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.
CHRISTIANITY OVERTAKES PAGANISM
In Rome, Christians were only a small and persecuted sect in the years following Christ’s death. Throughout the second and third centuries, the courage and devotion of Christian martyrs attracted more and more converts to the new faith. The Domitilla and Priscilla Catacombs attest to the amazingly rapid growth of the early Church.
Above ground on the Flavian estate, archaeologists have identified several first-century columbaria (tombs with cremation urns) and even a luxurious first-century pagan mausoleum. Under these, the first subterranean nucleus of second- to early third-century burial vaults is mostly pagan. Yet among the classical cavorting cupids we find grapevine decorations, which can be Paleo-Christian symbols, and Old Testament scenes with Daniel and Noah. Beyond this earliest nucleus, the Domitilla Catacomb – with 174,000 graves carved out along seventeen kilometres of galleries on four levels – appears to be entirely Christian.
In the increasingly decadent late Empire, Christianity brought a new message of faith, love and everlasting life. In place of a distant multitude of gods, it offered a personal Redeemer, the Son of God, who became human to save mankind. The most popular of all catacomb motifs is that of the Good Shepherd. The Catacomb of Domitilla has, perhaps, the most beautiful and varied renditions of this comforting theme – from Greek-style youths to wiser, bearded types – on basilica sarcophagi and frescoed ceilings. One chamber in this catacomb hosts the family tombs of a certain Diogenes, identified as a catacomb grave-digger (fossore) by both his inscription and his pictured tools. Christians believed all equal before God; even a humble worker could have a finely decorated tomb.
THE CATACOMB OF PRISCILLA
On the ancient Via Salaria, or Salt Road, leading out of Rome to the Adriatic Sea, archaeological excavations have uncovered the remains of a first-century villa with gardens and underground water cisterns about two kilometres from the city gates. This was the property of the wealthy Acilian family; one family member, the senator and former consul Acilius Glabrione, had been exiled by the Emperor Domitian (81-96) for practicing Christianity. (According to the second-century Roman historian Suetonius, Acilius was deported ‘for trying to introduce new things.’). Later, in the early second century, another family member, Priscilla, built a hypogeum (underground burial vault) on this spot, and set aside an adjacent area as a Christian cemetery.
Here, beneath the extensive villa, excavators found, in the so-called ‘Acilian vaults’, burial inscriptions with the titles ‘most illustrious M. Acilius and Priscilla’, indicating that persons of senatorial rank had occupied the tombs. Nearby, an arenario, or subterranean quarry area, had been used since the second century for poorer Christians’ burials, with hundreds of narrow rectangular graves (loculi) carved into the tufa galleries. This area, along with the cryptoporticus mentioned below, became the nucleus of the Catacomb of Priscilla, which developed in the third and fourth centuries to become one of the largest Christian cemeteries in Rome.
As in Domitilla’s Catacomb, the Catacomb of St. Priscilla expanded primarily because of the saints and martyrs who were particularly venerated here. These included: Pope Marcellinus (296-304), martyred in Diocletian’s persecutions; Pope Marcellus (308-9), who perished under Maxentius; the martyrs Felix and Philip, Crescentianus, Prisca, Prudentiana and Praxedes, and group of 365 other martyrs – all unidentified. The visitor should look out for the braves of these holy personages, located at different points throughout the catacombs.
Priscilla’s oldest section (besides the areas discussed above) is probably the cryptoporticus, a pillared and vaulted hall which may have belonged to the cellars of the late first-century Acilian villa. This formed the main artery of the underground cemetery, with tomb chambers on each side, and galleries extending outward. The catacomb was vastly expanded and embellished in the fourth century, as fervent devotion drew the faithful to the martyrs’ tombs.
Several interesting paintings throughout Priscilla’s Catacomb give an idea of Christian religious practices. In one crypt, a deceased woman’s exemplary life is portrayed in a series of simple frescoes: marriage (a priest blesses the bride, who holds the tablet of marriage duties, and the groom, who hands over the red-edged nuptial veil); matrimony (a mother with a child on her knee); and blessed afterlife (an ecstatic standing orante figure as the resurrected soul).
In the Greek Chapel (so-called because of inscriptions found there), the central wall fresco shows a Eucharistic feast (seven persons, including a veiled woman, sit at a banquet table, with a wine chalice, and plates of fish and bread loaves, while the bearded celebrant prepares to break the bread). The stone benches along the chamber walls might well have been used for such a sacramental meal.
This burial chamber has many of the early Church’s favourite story symbols: Hebrews in the fiery furnace (faith); Moses striking water from a rock (Baptism); Susanna and the Elders (the persecuted Church): the phoenix in the flames (resurrection of the body); Christ healing the sick (penitence). Of all the Bible scenes, those of Jonah and the whale and Daniel and the lions appear most frequently in the catacombs. The meaning is obvious: the example of salvation and the hope of eternal life.
Priscilla’s Catacomb also contains what is perhaps the very earliest representation of the Virgin Mary. A gallery ceiling fresco (very difficult to see) shows the Virgin Mother presenting the Child Saviour to a prophet (Balaam? Isaiah?), who points to a star above their heads. Although images of the Adoration of the Magi occur in many catacombs, this fulfillment are shown occurring at the same time, and Mary is exalted as the Mother of the Redeemer.
In the declining Roman Empire, the Christian community stood apart by its simple lifestyle and strong ethical basis. In these catacombs it is not difficult to sense the appeal Christianity must have had in a society thirsting for spiritual renewal.
Excerpt from Hager, June. Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London), 1999.