Rome. Everybody knows the city, everybody loves the city. It’s famous for its traditional Italian food, beautiful buildings and historical importance, not to mention the ever romantic atmosphere. When you think of Rome you think about the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the idyllic sights, right? The city stands tall in the Lazio province of Italy, right near the centre of the peninsula. Originally, the ancient city was built upon seven hills, called the seven hills of Rome. These are the hills that marked the boundary of the city back in the day. These hills still hold some of the most important buildings in the city. Buildings such as the Basilica di Santa Sabina all’Aventino, the Capitoline Museums and the Baths of Diocletian to name a few. While there is plenty of beauty and wonder above ground, what lies beneath the surface? What about the catacombs of Rome?
The word catacomb refers to subterranean passages built by humans for burial use. The term catacomb is derived from the Latin catacumbas and has always been most strongly associated with Rome. The Roman catacombs can be dated back to the 1st century and are possibly the oldest in existence. In total, there are over 60 catacomb networks in and around Rome, with only 5 being open to the public. Each network varies but is typically 10-15 kilometres long. They can reach a depth of 20 meters as they are often made up of 4 levels. The passageways that extend below the city are thought to hold in excess of 150,000 Jewish, Christian and even Roman remains, with the majority of bodies being stored in horizontal niches or loculi in the walls.
Larger rooms with several loculi, known as cubicula, were used to keep families together or as a resting place for those of great importance, such as martyrs. The deceased were not buried in the traditional sense we may know today. Rather than using caskets, they were wrapped in sheets or cloth to slow the process of decay. When they were put in their loculi the opening was then closed off with baked clay or a rock slab, such as marble. Like it is now, it was tradition to place objects beside niches. These objects reflected the job the person had in their life. You may have found chisels at a carpenters’ niche, artwork at a painter’s and a toy near a child’s. Objects would be placed by family and friends to celebrate them.
Why do the Catacombs of Rome Exist and Who Used Them?
As we already know, the catacombs of Rome were used to house the dead. In 1st Century Rome, the burying of people within the city was prohibited. Because of this, prices of land in cemeteries rose and became hard to afford. The Christian and Jewish communities sought out a better place to bury their dead. This led to the catacombs coming into being. The use of the passages to bury the dead kept bodies outside the city limits. They also enabled the free use of Christian and Jewish symbols so citizens could use them without fear of persecution. Some years later on the Edict of Milan was issued. This made the practise of Christianity legal and meant that the use of religious symbols could be done openly.
Even some Roman families used the catacombs, although this was less common. One famous family, the Flavius family, owned the catacombs of Domitilla and were Christian sympathisers. Due to their beliefs, they were exiled. Before leaving Rome, the family gifted their catacombs to the Christian community so that they could bury their dead in peace. Because of its history and unique characteristics, we will be looking at the catacombs of Domitilla in more detail later on.
The Catacombs of Rome and the Bodies of the Buried
The catacombs of Rome are famous because of the bodies it once held. Few bodies remain in the catacombs due to the effects of time, but their stories remain. One network named the catacombs of Callixtus has been dubbed ‘the Little Vatican’. This is due to the number of popes and bishops that have been buried there. The remains of several martyrs and saints once rested in the various tunnels and floors of the catacombs. Some such saints include Saint Cecelia, Sebastian and Petronella. Saint Peter and Paul were thought to have rested there for a short time after their execution. This would have happened after they were executed for their beliefs. The Christian community reclaimed their bodies after they rested in the catacombs for a few short years.
A famous martyr in the catacombs of Rome is Agnes. Due to her Christian beliefs, Saint Agnes at executed at the age of 13. Tradition states that she was a girl from a noble family with many suitors whom she turned down. Agnes claimed that she was already wedded to Christ. At the time, Emperor Diocletian was ruling and being a Christian was illegal. The, suitors Agnes rejected, turned her in to the officials in anger and had her burned alive. Only that was not what killed her. The flames did not harm Agnes and she emerged unscathed. A Roman officer beheaded her shortly after the events. Because of the commitment to her beliefs at such a young age, this saint is often a favourite among young women. After Saint Agnes’ execution, it became popular for the daughters of noble families to be buried near her remains.
Catacombs of Priscilla
Of the 60 catacombs of Rome, the catacombs of Priscilla is one of the most interesting. Before it was a catacomb, the passageways were part of a mine. The number of bodies the catacomb held gave it the name The Queen of the Catacombs, as did its size. Records have shown that this place was an important pilgrimage site in the middle ages for Christians, but in later centuries was looted. The catacombs were pillaged in the 17th Century in search for treasures and religious artefacts. Looters broke the alters and sarcophagi slabs in their search for valuables, leaving the catacomb in ruins. We do not know what or how many items were stolen and lost to history, but the art that remains in the passageways is breath-taking.
Artwork in the Catacombs of Priscilla
One characteristic that makes these catacombs stand out from the others is the artwork that is hidden inside. One unusual attribute in this network is that of the paintings or frescos. These art pieces include far more women than ever seen before in early Roman pieces of art. One of these artworks is thought to show women leading Mass and taking on the role of priests. This may not be seen to be unusual now among many branches of Christianity but in Catholicism the work of leading the church is strictly for men. Paintings like these suggest that women played a far more involved role than originally thought. Though this is only speculation or could only be the case in certain places and not widespread.
The second piece of art could be even more fascinating. A painting thought to depict Mary and baby Jesus can be found in these catacombs. This painting dates back to the 3rd Century. The image shows a woman with an infant on her lap. Scholars still argue whether or not the image is that of the Biblical characters. However the man who stands beside them holds a scroll in one hand and points to the stars with another. This could reference Balaam in the Bible who prophesied that “a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel”.
Priscilla’s Greek Chapel
Named so because the first thing discoverers saw were the Greek inscriptions, the Greek Chapel is one of the many marvels of Priscilla. This area consists of a long room with three niches. Pompeian style paintings and stuccos decorate the Greek Chapel. Paintings in the room depict the use of the long seat in the chapel as a way of honouring the dead. One of the many paintings that decorate this chapel is one that depicts a banquet. This, like many of the art pieces in these catacombs, is from a known chapter in the Bible. Many rooms in the catacombs as well as the Greek Chapel are full of paintings from the Old and New Testaments. Paintings like these have inspired the artworks of many famous artists.
Catacombs of Domitilla
Named after Flavia Domitilla, the catacombs of Domitilla are some of the oldest and best preserved. We already know who the Flavian family was from earlier in the article. For those who skilled ahead, the Flavian family was Roman and rich. The family owned the catacombs for many years and buried their dead within. Their beliefs led to their exile from Rome and the family donated their catacombs to the Christian community. It is unknown whether they did this because they themselves were an early Christian family or for another reason. This does take away from the hard work put into the passageways and even a functioning church.
Like Priscilla, these Domitilla catacombs are full of art. Many pieces of art here are a beautiful mix of Christian scenes from the Bible mixed with traditional Roman work. This is one of the few places where we can see how the beliefs of the ancient Romans mingled with Christianity.
Other Interesting Artworks Within the Catacombs of Rome
We have talked about the (potentially) earliest depiction of Many and baby Jesus in existence, but that is just the beginning of it all. Located in the catacombs of Commodilla, one of the earliest known paintings of Christ with a beard lies. Paintings depicting Jesus wearing a crown of thorns can be seen in the catacombs of Praetextatus. Additionally, art symbolising the stories of Jonah and the whale, Daniel and the Lion’s Den and Noah’s Ark can be found there.
Most, if not all, of the catacombs of Rome have various types of art hidden in them. In addition to paintings and frescoes, there are sculptures that decorate the halls and rooms. There is a clear difference in art style depending on the age of the section of the catacomb and even the catacombs themselves. Many older paintings in the catacombs are more intricate and require more skill. The newer ones were more simplistic. This suggests that whoever painted them was less skilled and not professional in the field. The varying levels of artwork suggest that catacombs were known to the public. The art also indicates the catacombs were used by both Romans and Christians and skilled artists were likely hired to decorate them.
If You Want to Visit The Catacombs of Rome…
Good news! If you want to visit the catacombs beneath Rome, or at least a few of them, you can. The six networks that are open to the public and tours go on regularly. Guided tours are conducted at separate times for native Italian speakers and English. This means that you will not have to worry about the language barrier if you are not from Italy. On top of that, there are discounts for children. It is a great place where there are all sorts of organised activities, such as school and university trips. Unlike many other historical sites, all of the catacombs tours are very affordable. They average about 8 Euros for adults, though some catacombs are more expensive. Children under six years old can enjoy the sights of the catacombs for free.
The catacombs of Rome are possibly one of the most interesting ancient historical underground sites in the world. They have been here as early as the 1st Century and held the bodies of martyrs and Biblical men. This article has only touched the surface of these historical marks and there are many more secrets to be learned. There is more to learn from the passageways and more to learn about the incredible artwork that these tunnels encapsulate. It would be hard to imagine that even a person with no interest in history wouldn’t find these catacombs fascinating.