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HISTORY CORNER: The Catacombs of Rome

by SYD ALBRIGHT
| September 13, 2020 1:00 AM

It was sometimes dangerous to be a Christian or Jew in Rome in the first two centuries after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

During some of those times, the miles of dark catacombs that snake under the city were the only places that Christians and Jews could practice their beliefs and bury their dead according to their customs without persecution.

In the earie darkness of the labyrinthine catacombs, millions of skulls and bones are stacked ingloriously without names alongside desiccated mummies standing in tattered clothes once worn in the streets of Rome nearly 2,000 years ago.

Before the catacombs, Rome’s dead were cremated or buried on private property, or in cemeteries open to anyone. That’s how Saint Peter came to be buried in the public “City of the Dead” on Vatican Hill where St. Peter’s Basilica is located, and the apostle Paul interned in a necropolis along the Via Ostiense.

But the catacombs weren’t built just to escape persecution — which wasn’t as pervasive as many imagine.

Catacombs were needed because land prices were going up and old Roman law required burial places be outside the city boundary, surprisingly to address ancient fears about presence of the spirits of the dead — not hygiene.

The earliest Roman catacomb was built about 200 A.D. as a private family burial place — also open to other members of the religious community. Catacombs later became church property after Roman law treated burial places as sacred and worthy of protection.

That kept catacombs safe until 568 A.D. when the Germanic Lombards invaded Rome and looted them. More lootings would follow.

Finally beginning in the 8th century, popes began removing relics of the martyrs and saints to the city churches for safe-keeping.

The first catacombs were carved by the Jews in Rome and later the Christians out of the soft but firm volcanic rock called “tufo.” When the tufo is covered by dirt, it stays very soft but hardens when digging into it exposes it to air. It becomes firm enough that supporting beams are unnecessary.

Cremation was the usual funerary practice in those times, but for both Christians and Jews the custom was burial.

“There was the belief among Christians at the time,” one report said, “that when the second coming arrived, the closer they were to the saints, the quicker they would go to heaven, so it was very popular to be buried as close as possible to the tombs of known saints at the time.”

There are only six known Jewish catacombs and 40 or more Christian ones in Rome.

The first floors of the catacombs were built for entombing the dead and were rectangular and plain. Levels excavated below later were bigger and were laid out in a variety of shapes, some with open shafts for light and air.

Some rooms were lined with benches and used for worship.

The cheap burials were niches called “loculi” carved into the rock where cloth-wrapped bodies would be placed. Tombs of the wealthy would have a whole room carved out of the rock, decorating them with elaborate paintings.

Catacomb artwork was some of the earliest Christian art and helps scholars better understand life in those times. There were early depictions of Christian symbols like a fish, anchor or dove.

L. Michael White, professor of Classics and director of the Religious Studies at the University of Texas says the catacomb art reflects “a burgeoning Christian iconographic tradition just as they're on this cusp of breaking into the mainstream of Roman society.”

Christians would hold family meals in the catacombs in memory of dead relatives, a custom that became a normal activity in their daily lives — just like their pagan neighbors.

Some persecution edicts were issued by the emperor, but multiple sources claim that Christians martyred during Roman Empire rule were relatively few, and mostly perpetrated by provincial authorities who had broad license in exercising their powers.

Pagan polytheistic Rome was generally tolerant of other religions and sects, with their main concerns focused on maintaining order and peace. One notable exception was the manic Nero who blamed the burning of Rome in 64 A.D. on the Christians — a conflagration he orchestrated himself.

Until the 4th century A.D., Roman authorities persecuted those suspected of not being loyal to the state, or refusing to sacrifice to Roman gods by burning incense as a kind of loyalty oath.

Many Christians refused to perform the sacrifices, placing them in danger. Others pretended to bow to the pagan gods and burned the incense — or they’d bribe the authorities to give them a certificate of compliance in order to avoid punishment and possible execution.

D.L. Bomgardner, in his book The Story of the Roman Amphitheatre says the Colosseum and similar amphitheaters throughout the empire were built for ordinary people to watch spectacles like gladiator fights, mock naval battles, wild animal hunts and public executions.

There is no universally accepted evidence that Christians were ever fed to the lions, and studies by modern animal handlers conclude that it would have been almost impossible for Romans in those days to capture elephants, rhinos or other large animals and transport them from Africa to Rome.

A report in The Guardian on Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard’s book The Colosseum says, “One persecuted Christian witness, Origen, wondered if the total tally of Christian martyrs at Rome actually reached double figures. There is, in fact, no firm evidence to prove that any Christian was ever torn apart by lions inside the Colosseum.”

So, do Rome’s catacombs contain the remains of Christians martyred in the Colosseum?

Unlikely, though there is accepted evidence that convicted criminals were often publicly executed in the arenas.

However, some condemned criminals might have been Christians, and had their bodies interred in a catacomb. Some of those Christian “criminals” may have been executed and considered martyrs simply for refusing to pay tribute to Rome’s pagan gods.

Pope Pius V (1566-72) may have given life to the martyr legend by suggesting that relic hunters obtain sand from the Colosseum “stained by the blood of martyrs.”

In time, Romans believed the martyr story.

The catacombs were rarely used as hideaways, but there were times when persecutions did happen. First among Roman emperors who tormented Christians was Claudius (41-54 A.D.) who adopted Nero (54-68) who became emperor at age 17 after his mother Agrippina murdered Claudius.

Nero crucified Christians and burned them as torchlights.

Next persecutor was Domitian (81-96) whom the ancient historian Pliny called “the beast from hell who sat in its den, licking blood.” Another report says he may have been “the beast from the abyss who blasphemes heaven and drinks the blood of the saints” mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.

Trajan (98–117) was an able administrator and was the first emperor to persecute Christians as distinct from the Jews. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch suffered death during his reign.

Marcus Aurelius (161–180) softened the harshness of the law against the weak and helpless — except for Christians, whom he thought were a dangerous revolutionary force, “preaching gross immoralities.”

Septimius Severus (193–211) issued an edict that forbade further conversions to Judaism and Christianity.

There followed a long period of peace from persecution until Decius (249-251), who began an empire-wide persecution of Christians, including executing Pope Fabian and then remarking, “I would far rather receive news of a rival to the throne than of another bishop of Rome.”

Valerian (253–260) was particularly harsh on Christians, confiscating their property, beheading Pope Sixtus II and roasting St. Lawrence on a grill.

Worst of them all was Diocletian (284-305). Even though his wife Prisca was a Christian, he prohibited all Christian worship, commanded that churches and Christian books be destroyed, and ordered clergy arrested unless they sacrificed to pagan gods.

In 313 A.D., Emperor Constantine changed the course of history when he issued the Edict of Milan, decreeing full legal toleration of Christianity — which became the official state religion.

Then catacomb burials slowly declined, with the dead increasingly being buried in church cemeteries.

Today, only a small part of the 170 miles of known catacombs under Rome are open to the public — with possibly more remaining as undiscovered relics of early Western Civilization.

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Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

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Names on tombs…

“Romans would inscribe a person’s name and title on their headstone, denoting the person’s class and station. But the Christians inscribed only a person’s name, cementing the understanding that a person’s worth was found in Christ alone and that all are equal.”

— Fr. James Spencer Northcote, The Roman Catacombs: A History of the Christian City Beneath Pagan Rome

Catacomb ring around Rome…

Rome required burial sites to be outside the city, unless the deceased was important. Tombs of noble families were above ground and often very lavish. Lower class tombs were in carved niches underground — up to five layers down.

Catacomb art…

“Jesus is not shown as a transcendental being, he's down there in the mud of human history with his hand on people's heads and shoulders, and they're not the least bit inhibited of showing him with a wand in his hand in front of the tomb of Lazarus, for example.”

— John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus of Religious Studies, DePaul University

Three main catacombs…

St. Callixtus Catacombs, nearly 12 miles long and 65 feet deep is the largest catacomb below Rome and is the tomb of nine popes. This catacomb has early Christian paintings, sculpture and frescoes.

St. Sebastian Catacomb runs nearly 7 miles long and is noted for having early graffiti in the form of prayers to the apostles.

St. Domitilla Catacomb, constructed in the 2nd century is the oldest in Rome and is accessed through a 4th century church. It houses a 2nd century fresco of The Last Supper.

Supper time in ancient Rome…

Most Romans ate a light breakfast and little else until a big dinner starting around 3 p.m. The rich would lie on their sides on a couch, eat with their hands and be served by servants. The food included bread, beans, fish, vegetables, cheese, dried fruit and very little meat. The rich however could afford to eat mice and peacock tongues.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Skulls, bones and a mummy in a Roman catacomb.

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VILLA/FABRIZIO GETTY IMAGES

Visitors viewing mummies in the catacombs of Rome.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Pricilla Catacombs in Rome.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Image of Jesus believed to have been painted in the Commodilla Catacomb in Rome in the 4th century A.D.

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DENIS GLIKSMAN, INRAP; MIT FRDL. GEN. VON DOMINIQUE CASTEX (AUSSCHNITT)

Excavating in the St. Peter and St. Marcellin catacombs beneath the ancient Via Labicana where 20,000 to 25,000 bodies were buried in the 4th century A.D. (2008).

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CNS PHOTOS/VATICAN MEDIA

Pope Francis visiting Pricilla Catacomb in Rome to celebrate Mass and pray for Christians worldwide who are under persecution and have to worship in secret (2019).

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Tomb of Santa Cecilia in the Catacombs of St. Callixtus in Rome where half a million Christians, martyrs and 16 popes are buried, as well as St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians, whose remains were moved to Santa Cecilia in Trastevere in central Rome in 821 A.D.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Tour visitors shown here are in the basilica in St. Domatilla Catacomb, the only basilica in any of Rome’s catacombs; this one dedicated to the martyrs Nereo, Achilleo and Saint Petronilla, daughter of St. Peter.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

“The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer” by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1883), this painting depicting details from several possible locations.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Roman Emperor Diocletian was one of the cruelest persecutors of Christians, with many martyrs buried in Rome’s catacombs.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

There are at least 40 catacombs under Rome, the oldest being built in the 2nd century A.D., due to land shortages and persecutions, with some for Christians and others used by mixed groups.

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CHRIST CHURCH/UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Painting by Tintoretto of St. Lawrence being martyred on a fire grill order by Roman Emperor Valerian (253-260 A.D.) in persecuting Christians.