Beneath the cypress and pine trees along the Appian Way and other roads leading out of ancient Rome extends a vast city of the dead. Here, in the first centuries AD, early Christians carved out labyrinths of dark tunnels, some on three or four levels, to host underground tombs and secret chapels.
The catacombs. No other word so vividly evokes the primitive Christian Church. Even today, the image of those maze-like underground passages, where Roman Christians reportedly hid from terrible persecutions and buried their early martyrs, awakens in us a sense of dreadful awe and reverence. Literature and cinema have fanned the flames of our imagination regarding these legendary asylums for early Christians. In fact, the catacombs were not used as secret refuges for Christians fleeing from persecution. The ancient Romans had great respect for the dead and Roman law protected their places of burial. From the fourth century BC, official statutes had dictated that graves be outside the city walls. All – even Christian – burial grounds were registered, and thus known to and safeguarded by the Roman authorities. For these reasons the catacombs were not appropriate as Christian hiding places. As very early Christian cemeteries, however, they do provide us with first-hand testimony of belief and customs in the primitive Roman Church.
The catacombs took their name from a particular site along the Appian Way, a well-known hollow, probably a deserted tufa quarry, about two miles from the city gate. Here, from the first to the fourth centuries, Christians developed an extensive underground cemetery known as ad catacumbas, or ‘cemetery at the hollow place’, later known as the Catacomb of St. Sebastian.
Since St. Sebastian was the only catacomb which was not covered up and forgotten in the Middle Ages, it became the synonym for all others rediscovered at a later date. Apparently the term ‘catacomb’ was not used until medieval times for the Christian graves of this area. Pagan Romans called their burial grounds by the Greek word ‘necropoles’, meaning ‘cities of the dead’. In contrast, early Christians preferred the word ‘cemetery’, from the Greek word for ‘to sleep’, emphasizing that Christian dead were only sleeping, while awaiting their final resurrection.
The earliest Christians were often poor and buried their dead in the midst of open pagan cemeteries, along with other common people. St. Peter, for example, was entombed near Nero’s Circus (now inside Vatican city state), where he was martyred. Afterwards, many Christians wished to be interred near the saint’s grave, and a large cemetery grew up around his tomb. Later in the first century, Christianity spread to other classes, and Christians with private property buried their dead in family tombs, usually above-ground.
By the middle of the second century, many prosperous and patrician families had been converted to Christianity, and they extended their private cemeteries, excavated on villas and estates, to their Christian brethren. At that time, Christians began digging their graves below ground. Because of Rome’s demographic surge and a gradual change in funeral rites from cremation to inhumation, land for burial was becoming scarce and expensive. Increasingly, Christians also needed to keep a low profile. During the era of persecutions, from the first to the fourth centuries, the number of Christian dead swelled massively, and so did the number of their graves.
When Constantine legalized Christianity in AD 313, Christians continued to be buried in the catacombs out of devotion to the martyrs, and basilicas and monuments were built to mark the sites. The fourth-century Pope Damasus (366 – 84) was especially devoted to the early saints; he located martyrs’ graves, composed verse inscriptions for their tombs, and transformed the catacombs into popular and venerated shrines.
Destruction by barbarian invaders, the ‘translation’ by ninth-century Popes of saints’ and martyrs’ relics to safer city churches, neglect, abandonment, and eventual oblivion characterized the catacombs’ fate in later centuries. There was only intermittent rediscovery and attention to these monuments (‘itineraries’ written for pilgrims in the seventh century) until the consistent archaeological excavations of Giovanni Battista de Rossi in the pontificate of Pius IX (1846 – 78).
The catacombs have always been considered the cradle of the Christian Church. Those kilometre-long burial galleries, with their simple tomb inscriptions and brightly frescoes walls are our direct link with the threatened but steadfast first Christian community in Rome.
Excerpt from Hager, June. Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London), 1999.