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.
Inside the catacombs a narrow staircase, originally built by Pope Damasus (366-84) in the fourth century, leads down to dark labyrinthine corridors winding in all directions. In the rough tufa rock walls, rectangular graves have been carved, honeycomb-style, on four different levels. These were the tombs of poorer Christians, whose bodies, wrapped in shrouds and sprinkled with lime, were placed in the shelf-like recesses. A tragic forty per cent of these nooks are very small, indicating the graves of children or babies. In fact, contemporary historians, Tertullian among others, recorded that early Christians collected newborns from refuse dumps and gave them decent burials here.
Tiles and marble slabs are plastered along the walls, some with simple names and dates in primitive Greek letters. These originally covered the tombs – now all open and empty – which were tightly sealed with cement or mortar. Small round slots between the graves were for oil lamps; at the end of one corridor a pile of these has been gathered behind a glass case. It is not hard to imagine the love and faith with which the early Christians buried their dead in these dark tunnels – humble relatives, nameless slaves, hundreds of persecuted and martyred faithful. The inconspicuous groups arrived from Rome along the Appian Way, accompanied by a revered priest or deacon, to officiate at a simple ceremony and say the final prayers.
THE CRYPT OF THE POPES
Around a corner, in one of the narrow passages, the visitor will come upon the Crypt of the Popes. Here, in 1854, de Rossi stumbled into a marble-pillared chamber filled with rubble and found, amid the debris, fragments of inscriptions suggesting the burial places of several early Popes.
Today the tombstones of five third-century, mostly martyred Popes have been re-erected: St. Pontian (d. 235), who died in the Sardinian mines; the Greek St. Anterus (d. 235), who perished in prison; St. Fabian (d. 250), who reorganized and strengthened the Church in a period of peace and was then martyred during the Decian persecutions; St. Lucius I (d. 254), who spend part of his pontificate in exile; and St. Eutychian (d. 283), who escaped persecution but struggled with early heresies. According to Pope Damasus’ inscription in the crypt, Pope St. Sixtus II (257-8) was beheaded and buried here along with four of his deacons. Some sources claim that the crypt earlier contained the remains of three other third-century Popes and eight bishops. Most of the inscriptions are in Greek, the official language of the early Church.
Excerpt from Hager, June. Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London), 1999.