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Rome Catacombs |
The amazing underground city

Rome Catacombs is drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 60, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The catacombs were far more than a cemetery: In mile after subterranean mile they preserve a detailed portrait of early Christian life

Rome Catacombs - The amazing underground city

Rome Catacombs - The amazing underground city
The twisting maze of corridors and galleries that make up the catacombs of Rome contains the burial places of the wealthy, such as those in the tomb chambers in the catacombs of St. Sebastian.

On May 31, 1578, some Italian vineyard workers made a significant discovery. Near Rome, they stumbled onto the entrance to a catacomb, an underground graveyard of the sort their ancestors had used twelve centuries earlier. “Wonderful to relate,” gushed Cesare Baronius, a church historian and the runner-up in two sixteenth-century papal elections, it was nothing less than “a city beneath the earth.” Rome, he added, “was astonished.”

Particularly astonished was Antonio Bosio, an eighteen-year-old law graduate from Malta. Bosio’s life was at an impasse. Law had lost its charm for him. From his uncle, he had inherited the job of agent for the Knights of Malta in Rome. But a lifetime stamping passports held little allure for a man with Bosio’s intellectual and scholarly gifts. Then came news of the discovery: A window had reopened on ancient Christian Rome. Bosio determined to spend the rest of his life investigating what lay beyond it.

So he did, leaving at his death in 1629 two volumes of manuscript notes, each containing over a thousand pages in folio. This massive, handwritten data bank formed the basis for Bosio’s magisterial Roma Sotteranea (Subterranean Rome), whose publication two years after he died justly prompted his admirers to dub him “The Christopher Columbus of the Catacombs.” Indeed, since Bosio’s discoveries, Jewish and Christian catacombs have been found in many ancient Roman cities.

Bosio’s first journey underground almost ended in disaster. In 1593 he and a group of friends set out on a tour of the catacomb, named for St. Flavia Domitilla, a noblewoman who had owned the site in the first century. “From central grottoes,” he wrote in his journal, “there departed galleries in all directions of the wind, galleries that, in turn, seemed to divide themselves into thousands of new galleries.” In the presence of such wonders, time ceased to matter. That is, until it dawned on him that their candles had run out. Around them lay miles of unlit, unmapped passages. No wonder, as Bosio wrote in his journal, that he and his friends fully expected to end up “polluting this holy monument with our impure bodies.” That didn’t happen of course. But what Bosio’s near-death experience did do was lead him to take a scientific approach in exploring the catacombs.

In the first place, it made him resolve never again to venture below ground without ropes, shovels and, of course, plenty of candles. But another lesson the Domitilla Catacomb taught him was the vital importance of being methodical. It is no coincidence that in the history of archaeology, Bosio is famous for attention to detail. Catacomb research in his day was spasmodic and haphazard. He turned it into a veritable science.

Knowing of an ancient Roman bylaw forbidding burials within the city walls, he looked for catacombs in the countryside. Reason convinced him that such extensive construction would most likely have taken place along highways. So he focused his attention on the main roads leading into Rome. He also studied the Itinerari, a series of early medieval tourist brochures for pilgrims visiting martyrs’ shrines in Rome.

Thus he brought thirty catacombs to light, surveyed, sketched and measured them, and copied the inscriptions on their walls. Because some can no longer be found, scholars rely on Bosio’s Roma Sotteranea as evidence that they once existed.

What, then, did Baronius’s “city beneath the earth” actually consist of? So far, sixty catacombs containing an estimated 750,000 graves and forming a 620-mile-long multilevel labyrinth have been unearthed. Archaeologists have good reasons for believing there are still more to come.

At a time when horsepower referred to horses, how was such extensive tunneling possible? One thing that helped was Rome’s subsoil, which consists for the most part of tufa, a porous volcanic material ideally suited to subterranean construction. Then there were the expert fossores, or diggers. Far more than just pick-and-shovel men, they designed and engineered, and they may have had a hand in wall painting as well.

Fossores built catacombs in stages. A fossor would cut a vertical shaft, say, ten feet down, then a horizontal shaft at right angles, at the end of which he would hollow out a cubiculum, or bedroom, and line it with rows of loculi (rectangular indentations to put individual corpses in). As cubicula filled up, he would build others at the end of other passages. When the fossor found himself up against his employer’s property line, he would dig vertically instead of horizontally before excavating another cubiculum. Some Roman cubicula are stacked seven stories high. And finally, the fossor would make the whole place habitable by digging shafts called lucernaria to let in light and air (which did not, however, prevent Bishop Gilbert Burnet, an eighteenth-century Briton, from grumbling about “the darkness and thick air” in the catacombs, and refusing to stay in them more than an hour at a time).

In the fourth century, after the triumph of the emperor Constantine and the end of the persecutions, the number of Christian converts increased and therefore the number of Christian dead. So the old haphazard arrangement of loculi gave way to efficiency. No space was wasted; the corners where two galleries met were divided into smaller plots for children, an arrangement that served not only to relieve the pressure on the morgue but also, no doubt, to sweeten the local fossor’s commission.

As time passed and Christianity became fashionable and finally legal, loculi were made over into more elegant resting places. Graves of martyrs were refurbished, and pilgrims from outside Italy began visiting, eating a funereal meal called a refrigerium (the word still appears in Roman Catholic prayer books) near a martyr’s tomb, and attending anniversary masses at his grave. What didn’t happen in the catacombs were regular church services. Nowhere was there enough space to hold them. Nor, as Bosio mistakenly claims, did Christians take refuge in the catacombs during persecutions. Catacombs were cemeteries, known and maintained by the Roman government, and the authorities could as easily have found worshipers there as above ground.

In the years after Constantine’s triumph, the catacombs enjoyed their golden age. Elegant inscriptions (archaeologists have so far counted forty thousand of them) began to appear, as did a distinctively Christian art. Perhaps because of the Romans’ deeply held reverence for the dead, they seem to have made no attempt to interfere with Christian funereal art. But it evolved in a pagan setting. The sarcophagus of Marcus Aurelius Prosenes, dating from the end of the third century, is a pagan work of art in every respect but one. An inscription informs us that on March 3, 217, Prosenes was “led back to God.” In other words, he was Christianized, but his coffin retained elements of paganism.

Later Christians began adapting pagan symbols for their own purposes. As the theologian Alexander Schmemann writes, “In accepting any particular form [of natural religion, even of paganism], the church in its own mind has returned to God what rightly belongs to him, always and in every way restoring the fallen image.” So an apparently pagan funerary inscription complete with acanthus leaves includes the unmistakably Christian symbols of two fish and an anchor. Elsewhere, other pagan images received Christian interpretations. The pagan kriophoros, or ram-bearer, doubled as Christ the Good Shepherd; Venus, the goddess of love, did duty as the Virgin Mary; and Endymion, a young man put to sleep forever by the moon goddess Selene, is recycled as Jonah resting under his climbing gourd. And finally, the pagan symbol becomes a Christian one. Thus the addition of a bird to a representation of Deucalion, sole survivor of a mythological flood ordered up by Zeus, tells us that buyers of this picture were thinking not of Deucalion, but of Noah.

As striking as their art and architecture may have been, a visit to the “city beneath the earth” remained a chilling descent into the land of the dead. The fourth-century Christian scholar Saint Jerome offers a first-person view: “When I was a boy, receiving my education in Rome, I and my schoolfellows used, on Sundays, to make the circuit of the sepulchres of the apostles and martyrs. Many a time did we go down into the catacombs. These are excavated deep in the earth, and contain, on either hand as you enter, the bodies of the dead buried in the wall. It is all so dark there that the language of the prophet seems to be fulfilled, ‘Let them go down quick into hell.’ Only occasionally is light let in to mitigate the horror of the gloom, and then not so much through a window as through a hole. You take each step with caution, as, surrounded by deep night, you recall the words of Virgil: ‘Horror on every side, and terrible even the silence.’”

After Constantine moved his capital to Byzantium (now Istanbul), Rome became prey to attacks by foreign invaders. The catacombs were particularly vulnerable to grave robbers, so in 817 Pope Pascal I brought above ground to the Church of St. Prasede the bodies of twenty-three hundred martyrs. Thus did the catacombs cease to be of interest to pilgrims, and the memory of them faded. But not the significance of their contribution to Christian history.

This is the end of the Rome Catacombs category article drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 60, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Rome Catacombs from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at