Secrets of the Roman Catacombs

In 1578, the Italian archaeologist Antonio Bosio discovered the ancient Christian catacombs in Rome.

Subsequently, in the vicinity of Rome, several dozen catacombs were discovered. They say that the total length of their corridors is more than 500 kilometers. The most ancient ones date back to 107, not to the first century, as many think.

Although in Rome Christians were not embraced, they were subjected to repression with long time intervals. Sometimes they were left well enough alone for many years, but hen they were suddenly caught again, imprisoned, tortured, and executed. And again everything calmed down for several years.

Roman catacombs – ancient underground burials. Photo peet-astn

Emperor Troyan, when asked by Pliny the Younger, the ruler of Bethany, what to do with Christians, replied that it was not necessary to search for them and keep an eye on them, but if someone denounced Christians, then punish them. So the extent and duration of persecution were often determined by the temper and personal views of the provincial rulers. It happened that in Rome Christians lived quietly, but in Africa or Galia they were brutally persecuted, and vice versa. Sometimes, fleeing persecution, they ran from one province to another, sometimes they hid in the catacombs.

Catacombs of Saint Domitilla in Rome

After the death of Emperor Valerian I, Christians in Rome were not touched for more than twenty years, and they had time to arrange the life of their community. The city was divided into 46 parishes, each with its own church, priest, deacon and clergy. They helped the poor, visited the sick, taught new converts, collected money for all this. The pagans came to listen to the sermons, participated in the part of the divine services open to them. But all this was possible only because most of the churches were located in the private houses of rich people.

Tomb of Saint Priscilla in Rome

How did Christians manage to gather for prayer without arousing suspicion?  Simply, according to custom, the wealthy Romans received visitors in the morning – clients, messengers with letters from the provinces, slave traders, freedmen, friends. All of them freely entered the courtyard, someone walked into the inner rooms, someone, having passed what he needed to the servants, left without seeing the owner. So it was possible to enter and leave the house in the morning without arousing suspicion and curiosity.

At first, the catacombs were mainly burial places. And since for the Romans the veneration of the dead was sacred, they gave the bodies of their executed brothers to Christians and did not interfere with their burial in the intricate multi-level underground galleries formed on the site of old quarries.

Catacombs of Saint Priscilla in Rome

“Everyone makes the place that belongs to him sacred by bringing his dead there,” Roman law said.  The catacombs were known to the magistrates and the police and had to be built according to certain rules: it was forbidden to work above ground level, so when the catacomb was full, they cut steps to a lower level and began to build a gallery below. Some catacombs have six levels.

The deceased Christians were placed in niches hollowed out in the stone one above the other – without coffins, simply wrapping their bodies in a blank canvas soaked in aromatic compounds – and covered with marble slabs or bricks, on which the name of the deceased was sometimes written, and sometimes one of the Christian symbols was depicted: an anchor , a fish, a dove, a lamb, a lion, an olive branch, a lily, a vine, a basket of bread…

The remains of most of the deceased were kept in such rectangular niches.

Narrow corridors occasionally widened, forming round or square halls, where on the anniversary of death they gathered to pray for God’s mercy to the dead, read holy books and sing hymns in honor of the reposed in the Lord. There a sense of the unity of the Church arose, in which the living pray for the dead, and they help the living with their intercession. Hence the tradition of celebrating the Liturgy on the relics of the saints, the particles of which were then sewn up into special piece of fabric – the antimins. 

There have also been tragic excesses. So in the early 80s of the III century, Emperor Numerian ordered to fill up the entrance to one of the quarries at the moment when the believers gathered there. When, after the end of the persecution, the entrance was opened, the corpses of men, women and children were found in the underground, and next to them there were chalices prepared for the Communion…

Catacombs of Saint Priscilla. Fragment of murals

By the 4th century, they stopped burying in the catacombs. The last Roman bishop buried in them was Pope Melchiad. His successor, Sylvester, was already buried in the Basilica of San Silvestro in Capite.

Robbers followed the pilgrims into the underground, and in order to protect the remains of the saints from desecration, they began to be transferred to city churches. Pope Boniface IV, on the occasion of the consecration of the Pantheon, took out thirty-two carts with the relics of the saints from the catacombs. Under Pope Paschalis I, two thousand three hundred relics of the saints were taken out from the catacombs. From the end of the 9th century, the pilgrimage to the Roman catacombs almost ceased, and for more than 700 years they were forgotten.

Statue of Saint Cecilia – a copy of the famous work done by Stefano Maderno in 1599 in the catacombs of Saint Callistos (San Callisto)

The papal librarian Onofrio Panvinio was the first to become interested in them in the 16th century: he researched early Christian and medieval sources and compiled a list of 43 Roman burials. His book was published in 1568.

And only then Antonio Bosio took up the study of the catacombs, describing the results of his labors in Roma Sotterranea, his three-volume essay. But the underground opened by him was soon buried under the rubble again, and the next time archaeologists reopened it was only in 1921.


Avatar photo

About the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Know everything about Orthodoxy? We can tell you a bit more!

Subscribe for our weekly newsletter not to miss the most interesting articles on our blog.

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: