology.
Several of the catacombs along the Appian Way are open to visitors. The bones are no longer visible because they’ve been removed to the depths of the catacombs.
It’s essential that visitors take a guided tour and stay close to the guide. I doubt that they ever lose anyone, but you never know.