The Amazing Catacombs Of Rome -- By: Brian Janeway

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 26:1 (Winter 2013)
Article: The Amazing Catacombs Of Rome
Author: Brian Janeway

The Amazing Catacombs Of Rome

Brian Janeway


The city of Rome is renowned for its ancient landscape, much of which is easily visible to the casual visitor. But perhaps the most intriguing of the city’s archaeological sites are the ancient cemeteries of the early Christian population, known as catacombs. The term originally applied to an area of caves next to the Via Appia, “the place of the hollow,” south of Rome, and later became the site of the underground cemetery of San Sebastiano. These complexes provide a unique snapshot of both the history of the Roman Empire and of Christianity itself. To date there have been over sixty catacombs discovered around Rome, forty-nine of which have been identified as Christian. The fact that they ring the city is due to the ancient prohibition of burial within the confines of the city itself.

Brian Janeway

A typical burial niche in the catacombs at Rome.

History Of The Catacombs

Such burial places in the ancient world were normally referred to as a necropolis, meaning “city of the dead.” But the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body led them to reject the Roman pagan practice of cremation in favor of burial. For this reason, they preferred the name coemeterium, which meant “place of rest.” Individual tomb niches were known as dormitoria, or sleep places of the dead.

The first generation of Christians in Rome, such as Peter and Paul, were buried in above ground cemeteries alongside everyone else. But in a crowded city where space was at a premium and land was costly, the construction of underground tombs satisfied the needs of the burgeoning but poor Christian population. Sometime in the second century AD, they began to excavate the soft tufa rock on the property of benefactors located in the outskirts of the city. Many of these cemeteries still carry the name of their original owners, such as the Catacombs of Priscilla, Domitilla, Praetextatus, and Lucina.

Eventually these catacombs became the final resting place for hundreds of thousands of individuals and continued in use until the early fifth century AD, when the sack of Rome by the Visigoths ended the practice. By the third century, the administration of the catacombs passed from private to church ownership. And with the Edict of Milan in AD 313, the religion was made legal for the first time. The persecution of the Church had led to large numbers of martyrs being interred in the tombs, and veneration of these individuals became quite popular in the centuries that followed.

Beginning in the fourth century, shrines, chapels, and basil...

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