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The Catacombs

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#1. http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/archaeology/rome-catacombs/

(One phot at this site)

To find catacombs, go to Rome, home of some of the oldest and longest burial underground tunnels in the world. "Hundreds of kilometers of catacombs run underneath the town and its outskirts," says Adriano Morabito, president of the association Roma Sotterranea (Underground Rome). "Some of the networks are well known and open to visitors, while others are still scarcely explored. Probably there are a number of lost catacombs, too."

The oldest tunnels date back to the first century. "The Jewish community in Rome built them as cemeteries. Christian catacombs came a century later. They were not secret meeting places to survive persecutions, as historians thought in the past, but burial tunnels, like the Jewish ones," Morabito explains. "They used to grow larger and larger around the tombs of saints because people asked to be buried near their religious leaders."

All Christian catacombs in Rome are property of the Catholic Church, and no one is allowed to explore them without special permission from the Vatican. "It's not so easy to get the permission. That's one of the reasons there have been very few archaeological expeditions to less known tunnels in the last decades," Morabito says.

#2. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/first/catacombs.html

About the same time as the persecution of Decius, middle of the third century, is also when we begin to get the Roman catacombs developing. Now, according to tradition, you know, the catacombs are thought of as where all the martyrs are buried, but there's far too many catacomb burials for all of them to have been martyrs; there's over six and a half million burials, it's usually estimated, and they last from the mid third up to the sixth or seventh century. So, clearly all of those aren't martyrs. What are they? We have pagan catacombs, Jewish catacombs, and Christian catacombs.

But one of the things we do see in the middle of the third century is there's a growing [number] of Christian burial societies run by the church. We even hear of whole groups of diggers, these are the people who literally dig out the catacomb burial places, and the Christians are one of the most important mortuary establishments in the city of Rome. They are responding to basic human needs in a variety of ways, and if you ever go down in the catacombs and look at what it's like, I mean, you have to imagine what this would have been. First of all, catacombs are a peculiar phenomenon in the area around Rome; they're always outside the city, as all burials had to be, but it's a peculiar geologic formation. This is in a very soft volcanic rock, and as long as this volcanic layer is covered by dirt or earth, it stays very soft. As soon as you dig into it and it hits air, it hardens and thus becomes very stable to dig into….

In many cases, too, this is where we see some of the most Christian funerary arts starting to develop; whole scenes of the family of Jesus or images from gospel stories or stories from the Hebrew Scriptures or the symbol of the orans and the good shepherd. All of these reflect a burgeoning Christian iconographic tradition just as they're on this cusp of breaking into the mainstream of Roman society. Indeed, the burgeoning Christian art, when it can be seen as distinctively Christian at all, is a sign that they really are making their way into society at large....

The city of Rome was ringed by burial sites. Since you could not be buried in Rome itself within the city boundaries unless you were somebody like the emperor, you had to be buried around the perimeter of Rome. So, if you were a noble family, you'd have tombs aboveground, mausoleum-like tombs. If you were a slightly lower class, you would be buried below ground because the material below the ground outside Rome is called tufa; it's very, very strong, it's very easy to carve and very strong. You could have two, three, four, and even five layers below ground of burial sites.

#3. http://www.crystalinks.com/romecatacombs.html

(Great photos at this site)

The Catacombs of Rome (Italian: Catacombe di Roma) are ancient catacombs, underground burial places under or near Rome, Italy, of which there are at least forty, some discovered only in recent decades. Though most famous for Christian burials, either in separate catacombs or mixed together, they began in the 2nd century, much as a response to overcrowding and shortage of land. Many scholars have written that catacombs came about to help persecuted Christians to bury their dead secretly. The soft volcanic tuff rock under Rome is highly suitable for tunneling, as it is softer when first exposed to air, hardening afterwards. Many have kilometres of tunnels, in up to four stories (or layers).

The Christian catacombs are extremely important for the art history of early Christian art, as they contain the great majority of examples from before about 400 AD, in fresco and sculpture. The Jewish catacombs are similarly important for the study of Jewish art at this period.

There are at least 40 catacombs in and around Rome depictinghow burial for early Christians, Pagans and Jews in Rome worked.

The first large-scale catacombs were excavated from the 2nd century onwards. Originally they were carved through tufo, a soft volcanic rock, outside the boundaries of the city, because Roman law forbade burial places within city limits. Furthermore, the pagan custom was to incinerate corpses, while early Christians and Jews used to bury. Being most of the latter of lower classes and slaves, they usually lacked the resources to buy land for burial purposes, thus using the soft volcanic rock of the whereabouts of Rome to dig tunnels in which to bury their dead. At first they were used both for burial and the memorial services and celebrations of the anniversaries of Christian martyrs (following similar Roman customs).

They probably were not used for regular worship. Many depictions of the catacombs show them as hiding places for Christian populations during times of persecution. There are sixty known subterranean burial chambers in Rome. They were built along Roman roads, like the Via Appia, the Via Ostiense, the Via Labicana, the Via Tiburtina, and the Via Nomentana. Names of the catacombs Ð like St Calixtus and St Sebastian, which is alongside Via Appia Ð refer to martyrs that might be buried there.

Bodies were placed in chambers in stone sarcophagi in their clothes and bound in linen. Then the chamber was sealed with a slab bearing the name, age and the day of death. Fresco decorations were typically Roman. The catacomb of Saint Agnes is a small church. Some families were able to construct cubicula which would house various loculi and the architectural elements of the space would be a support for decoration. Another excellent place for artistic programs were the arcosoliums.

In 380, Christianity became a state religion. At first many still desired to be buried in chambers alongside martyrs. However, the practice of catacomb burial declined slowly, and the dead were increasingly buried in church cemeteries. In the 6th century catacombs were used only for martyrsÕ memorial services, though some paintings were added as late as the 7th century, for example a Saint Stephen in the Catacomb of Commodilla. Apparently Ostrogoths, Vandals and Lombards that sacked Rome also violated the catacombs, presumably looking for valuables. By the 10th century catacombs were practically abandoned, and holy relics were transferred to above-ground basilicas.

In the intervening centuries they remained forgotten until they were accidentally rediscovered in 1578, after which Antonio Bosio spent decades exploring and researching them for his volume, Roma Sotterranea (1632). Archeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822Ð1894) published the first extensive professional studies about catacombs. In 1956 and 1959 Italian authorities found more catacombs near Rome. The catacombs have become an important monument of the early Christian church.

#4. Doorways Through Time by Stephen Bertman, Phd, 1986

(This is an interesting book and its information may be a little out of date)

No one today knows how many catacombs exist in Rome (many surely still lie buried) but almost fifty have been identified. It has been estimated that these contain perhaps one hundred miles of underground passageways and nearly a million graves (pg. 134)…

To make maximum use of this wall space  the burial berths were tiered- two-, four-, or even twelve high. Each opening was bricked and plastered after burial; a tablet was then added, bearing the name and age of the deceased (pg. 134)…

As the need for additional space grew, lower galleries were added , connected to the upper passageways but sunk as much as sixty or seventy-five feet below ground (pg. 134)…

The paintings done on the plastered surfaces of the cubicles an don ceilings and walls, are the oldest Christian paintings we possess (pg. 135)…

From the inscriptions that accompany the paintings and from pictorial clues we can learn about the occupations of many of those who were buried in the catacombs…a demonstration off the broad spectrum of people whose lives the Christian faith moved and who often died as martyrs to that faith (pg. 136)…

It was not until the days of the Italian Renaissance that the catacombs were rediscovered, chiefly through the efforts of a young Maltese named Antonio Bosio, who by following pilgrims guidebooks single-handedly identified the sites of thirty catacombs earning for himself the name ‘Columbus of the Catacombs’ (pg. 137)…

Among the catacombs Bosie had found was a Jewish one. By the early twentieth century, six more had been discovered. Only two have survived deliberate destruction and only one of these is still accessible. (pg . 137)…

#5. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_commissions/archeo/inglese/documents/rc_com_archeo_doc_20011010_cataccrist_en.html

Origins of the catacombs. The catacombs originated in Rome between the end of the second and the beginning of the third centuries A.D., under the papacy of Pope Zephyrin (199-217), who entrusted to the deacon Callixtus, who would later become pope (217-222), the task of supervising the cemetery of the Appian Way, where the most important pontiffs of the third century would be buried. The custom of burying the dead in underground areas was already known to the Etruscans, the Jews and the Romans, but with Christianity much more complex and larger burial hypogea originated in order to welcome the whole community in only one necropolis. The ancient term to designate these monuments is coemeterium, which derives from the Greek and means “dormitory”, thereby stressing the fact that for Christians, burial is just a temporary moment while they wait for the final resurrection. In antiquity, the term catacomb, extended to all the Christian cemeteries, only defined the complex of St. Sebastian on the Appian Way…

Characteristics of the catacombs. The catacombs are, for the most part, excavated in tuff or in other easily removable but solid soils so as to create a negative architecture. For this reason, the catacombs are found especially where there are tufacious types of soil: that is, in central, southern and insular Italy. The catacombs entail the presence of ladders that lead to ambulatories which are called galleries, as in mines. In the walls of the galleries the “loculi” are arranged: that is, the burial places of ordinary Christians that are made lengthwise. These tombs are closed with marble slabs or bricks. The loculi represent the humblest and most egalitarian burial system in order to respect the community sense that animated the early Christians. In any event, in the catacombs more complex tombs are also found, such as the arcosolia, which entail the excavation of an arch on the tuff casket, and the cubicula, which are real and proper burial chambers.

The art of the catacombs. From the end of the second century, an extremely simple art developed in the catacombs which is in part narrative and in part symbolic. The paintings, mosaics, reliefs on the sarcophaguses and minor arts recall stories from the Old and New Testaments, as if to present the examples of salvation from the past to the new converts. This is why Jonah is often depicted who was saved from the belly of the whale where he remained for three days, which re-evokes Christ’s Resurrection…

The martyrs of the catacombs. In the catacombs, the martyrs are buried who were killed during the cruel persecutions willed by Emperors Decius, Valerianus and Diocletian. Around the tombs of the martyrs, a form of devotion developed rapidly among the pilgrims who left their graffiti and prayers at these exceptional burial places. The Christians tried to arrange the burial places of their deceased as close as possible to the martyrs’ tombs because it was thought this would also establish a mystical nearness in heaven…

#6. http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4139-catacombs

Underground galleries with excavations in their sides for tombs or in which human bones are stacked. The term is derived from "catacomba," a compound of the Greek κατά and the Latin "comba" ("cumba"), and means "near the sepulchers." Originally it designated a definite place on the Via Appia near Rome, but since the ninth century it has been applied to all subterranean burial-places in Italy as well as in other countries. In the Middle Ages only Christian catacombs were known; in modern times, however, Jewish burial-places have been discovered resembling the Christian ones, and hence are also called catacombs….

Wherever the Jews went in the course of their wanderings, they endeavored to preserve this custom of their fathers as far as the nature of the ground permitted; and they did so at Rome, in lower Italy, Carthage, Cyrene, etc. The Talmud gives a detailed description of this kind of tomb, the chief characteristic of which is that the bodies were placed in niches (Talmud, ; Latin, "loculi") in the subterranean vaults. The Christian catacombs doubtless originated in imitation of this Jewish custom, although it would appear from the catacombs so far discovered at Rome that the Christian ones are older than the Jewish. Among Christians, moreover, Jesus' tomb in the rock must have been the model from the beginning…

Fragment of a Sarcophagus from the Vigna Randanini at Rome, Showing Jewish Symbols.(From Garrucci, "Cimitero Degli Antichi Ebrei.")Inscription on Gravestone in the Vigna Cimarra at Rome.

CYNA(ΓωΓ)HC EΛ      The Synagogue of Elea.


II        He Lived 70 Years.

KAΛωC KOIMOY        Pleasant is the sleep

META TωN ΛIKE        of the righteous.


Jewish catacombs have been discovered at Rome as follows: (1) Before the Porta Portuensis; found in 1602 by Bosio under the Colle Rosato. This catacomb has since become inaccessible through the filling in of the neighborhood. Its arrangement was extremely simple and primitive, as it contained only two cubicula or burial-niches. It is evident, from its situation on the road leading to Porto, that it served as a cemetery for the Jews living in Trastevere. (2) In Porto itself, from which several Greek inscriptions of the first and second centuries have been preserved. These inscriptions throw much light on the history of the Jews at Rome. (3) In the Vigna Randanini on the Via Appia, discovered by Garrucci in 1862. He also found there two figured sarcophagiand gilded glasses of Jewish origin, which furnish proof of the interesting fact that the Jews also followed the higher arts. (4) In the Vigna Cimarra near the Via Appia, discovered by De Rossi in 1867. Among its inscriptions, which are also important, one mentions the synagogue of Elea. (5) In the Vigna Apolloni on the Via Labicana, discovered in 1882 by Marucchi; it is less important, and contains only a very few inscriptions, but is marked by easily recognizable Jewish symbols. (6) On the Via Appia Pignatelli, discovered in 1885 by Nicolaus Müller (see "Mitteilungen des Archäologischen Instituts," Roman section, 1886, i. 49-56)…

The chief value of the Jewish catacombs at Rome lies in the numerous and multiform inscriptions that they furnish, which throw a strong light on the life of the Jews at Rome. A great number of names has been preserved thereby; and sometimes the titles of the offices and the status of those buried are given. Since about 110 of the inscriptions are in Greek and only about 40 in Latin, the former was probably the language of the Jews at Rome. The Greek inscriptions date from between the first and third centuries, from which time to the fourth century there are Latin inscriptions...

The symbols of the Christian tombs also, in so far as they are taken from the Old Testament, are interesting from a Jewish point of view. The chief types are: Noah in the Ark, the sacrifice of Isaac, the miraculous water produced by Moses in the desert, Israel's passage through the Red Sea, the ascension of Elijah, Jonah's deliverance, the three youths in the fiery furnace, and Daniel in the den of lions. All these pictures express the thought that there are comfort and deliverance from sorrow and trouble. Kaufmann explains the fact that these and not other scenes from the Old Testament were used, by the circumstance that this cycle was based on an old passage of the Jewish liturgy…

#7. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0004_0_04069.html

The Roman catacombs consist of a great labyrinth of tunnels dug deep into the earth under the hills surrounding the city. The construction of the Jewish and Christian catacombs is similar: the tunnels are placed at different levels, frequently as many as four or five, one upon the other, and they cross several times on the same level. The main tunnels, about one meter wide and three to four meters high, are themselves connected by smaller tunnels whose walls contain horizontal graves or burial niches (loculi) in which the corpses were placed. Unlike the Christian catacombs, the Jewish ones do not contain large rooms for gatherings or religious celebrations, since Judaism was a permitted religion in the Roman Empire, and public worship was permitted.

The little open spaces which are found in the Jewish catacombs may have served for the washing of the corpses before burial or for family graves. In order to explain the use by the Jews of Rome of catacombs it has been suggested that the practice was adopted by those Jews who were averse to following the Roman and Greek custom of cremation (as some, in fact did) but who were reluctant to perform their burials openly. The use of catacombs is permitted in Jewish tradition and can even be considered as a return to the early traditions of Ereẓ Israel (cf. the Cave of *Machpelah , see Gen 23; Isa. 22:16).

The modest nature of the tombs has been attributed to the great poverty of the community, but it should be noted that ostentatious tombs were condemned by Jewish tradition (cf. Gen. 3:19). Although the tombstones have few identifying data they constitute a valuable source for reconstructing the history of the Roman Jews in the classical period.

The inscriptions date from the period between the first and fourth centuries C.E. The predominating language dating from the first to third centuries is Greek (76%). There are also some Latin inscriptions, written however in the Greek alphabet. From the third century on, the use of Latin in the Latin script becomes usual (23%). There is also one epigraph written in Greek with Latin letters.

There are a few words in Hebrew:שאלים על ישראל, שלום (sic, with the א mater lectionis which is found sometimes also in Venosa; H.J. Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome (1960), ch. 4). The names are for the most part foreign: Latin (46%) and Greek (31%). The Semitic names (13%) include Astar, Benjamin, Eli, Gadias, Jacob, Jonathan, Judas (twice), Mara-Maria-Marta, Rebekah, and Sarah.

That there are many double names is explained by the fact that most of the Roman Jews were freedmen, who on emancipation adopted the surname of their former master. The inscriptions are useful both for giving a picture of the intimacy of family life, and for attempting to reconstruct the life of the community and its organization.

#8. http://www.sacred-destinations.com/italy/rome-catacombs

The burial custom of most ancient Romans tended to be cremation, with ashes stored in urns. But Christian belief in the bodily resurrection led the early Christians to reject this practice and bury their dead instead. This method requires significantly more space, of course, and the early Christians did not own much land. So the catacombs made a practical, even necessary, solution for burial of the faithful.

The catacombs had other advantages as well: they were an ideal way to strengthen the sense of Christian community (both in life and death) and they provided quiet, out-of-the-way places for memorial ceremonies and displaying Christian symbols.

The first large-scale Christian catacombs were excavated in the 2nd century AD. They were all located outside the city walls, as Roman law forbade burial within the city limits. In addition to burial, the catacombs were used for memorial services and celebrations of the anniversaries of Christian martyrs.

Many modern depictions of the catacombs show them as hiding places for Christian populations during times of persecution, but there is little evidence for this. It probably only occurred in exceptional cases during the persecutions, when the catacombs were the only safe place to celebrate the Eucharist…

By the 10th century the catacombs were mostly abandoned and they remained forgotten until their accidental rediscovery in 1578. Antonio Bosio spent decades exploring and researching them for his Roma Sotterranea (1632) and, two centuries later, the archeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi(1822-1894) published the first extensive professional studies about catacombs. In 1956 and 1959 more catacombs were discovered near Rome…

There are 40 known underground cemeteries in Rome. Built along ancient Roman roads such as the Via Appia, the catacombs consist of vast systems of galleries and passages built on top of each other. The galleries lie anywhere from 7 to 19 meters (22-65 ft) below the surface and the passages are about 2.5x1 meters (8x3 feet) in size. Narrow steps join the multiple levels.

The early Christians bound the bodies of dead in linen and placed them in burial niches (loculi), which were sealed with a slab bearing the name, age and the day of death. Often Christian symbols such as the fish or chi-rho were included as well. These niches are about 40-60 cm (16-24 in) high and 120-150 cm (47-59 in) long.

#9. http://www.bibleprobe.com/catacombs.htm

The catacombs of St. Callixtus are among the greatest and most important of Rome. They originated about the middle of the second century and are part of a cemeterial complex which occupies an area of 90 acres, with a network of galleries about 12 miles long, in four levels, more than twenty meters deep.

In it were buried tens of martyrs, 16 popes and very many Christians.

They are named after the deacon Callixtus who, at the beginning of the third century, was appointed by pope Zephyrinus as the administrator of the cemetery and so the catacombs of St. Callixtus became the official cemetery of the Church of Rome.

On four tombstones, near the name of the pope, there is the title of "bishop", since the Pope was regarded as the head of the Church of Rome, and on two of them there is the Greek abbreviation of MPT for "Martyr".  A number of epitaphs of the early popes (Pontianus, Anterus, Fabianus, Cornelius, Lucius, Eutychianus. Caius) were found in the "Papal Crypt" in the Catacomb of St. Callixtus…

The first three centuries constitute the age of Martyrs, which ended in 313 with the edict of Milan, by which the emperors Constantine and Licinius gave freedom to the Church. The persecution was not always continuous and universal, nor equally cruel and bloody. Periods of persecution were followed by periods of relative peace.

Christians faced persecution with courage, a very large percentage with heroism, but they did not submit to it without opposition. They defended themselves with great strength by confuting the accusations of those crimes as being false and groundless and by producing the contents of their faith ( What we believe) and describing their identity (What we are).

In the "Apologies" ("defences"), prepared by the Christian writers of the time, and often addressed to the emperors, the Christians protested vigorously against their being condemned unjustly, without being known and without being convicted. According to the Apologies, the principle of the senatorial law "Non licet vos esse- you have no right to exist" is unjustifiable and unlawful, because Christians are honest citizens, respectful of laws, loyal to the emperor, hard-working and exemplary both in their private and public life.

In the catacombs we can check the evidence of the wonderful life of Christians, as it is described by the Apologists. We have included below some passages of their defence…

Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus recorded information pertaining to Jesus, thus removing the only supporting source for His existence as being in the New Testament. In 115 A.D., Tactius wrote about the great fire in Rome; "Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberious at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.

Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths, Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed."

#10 http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1501-1600/accidental-discovery-of-roman-catacombs-11630027.html

Forbidden to bury their dead in regular burial grounds, the Christians of Rome interred them in underground vaults used by the poor. Called catacombs, these were built outside the city and subject to severe building codes for fear they might collapse. So many martyrs found their final rest in these sites that Christians began to hold special memorial services in them. Except during the worst persecutions, Christians were allowed control of their own catacombs. Widespread use of catacombs for Christian burial seems to have dated from the 3d century…

On this day, May 31, 1578, an entrance into the catacombs north of Rome, on the Via Salaria, was accidentally discovered. The import of the find was not then recognized. The man who would first understand its import was hardly two years old that day.

When he was just eighteen, Antonio Bosio committed himself to the lifelong study of archaeology. It was he who first recognized the significance of the entrance on the Via Salaria. In December 1593, before he turned twenty, Bosio explored the catacombs. Gradually he found links between them, for narrow passageways led from one to another. Some passages were blocked. Using his own eyes and questioning peasants, he sought additional entrances and found thirty. During one dry period, however, from 1600 to 1618, he found only two. What tenacity to keep the search alive for so long in face of so little fruit!

Twenty seven years after his first descent, he completed a book on the catacombs. Roma Sotterranea, he named it. Beginning with the Vatican cemetery, he worked in a counterclockwise direction around Rome, describing each of the many catacombs he had visited (by no means all). Colleagues prepared prints for it. It was not published, however, until five years after he died.

Like every good archaeologist, Bosio added historical detail to his findings. He wrote, for instance, of the 4,000 Christians martyred by Hadrian on the Via Appia rather than deny the Christ who redeemed them. Unfortunately, not everyone who entered the catacombs had as lofty motives as Bosio. Fortune hunters came to plunder the graves for relics to resell with spurious stories.