Catacombs are a series of connected subterranean rooms, tunnels, or galleries created for the interment of the dead. These burial places are most extensive in Rome, but can be found throughout the Mediterranean world, in Paris, France, other areas of Italy, Asia Minor, Egypt, Tunisia, and Malta. Individual rooms or recesses were dedicated to a single family, so relatives could return on important anniversaries to remember loved ones. They were places to gather for family worship and reflection over generations. Inscriptions and paintings in the catacombs provide historical information on an important time period, enabling us to see the evolution of religious thought during the earliest centuries of Christianity in Europe.
The term catacomb today is virtually synonymous with the Christian cemeteries established in Rome during the time of the Roman Empire, but catacombs actually originated in the Middle East about 6,000 years ago. These earliest burials were usually secondary burials—the bones of the dead were recovered, placed in ossuary containers, and interred in a cave or burial chamber. Over the following millennia, burials increased in complexity. By 1500 BCE, far more elaborate underground chambers were connected by galleries.
After the Roman Empire conquered Palestine, or Judea, many Jews migrated to Rome, bringing their burial practices with them. Romans cremated their dead, but the Jews continued to dig their resting places underground. Jewish catacombs were used strictly for burial and can be identified by simple inscriptions of the menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum.
Roman catacombs were carved into the soft volcanic tufa. The law did not allow for burial within the city limits, so the 60 or more catacombs lie in the immediate suburban area of that age, with entrances along the main roads leading into the city.
Early Christians in Rome were considered a Jewish sect, and their catacombs were modeled after those of the Jews. As the Christian community grew, new catacombs were created and existing ones expanded, though Christian catacombs were more than simply burial places. Religious and funeral services were held in them, and they provided temporary refuge for celebrating the Eucharist in times of persecution.
Structurally, the Christian catacombs of Rome form a labyrinth. Tunnels wind through the rock for miles. These galleries are lined with rectangular niches, called loculi, that hold the remains of one or more individuals. The earliest Christians were typically very poor. In imitation of Christ’s simple burial, bodies were simply wrapped in a shroud and placed in a loculus. The opening was then sealed with mortar and tiles or a slab of marble. The name of the individual and a simple religious symbol were then inscribed on the tombstone.
As burials became more complex, other types of tombs developed. Cubicula were small rooms off a gallery that served as a family tomb. Arcosolia, large niches with an arch over the opening, were also used to inter families. Both cubicula and arcosolia were embellished with religious frescos and murals. Forma were individual tombs dug into the floor of a cubiculum or gallery. Forma were frequently dug near the tombs of the martyrs.
The catacombs were dug exclusively by a specialized guild of workers called fossores. They dug gallery after gallery by hand, carrying the debris out in baskets or bags. Periodically, shafts to the surface were created to provide light and air.
Roman law protected all burial sites and rendered them sacrosanct. Even slaves were entitled to a dignified burial. The Christian catacombs of Rome were used most heavily from the third century through the early 5th century when the Goths invaded. Repeated invasions in the succeeding centuries put an end to catacomb burial, as the invaders did not share the Roman restraint about plundering these sacred places. The remains of interred saints and martyrs were removed and housed more securely in churches around the city, and by the 12th century catacombs were completely forgotten.
In 1578, workers accidentally uncovered a catacomb under the Via Salaria while mining for stone, rekindling interest in these ancient burials. Catacombs have remained a curiosity and tourist attraction until the present day, though scientific excavation and analysis of the catacombs did not occur until the mid-1800s.
Catacombs were vital to early Christians. Serving primarily as resting places for the remains of the faithful, they provided a place for the living to spend time with their dead, recognize important anniversaries together, and wait with their loved ones for resurrection. The burial places of saints and martyrs provided the faithful with a physical location for pilgrimage.
See also Gaius Julius Caesar; Christianity; Emperor of Rome Nero; Religions and Time; Ancient Rome
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Della, P. I. (2000). Subterranean Rome: Catacombs, baths, temples. New York: Konemann.
Rutgers, C. V. (2000). Subterranean Rome: In search of the roots of Christianity in the catacombs of the Eternal City. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters Publishers.
Stevenson, J. (1978). The catacombs: Rediscovered monuments of early Christianity. London: Thames and Hudson.