Catacombs We give some additional particulars under this head.
1. The existence of Jewish Catacombs in Rome is of a date anterior to Christianity. One was discovered by Bosio early in the 17th century, and placed by him on Monte Verde, but has escaped all subsequent research. Another Jewish catacomb is still accessible on the Via Appia, opposite the Basilica of St. Sebastian. It contains two cubicla, with large arcosolia, ornamented with arabesque paintings of flowers and birds, devoid of distinctive symbols. Some of the loculi present their ends instead of their sides to the galleries-an arrangement very rarely found in Christian cemeteries. The inscriptions are mostly in Greek characters, though the language of some is Latin. Some bear Hebrew words. Nearly all have the candlestick. In 1866 another extremely plain Jewish catacomb, dug in a clay soil, was excavated in the Vigna Cimarra, on the Appian Way. In these Jewish catacombs we are to look for the germ of those built by Christians. SEE ROME, JEWS OF.
2. As to the History of Christian Catacombs, it is best to discard the idea, so long prevalent, that these excavations were made in secret, and in defiance of existing laws. No evidence can be alleged which affords even a hint that in the first two centuries, at least, there was any official interference with Christian sepulture, or any difficulties attending it to render secrecy or concealment desirable. The ordinary laws relating to the burial of the dead afforded their protection to the Christians no less than to their fellow-citizens. Nor, on the other hand, was there anything specially strange or repulsive in this mode of burial adopted by the Christians. They were but following an old fashion which had not entirely died out in Rome, and which the Jews were suffered to follow unmolested. One law they were absolutely bound to observe, viz. that which prohibited interment within the walls of the city, A survey of the Christian cemeteries in the vicinity of Rome will show that this was strictly obeyed. Legal enactments and considerations of practical convenience having roughly determined the situation of the Christian cemeteries, a further cause operated to fix their precise locality. Having regard to the double purpose these excavations were to serve the sepulture of the dead, and the gathering of the living for devotion-it was essential that a position should be chosen where the soil was dry, and which was not liable to be flooded by the neighboring streams, nor subject to the infiltration of water.
Tradition and documentary evidence have assigned several of the Roman catacombs to the first age of the Church's history. For some an apostolical origin is claimed. Four' that present distinct marks of very early date are those of Priscilla, on the Via Salaria Nova, of Domitilla, on the Via Ardentina, of Praetextatus, on the Via Appia, and a portion of that of St.
Agnes. The evidence of early date furnished by inscriptions is but scanty; the most ancient thus indicated is of the 3d year of Vespasian, A.D. 72, its original locality being, however, unknown.
The beginning of the 3rd century finds the Christians of Rome in possession of a cemetery common to them as a body, and doubtless secured to them by legal tenure, and under the protection of the authorities of the city. Hippolytus tells us that pope Zephynrinus "set Callistus over the cemetery." As at this period several Christian cemeteries were already in existence, there must have been something distinctive about this one to induce the bishop of Rome to entrust its care to one of his chief clergy, who in a few years succeeded him in the episcopate.
The middle of the 4th century, which saw the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman States, was the commencement of a new era in the history of the catacombs. Subterranean interment gradually fell into disuse, and had almost entirely ceased by the close of that century. The undeniable evidence of the inscriptions with consular dates shows that between A.D. 338 and A.D. 360 two out of three burials took place in the subterranean portions of the cemeteries.
The zeal displayed by pope Damasus, A.D. 366-384, in repairing and decorating the catacombs, caused a sudden outburst of desire to be buried near the hallowed remains of the martyrs. The flame, however, soon died out; but was replaced by pilgrimages to the sacred places. The fossor's occupation was, however, gone, and after A.D. 426 his name ceases to be mentioned. We have direct evidence (Anast. § 99) that the ravages of the Goths under Vitiges, when they sacked Rome, A.D. 537, extended to the catacombs. On their retirement the havoc was repaired by pope Vigilius, who replaced the broken and mutilated epitaphs of pope Damasus by copies, not always very correct.
The reverence for the catacombs was now gradually dying out. Successive popes attempted to revive it by their decrees, but without any permanent effect. John III, circa A.D. 568, restored the cemeteries of the holy martyrs, "and ordered that oblations" (the Eucharistic elements), "cruets, and lights should be supplied from the Lateran every Sunday." It is also recorded in commendation of Sergius I, A.D. 687-701, that when he was a presbyter it was his wont to "celebrate mass diligently through the different cemeteries." We have now reached the period of the religious spoliation of the catacombs, from which they have suffered more irreparably than from any violence offered by sacrilegious hands. The slothfulness and neglect manifested towards these hallowed places are feelingly deplored by Paul I in a Constitution dated June 2, A.D. 761. Not only were sheep and oxen allowed to have access to them, but folds had been set up in them and they had been defiled with all manner of corruption. Paul resolved to transfer the bodies of the saints and enshrine them in a church built by him. His immediate successors endeavored to restore the lost glories of the catacombs, but owing to a change of feeling they were unsuccessful. As the only means of securing the sacred relics from desecration, Paschal, A.D. 817-827, translated to the Church of Santa Prassede, as recorded in an inscription still to be read there, no less than 2300 bodies. The work was continued by succeeding popes, and the sacred treasures which had given the catacombs their value in the eyes of the devout having been removed, all interest in them ceased. This, however, was revived by their being again discovered May 31, 1578. SEE CEMETERY; SEE CRYPT; SEE CUBICULUM.