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§ 84. Description of the Catacombs.


The Roman catacombs are long and narrow passages or galleries and cross-galleries excavated in the bowels of the earth in the hills outside and around the city, for the burial of the dead. They are dark and gloomy, with only an occasional ray of light from above. The galleries have two or more stories, all filled with tombs, and form an intricate net-work or subterranean labyrinth. Small compartments (loculi) were cut out like shelves in the perpendicular walls for the reception of the dead, and rectangular chambers (cubicula) for families, or distinguished martyrs. They were closed with a slab of marble or tile. The more wealthy were laid in sarcophagi. The ceiling is flat, sometimes slightly arched. Space was economized so as to leave room usually only for a single person; the average width of the passages being 2½ to 3 feet. This economy may be traced to the poverty of the early Christians, and also to their strong sense of community in life and in death. The little oratories with altars and episcopal chairs cut in the tufa are probably of later construction, and could accommodate only a few persons at a time. They were suited for funeral services and private devotion, but not for public worship.

The galleries were originally small, but gradually extended to enormous length. Their combined extent is counted by hundreds of miles, and the number of graves by millions.531531    I hesitate to state the figures. Roman archaeologists, as Marchi, J. B. de Rossi and his brother Michael de R. (a practical mathematician), Martigny and others estimate the length of the Roman catacombs variously at from 350 to 900 miles, or as "more than the whole length of Italy" (Northcote and Brownlow, I. 2). Allowance is made for from four to seven millions of graves! It seems incredible that there should have been so many Christians in Rome in four centuries, even if we include the numerous strangers. All such estimates are purely conjectural. See Smith and Cheetham, I. 301. Smyth (l.c. p. 15) quotes Rawlinson as saying that 7,000,000 of graves in 400 years’ time gives an average population of from 500,000 to 700,000. Total population of Rome, 1,500,000 to 2,000,000 at the beginning of the empire.31

The oldest and best known of the Roman cemeteries is that of St. Sebastian, originally called Ad Catacumbas, on the Appian road, a little over two miles south of the city walls. It was once, it is said, the temporary resting-place of the bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul, before their removal to the basilicas named after them; also of forty-six bishops of Rome, and of a large number of martyrs.

The immense cemetery of Pope Callistus (218–223) on the Via Appia consisted originally of several small and independent burial grounds (called Lucinae, Zephyrini, Callisti, Hippoliti). It has been thoroughly investigated by De Rossi. The most ancient part is called after Lucina, and measures 100 Roman feet in breadth by 180 feet in length. The whole group bears the name of Callistus, probably because his predecessor, Zephyrinus "set him over the cemetery" (of the church of Rome).532532    This is so stated by Hippolytus, Philosoph. IX. 11. Zephyrinus was buried there contrary to the custom of burying the popes in St. Peter’s crypt in the Vatican. Callistus was hurled from a window in Trastevere, and hastily removed to the nearest cemetery on the Via Aurelia. The whole report of Hippolytus about Callistus is discredited by Northcote and Brownlow (I. 497 sqq.), but without good reason.32 He was then a deacon. He stands high in the estimation of the Roman church, but the account given of him by Hippolytus is quite unfavorable. He was certainly a remarkable man, who rose from slavery to the highest dignity of the church.

The cemetery of Domitilla (named in the fourth century St. Petronillae, Nerei et Achillei) is on the Via Ardeatina, and its origin is traced back to Flavia Domitilla, grand-daughter or great-grand-daughter of Vespasian. She was banished by Domitian (about a.d. 95) to the island of Pontia "for professing Christ."533533    Eusebius, H. E. III. 18. De Rossi distinguishes two Christian Domitillas, and defends this view against Mommsen See "Bulletino," 1875, pp. 69-77, and Mommsen, Corp. Inscript. Lat., Tom. VI. p. 172, as quoted by Northcote and Br. I. 86. See also Mommsen in "The Contemp. Review," XVII. 169 sq. Lightfoot. Philippians, p. 22, and S. Clement of R., 257.33 Her chamberlains (eunuchi cubicularii), Nerus and Achilleus, according to an uncertain tradition, were baptized by St. Peter, suffered martyrdom, and were buried in a farm belonging to their mistress. In another part of this cemetery De Rossi discovered the broken columns of a subterranean chapel and a small chamber with a fresco on the wall, which represents an elderly matron named "Veneranda," and a young lady, called in the inscription "Petronilla martyr," and pointing to the Holy Scriptures in a chest by her side, as the proofs of her faith. The former apparently introduces the latter into Paradise.534534    See the picture in Northcote and Br. I. 182, and on the whole subject of Petronilla, pp. 122, 176-186.34 The name naturally suggests the legendary daughter of St. Peter.535535    Acta Sanct. Maii, III. 11.35 But Roman divines, reluctant to admit that the first pope had any children (though his marriage is beyond a doubt from the record of the Gospels), understand Petronilla to be a spiritual daughter, as Mark was a spiritual son, of the apostle (1 Pet. 5:13), and make her the daughter of some Roman Petronius or Petro connected with the family of Domitilla.

Other ancient catacombs are those of Pruetextatus, Priscilla (St. Silvestri and St. Marcelli), Basilla (S. Hermetis, Basillae, Proti, et Hyacinthi), Maximus, St. Hippolytus, St. Laurentius, St. Peter and Marcellinus, St. Agnes, and the Ostrianum (Ad Nymphas Petri, or Fons Petri, where Peter is said to have baptized from a natural well). De Rossi gives a list of forty-two greater or lesser cemeteries, including isolated tombs of martyrs, in and near Rome, which date from the first four centuries, and are mentioned in ancient records.536536    See also the list in N. and Br. I. pp. xx-xxi, and in Smith and Cheetham, I. 315.36

The furniture of the catacombs is instructive and interesting, but most of it has been removed to churches and museums, and must be studied outside. Articles of ornament, rings, seals, bracelets, neck-laces, mirrors, tooth-picks, ear-picks, buckles, brooches, rare coins, innumerable lamps of clay (terra-cotta), or of bronze, even of silver and amber, all sorts of tools, and in the case of children a variety of playthings were inclosed with the dead. Many of these articles are carved with the monogram of Christ, or other Christian symbols. (The lamps in Jewish cemeteries bear generally a picture of the golden candlestick).

A great number of flasks and cups also, with or without ornamentation, are found, mostly outside of the graves, and fastened to the grave-lids. These were formerly supposed to have been receptacles for tears, or, from the red, dried sediment in them, for the blood of martyrs. But later archaeologists consider them drinking vessels used in the agapae and oblations. A superstitious habit prevailed in the fourth century, although condemned by a council of Carthage (397), to give to the dead the eucharistic wine, or to put a cup with the consecrated wine in the grave.537537    The curious controversy about these blood-stained phials is not yet closed. Chemical experiments have led to no decided results. The Congregation of Rites and Relics decided, in 1668, that the phiolae cruentae or ampullae sanguinolentaewere blood-vessels of martyrs, and Pius IX. confirmed the decision in 1863. It was opposed by distinguished Roman scholars (Mabillon, Tillemont, Muratori, the Jesuit Père de Buck (De phialis rubricatis, Brussels, 1855), but defended again, though cautiously and to a very limited extent by De Rossi (III. 602), Northcote and Brownlow (II. 330-343), and by F. X. Kraus (Die Blutampullen der Röm. Katakomben, 1868, and Ueber den gegenw. Stand der Frage nach dem Inhalt und der Bedeutung der röm. Blutampullen, 1872). Comp. also Schultze: Die sogen. Blutgläser der Röm. Kat. (1880), and Die Katakomben (1882, pp. 226-232). Roller thinks that the phials contained probably perfumery, or perhaps eucharistic wine.37

The instruments of torture which the fertile imagination of credulous people had discovered, and which were made to prove that almost every Christian buried in the catacombs was a martyr, are simply implements of handicraft. The instinct of nature prompts the bereaved to deposit in the graves of their kindred and friends those things which were constantly used by them. The idea prevailed also to a large extent that the future life was a continuation of the occupations and amusements of the present, but free from sin and imperfection.

On opening the graves the skeleton appears frequently even now very well preserved, sometimes in dazzling whiteness, as covered with a glistening glory; but falls into dust at the touch.



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