The Catacombs—What Were They?
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN ITALY
In gloomy passageways, hidden in the bowels of ancient Rome, are the catacombs. What exactly are they? Why were they built?
ESSENTIALLY, the catacombs are tunnels dug out of rock for use as cemeteries. It is thought that the word “catacomb,” of uncertain meaning (possibly, “at the hollows”), was a place-name describing a particular cemetery on the Appian Way close to Rome. In time, it was applied to all subterranean cemeteries. Even though there are catacombs in many parts of the Mediterranean basin, those in Rome are the best known and also the largest—their overall length is estimated to be several hundred miles. As many as 60 have been identified, all a few miles outside the historic city center along the consular highways that connected Rome with its provinces.
It appears that during the first century, Roman Christians did not possess their own cemeteries but buried their dead alongside pagans. Halfway through the second century, when professed Christians had already begun to be influenced by pagan thought, wealthy converts made property available for “Christian” cemeteries. To resolve the problem of space without going too far from the city, digging began.
History of the Catacombs
The first excavations were probably made along the flanks of hills or in abandoned quarries. “Then,” explain Ludwig Hertling and Engelbert Kirschbaum in their book on the catacombs, “work began on a gallery not much higher than a man. Side tunnels were dug to the right and to the left, which could later be joined at their extremity by another passageway parallel to the first. Thus a simple then progressively larger and more complex network was formed.”
The greatest development took place during the third and fourth centuries; by this time, what passed for the Christian religion had been thoroughly contaminated by pagan teachings and practices. With the so-called conversion of Constantine in 313 C.E., the catacombs became the property of the Church of Rome, and some ultimately assumed colossal proportions. Altogether, the Roman catacombs could have held hundreds of thousands of tombs, if not millions.
During this period the cemeteries were adorned and extended, and new stairways were built to facilitate access for an increasing flow of visitors. The fame of the supposed tombs of the popes and martyrs had spread to such an extent (particularly in northern Europe) that the catacombs became the object of mass pilgrimages. With the fall of Rome and the first barbaric invasions at the beginning of the fifth century, the whole area became extremely dangerous, and the use of the catacombs as cemeteries ceased.
During the eighth century, the tombs suffered great damage as they were sacked and pillaged not only by invading armies but also, according to Hertling and Kirschbaum, by “condescending Roman mediators” who furnished large quantities of sacred mementos to “German and Frankish abbots increasingly avid for relics” to augment the prestige of their cathedrals and monasteries. Unable to restore or defend the catacombs, Pope Paul I carried most of the remaining bones to safety inside the city walls, where great basilicas were later constructed over what were believed to be the remains of the “holy martyrs.” The catacombs themselves were abandoned and forgotten.
Ancient itineraries of the fifth to the ninth centuries, which were prepared to guide visitors to the famous tombs, provided precious clues to scholars who, in the 17th century and then in the 19th, began to search for, identify, and explore the cemeteries hidden by collapse and vegetation. Since then, much research and restoration has been carried out, and today it is possible to visit several of these evocative places.
A Visit to a Catacomb
We find ourselves on the Appian Way, the road traveled by the apostle Paul when he was taken to Rome as a prisoner. (Acts 28:13-16) Even though only two miles [3 km] outside the ancient city walls, we are already in open countryside, surrounded by magnificent pine and cypress trees growing among the monuments and ruins of this once busy highway.
After buying our entrance ticket, we descend a steep stairway to a depth of about 40 feet [12 m]. The guide explains that this catacomb is arranged on five different levels, reaching a depth of a hundred feet [30 m], below which water was found. In fact, Rome is surrounded by extensive deposits of tuff, a soft and permeable volcanic rock, easy to excavate but at the same time strong and solid.
We are walking along a narrow corridor, a yard [meter] wide and about eight feet [2.5 m] high. The dark brown walls are rough and damp and still clearly bear the signs left by the picks of the fossors, the workers who dug these cramped tunnels. The tombs on both sides have long since been opened and pillaged, but some still contain small fragments of bone. As we proceed in the dark, we realize we are surrounded by thousands of tombs.
The most economical and practical way to bury the dead was to dig rectangular niches along the walls, one above another. These loculi usually contained one body but sometimes two or three. They were closed with bricks, slabs of marble, or terra-cotta tiles, sealed with lime. Many bear no inscription. They could be recognized by small objects placed on the outside—a coin or a seashell pressed into the fresh lime or, as in the Catacomb of Priscilla, a small doll made of bone, presumably left by grief-stricken parents mourning the premature loss of their daughter. Many tombs are tiny, large enough only for newborn babies.
“How can we know the age of the catacombs?” we ask. “There’s no conjecture about that,” our guide replies. “You see this mark?” We bend down to examine a sign stamped on a large terra-cotta tile used to seal one of the loculi. “This brick stamp was impressed when the tile was made. The factories, many of which were imperial property, stamped information on bricks and tiles they produced indicating the quarry from which the clay was taken, the name of the workshop, the foreman, the consuls (chief magistrates) in office that year, and so on. This is an extremely useful element in establishing a precise date for the tombs. The oldest go back to the middle of the second century C.E., and the most recent to about 400 C.E.”
A Mixture of Ideas
Some of those who used these places evidently had a certain knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, as a number of tombs are decorated with Bible scenes. There is no sign, however, of Mary worship or of other themes so common in later “sacred” art, such as the so-called crucifixion.
We also see figures that have no connection with the Bible. “It’s true,” admits the guide. “Many scenes in these and other catacombs are borrowed from pagan art. You can find the Greco-Roman demigod and hero Orpheus; Cupid and Psyche, who represent the soul’s lot in this life and the next; the vine and the grape harvest, a well-known Dionysian symbol of ecstasy in the afterlife. Taken entirely from idolatrous art, according to one Jesuit scholar, Antonio Ferrua, are the personifications of abstract beings: the four seasons represented by cupids; more complex scenes depicting the four seasons of the year, Summer crowned by ears of corn and lilies; and so on.”
Recurring themes are: the peacock, symbol of immortality, since its flesh was considered incorruptible; the mythological phoenix, also symbolizing immortality, as it was said to die in the flames only to rise again from its ashes; souls of the dead, surrounded by birds, flowers, and fruit, feasting in the afterlife. A real mixture of pagan and Biblical concepts!
Some inscriptions are moving expressions of faith, seeming to reflect the conviction that the dead are asleep, awaiting the resurrection: “Aquilina sleeps in peace.” (John 11:11, 14) In contrast with Scriptural teachings, other inscriptions reflect the idea that the dead can help or communicate with the living: “Remember your husband and children”; “Pray for us”; “I pray for you”; “I am in peace.”
But why this mixture of Scriptural and pagan thought? Historian J. Stevenson says: “The Christianity of some Christians was permeated by ideas deriving from their pagan past.” Clearly, the “faithful” in Rome were no longer acting in harmony with the knowledge transmitted by Jesus’ true disciples.—Romans 15:14.
As we continue our visit, the influence exerted by unscriptural devotion to the dead becomes ever clearer. Many desired to be buried close to the tomb of someone considered to be a martyr, with the idea that from his position in heavenly bliss, the martyr could intercede, helping the lesser one to obtain the same reward.
Many imagine that the catacombs were right underneath the city, but that is not so. They are all a few miles [km] outside the city center. Roman legislation, in fact, prohibited burial within the city walls. The Law of the Twelve Tables, introduced in the fifth century B.C.E., stated: Hominem mortuum in urbe ne sepelito neve urito (The dead may not be buried or cremated within the city).
The guide observes: “These cemeteries were well-known to the authorities, so well-known that during the persecution of Emperor Valerian, when Christians were barred from entering the catacombs, Pope Sixtus II was executed when he was found here (258 C.E.).”
Turning yet another corner in the labyrinth, we see the pale light of day illuminating the far end of the corridor, and we realize that our visit has come to its end. We say good-bye to our guide, thanking him for the interesting information, and as we climb another steep stairway to return to the surface, we cannot help but reflect on what we have seen.
Can these be the remains of true Christianity? Hardly. The Scriptures prophesied that shortly after the death of the apostles, a contamination of the doctrines taught by Jesus and his disciples would arise. (2 Thessalonians 2:3, 7) Indeed, the evidence we have seen, of the cult of the dead and of the martyrs and of the idea of an immortal soul, is eloquent testimony, not of faith based on the teachings of Jesus, but rather of the strong pagan influence already present among apostate Roman Christians in the second to the fourth centuries of our Common Era.
[Blurb on page 18]
The supposed tombs of the popes became the object of mass pilgrimages
[Blurb on page 19]
One catacomb has five different levels, reaching a depth of a hundred feet
[Blurb on page 20]
The catacombs show the influence of the foretold apostasy from Bible truth
[Pictures on page 17]
Right: Certain birds were used as symbols of immortality
Far right: Labyrinthine plan of some Roman catacombs
Bottom right: Brick stamp, useful for dating the tombs
Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma
Bottom: Crypt of the popes