Catacombs, subterranean places of burial, generally found in regions of soft and easily excavated rock, such as granular tufa. The oldest are in Egypt; others are to be found in Syria, Malta, Persia, Greece, and South America. It is likely that most of them were originally quarries, which afterwards came to be used as places of burial for the dead or as hiding-places for the living. When the word catacombs is used alone, it applies generally to those of Rome, the soil around which city is undermined in various places, and the long labyrinths thus formed are "The Catacombs." There are catacombs at Naples resembling those at Rome; and also at Palermo and Syracuse. This article is devoted entirely to the Catacombs of Rome.
II. The Word Catacombs. — The derivation of the word is uncertain. Some find it in κατά, down, and τύμβος, mound, tomb; others in κοιμάω, to go to sleep; or, as Marchi (Monum. p. 209), Lat. cumbo, part of decumbo, I lie down; others in κατά and κύμβη, a hollow, canoe, as from the resemblance of a sarcophagus to a boat (Schneider, Lex. Graec., s.v. κύμβη). The name catacombs was first applied to the underground burialplaces in the sixth century; before that date they were called crypts (κρύπται, secret places); cemeteries (κοιμητήρια, sleeping-places).
II. Origin of the Catacombs. — It is likely that some, at least, of the catacombs were originally the sand-pits and quarries from which building materials for use in the city had been taken. As the Romans burned their dead to ashes, they did not bury underground; but it is believed that the bodies of slaves and of executed criminals were sometimes thrown into the old quarries. This view was formerly held by the chief Roman Catholic writers on the Catacombs, e.g. Bosio, Aringhi, and Boldetti; but of late, since the publication of Padre Marchi's great work on the monuments of Rome, the writers of that school object to this origin for any of the catacombs, and call it a Protestant calumny (e.g. Bergier, Dict. de Theologie, 1:374). But Protestants and Romanists are alike interested in getting at historical truth; nor would either class be likely to stigmatize the early Christians, the common religious ancestry of all believers. The Jews in Rome and elsewhere retained the custom of burying their dead instead of burning them; and they probably began using catacombs in the vicinity of Rome before the time of Christ, or immediately after. In the 16th century Bosio discovered a Jewish catacomb outside of the ancient Porta Portuensis; and in 1862 another was opened on the Via Appia, outside of the Porta Capena. Its form is like that of the Christian catacombs; but, instead of the Christian symbols, the seven-branched candlestick and other Jewish emblems are sculptured on the slabs that close the tombs. The Etruscans, centuries before, had made use of rock-tombs or catacombs, as seen at Civita Castellana, Falieri, and other Etruscan cities. There is nothing more likely or natural than that, in the first persecutions, the Christians should have buried their dead in excavations previously made by Pagans; that they should afterwards have enlarged these excavations; and, finally, that they should have made new ones as their necessities, in the lapse of time, demanded. It is certain that in the catacombs at Naples there are found tiers of tombs, some of which are clearly Pagan, and have Pagan symbols and inscriptions, while others are as clearly Christian. The argument, on the other hand, for the theory that the early Christians themselves excavated all the catacombs, is well stated in Martigny, Dict. des Antiq. Chretiennes, p. 118 et seq. It certainly appears settled that many, if not most of the existing catacombs, were excavated by the Christians of the first three centuries. Their dates can be approximately ascertained by several criteria:
1. The style of some of the fresco paintings on the walls belongs to the third century, or even to the latter half of the second, while it is to be presumed that the crypts were excavated many years before the paintings were executed.
2. Some of the symbols which have been discovered belong to the earliest dates of the Christian history, and some of the coins bear the effigy of Domitian († 96), and even of earlier emperors; other inscriptions and paintings as clearly show later dates.
3. Inscriptions marked with consular dates. Among eleven thousand epitaphs in De Rossi's collection, about three hundred range from A.D. 71 up to the middle of the 4th century. For these and other reasons it is believed that the origin of the oldest Christian catacombs coincides with the dates of the earliest persecutions, e.g. that of Nero. Martigny puts in a much more doubtful argument, drawn from the burial-place of St. Peter, which, as he says, became the veritable nucleus of the Vatican catacombs. It is probable that the catacombs, such as we now know them, were all excavated before the 5th century. In that and the following century no new catacombs were dug, but the old ones were repaired; walls were built to support their roofs, and passages for light and air were opened to the surface of the ground.
III. Early Uses. — The Catacombs have served three distinct purposes:
1. As places of burial. — These underground receptacles consist of long galleries, with transverse corridors connecting them. These passages are sometimes regular for a considerable distance, but the multiplication of cross alleys and branches at last forms a labyrinth in which it is rash to venture without a guide. These galleries and corridors are of various lengths and heights, generally seven to eight feet high, and three to five wide. The roof is supported by that part of the tufa which is left between the passages, and in these walls the tombs (loculi) are excavated. In most cases the tomb is just large enough for a single corpse; in some tombs, however, two or more skeletons have been found. The number of graves in each tier depends on the height of the wall; there are commonly three to five; but even twelve are found in one instance. The tomb is closed up, either with a slab of marble (as in Fig. 3) or with large bricks (as in Fig. 2). Inscriptions and emblems are found sculptured or painted on many of the slabs (see Fig. 3) snd in some cases a small vase (Fig. 2), supposed to have held blood, is found attached to the end of the tomb.
Besides the loculi in the corridors and passages, there are also larger spaces (called arcosolia), having an arch over the tomb, or over a sarcophagus, hollowed out of the wall. There are also larger sepulchral chambers, called cubicula, of various shapes — square, triangular, semicircular, etc. These were doubtless family vaults; their walls are full of separate loculi. On the arch in front was a family inscription; e.g. on one found in the Catacombs of St. Agnes is the title Cubiculum Domitiani; while the separate loculi within had their individual inscriptions.
2. As Places of Worship in Times of Persecution and Trouble. — Chambers are found adapted to this purpose, some capable of holding a small assembly of worshippers, and others having room for but a few, who probably went there to commemorate the dead buried in the crypts. In some cases there is an opening from these crypts to the upper air sufficient to let in light, but commonly they were illuminated by lamps suspended by bronze chains from the roof. Cisterns and wells are sometimes found in them which served for use in baptisms. "The superstitious reverence which in later times was paid to the relics of martyrs was perhaps owing, in some measure, to the living and the dead being brought into so close contact in the early ages, and to the necessity of the same place being used at once for the offices of devotion and for burial" (Burton, Ecclesiastes History, p. 341). In later times churches were built over the entrances to the chief catacombs; e.g. St. Peter's, over those of the Vatican; St. Paul's, over those of St. Lucina; St. Agnes, over the catacombs which bear her name, and in which, according to tradition, she was buried.
3. As Places of Refuge. — It is among the Roman traditions that Pope Stephen long dwelt in the Catscombs, held synods there, and was finally killed in his episcopal chair. Even after the establishment of the Church under Constantine, the Catacombs served for places of refuge for various popes in times of trouble. Liberius, it is said, lived a year in the cemetery of St. Agnes; and in the beginning of the fifth century, during one of the many disputes for the papal chair, Boniface concealed himself in one of the catacombs. There is little doubt that large numbers of Christians took refuge in the Catacombs during the early persecutions. A Protestant writer remarks that in the preparation of these vast caverns we may trace the presiding care of Providence. "As America, discovered a few years before the Reformation, furnished a hiding-place of refuge to the Protestants who fled from ecclesiastical intolerance, so the catacombs, reopened shortly before the birth of our Lord, supplied shelter to the Christians in Rome during the frequent proscriptions of the second and third centuries. When the Gospel was first propagated in the imperial city its adherents belonged chiefly to the lower classes; and, for reasons of which it is now impossible to speak with certainty, it seems to have been soon very generally embraced by the quarrymen and sand-diggers. It is probable that many were condemned to labor in those mines as a punishment for having embraced Christianity (see Lee's Three Lectures, Dublin, p. 28; Maitland's Church in the Catacombs, p. 24. Dr. Maitland visited Rome in 1841, but his inspection of the Lapidarian Gallery seems to have been regarded with extreme jealousy by the authorities there). Thus it was when persecution raged in the capital; the Christian felt himself comparatively safe in the catacombs. The parties in charge of them were his friends; they could give him seasonable intimation of the approach of danger, and among these 'dens and caves of the earth,' with countless places of ingress and egress, the officers of government must have attempted in vain to overtake a fugitive" (Killen, The Ancient Church, p. 350).
IV. Number and Extent of the Catacombs. — The actual number of catacombs has never been accurately known. Aringhi, followed by other writers, gave the number as high as sixty, but without proof. De Rossi's list gives forty-two, only twenty-six of which are extensive, while five date after the peace secured for the Church under Constantine, mostly within a circle of three miles from the modern walls; the most remote being that of St. Alexander, about six miles on the Via Nomentana. It was formerly held that the catacombs around Rome were connected together in a vast system, but De Rossi has shown that there is no such connection. The most remarkable catacombs are on the left bank of the Tiber; viz. the catacombs of Sts. iulius, Valentinus, Basilla, Gianutus, Priscilla, Brigida, Agnes, Hippolytus, Peter, and Marcellinus, etc. On the Via Appia are the extensive catacombs of Pretextatus, Callistus (not far from the latter is an interesting Jewish catacomb; discovered in 1859), Sts. Nereus and Achilleus, and others. On the right bank there are few catacombs of interest except those of the Vatican. Tradition fixes upon this as the spot where St. Peter was buried; and in the belief of this tradition the church of St. Peter was built on the neighboring hill. The modern cemetery of the Vatican is over the more ancient one, contrary to the general rule. The number of bodies deposited in the catacombs cannot, of course, be accurately ascertained. P. Marchi estimates it at six millions. Michele di Rossi calculates, from carefully-gathered data, that the total length of all the galleries known to exist near Rome is 957,800 yards, equal to about 590 miles, but only a small part of this vest range has been explored.
V. Inscriptions and Symbols. —For a specific account of the inscriptions and symbols of the Catacombs, see the articles INSCRIPTIONS SEE INSCRIPTIONS ; SEE SYMBOLISM . The collections of the Vatican and the Lateran contain multitudes of these remains, which can now be studied in De Rossi's Inscriptiones Christiance Urbis Rome (1861), and in other works named at the end of this article. On most of the slabs is found the Constantinian monogram of Christ , or a ,w. The sculptures and paintings are either historical or symbolical. Among the former, from the Old Testament, are the fall of Adam and Eve, Noah in the ark, the sacrifice of Abraham, Moses striking the rock, the story of Jona, Daniel in the lions' den, the three Israelites in the furnace, the ascent of Elias, etc. From the New Testament, the Nativity, the adoration of the Magi, the change of water into wine, the multiplication of loaves, the healing of the cripple, the raising of Lazarus, Christ entering Jerusalem on an ass, Peter denying Christ, between two Jews; the arrest of Peter, Pilate washing his hands; in one instance (on a sarcophagus), the soldiers crowning our Lord in mockery, but a garland of fowers being substituted for the crown of thorns. So Crucifixion occurs among the remains; nor does the Virgin Mary or St. Peter appear before the fourth century.
"Turning to the purely symbolic, we find most frequently introduced; the lamb (later appearing with the nimbus round its head), and the various other forms in which faith contemplated the Redeemer, namely, the good shepherd, Orpheus charming wild animals with his lyre, the vine, the olive, the rock, a light, a column, a fountain, a lion; and we may read seven poetic lines by Pope Damasus enumerating all the titles or symbols referring to the same divine personality, comprising, besides the above, a king, a giant, a gem, a gate, a rod, a hand, a house, a net, a vineyard. But, among all others, the symbol most frequently seen is the fish. SEE ICHTHUS. We find also the dove for the Holy Spirit, or for beatified spirits generally; the stag, for the desire after baptism and heavenly truth; candelabra, for illumination through the Gospel; a ship, for the Church — sometimes represented sailing near a light-house, to signify the Church guided by the source of all light and truth; a fish swimming with a basket of bread on its back, for the eucharistic sacrament; the horse, for eagerness or speed in embracing divine doctrine; the lion, for martyr fortitude, or vigilance against the snares of sin (as well as with that higher allusion above noticed); the peacock, for immortality; the phoenix, for the resurrection; the hare, for persecution, or the perils to which the faithful must be exposed; the cock, for vigilance — the fox being taken in a negative sense for warning against astuteness and pride, as the dove (besides its other meanings) reminded of the simplicity becoming to believers. Certain trees also appear in the same mystic order: the cypress and the pine, for death; the palm, for victory; the olive, for the fruit of good works, the luster of virtue, mercy, purity, or peace; the vine, not only for the eucharist and the person of the Lord, but also for the union of the faithful in and with him" (Hemans, in Contemp. Review, Sept. 1866).
As to the spirit of the inscriptions and symbols, two things are to be noticed: 1. Their entire opposition to the Pagan spirit. 2. Their almost entire freedom from the later Romanist errors. As to the first, the inscriptions on Pagan tombs are remarkable for their painful exhibition either of despair or of rebellion against the Divine will; for instance, one taken from the right hand wall of the Lapidarian gallery: "CAIUS JULIUS MAXIMUS, (aged) two years and five months. O relentless fortune, who delightest in cruel death, why is MAXIMUS so suddenly snatched from me? He who lately used to lie joyful on my boson. This stone now marks his tomb — beheld his mother." In the Christian inscriptions, on the other hand, we find expressions of hope, peace, resignation, but nothing of despair, hardly even sorrow. " 'Vivis in Deo,' most ancient in such use; 'Vive in aeterno;' 'Pax spiritu tuo;' 'In pace Domini dormis,' frequently introduced before the period of Constantine's conversion, but later falling into disuse; 'In pace' continuing to be the established Christian formula, though also found in the epitaphs of Jews; while the 'Vixit in pace,' very rare in Roman inscriptions, appears commonly among those of Africa and of several French cities, otherwise that distinctive phrase of the Pagan epitaph, 'Vixit' (as if even in the records of the grave to present life rather than death to the mental eye), does not pertain to Christian terminology" (Hemans, 1. c.).
As to the other point, the freedom from later Roman doctrines and superstitions, we take the following passage from Killen (The Ancient Church, p. 351 sq.): "These witnesses to the faith of the early Church of Rome altogether repudiite the worship of the Virgin Mary, for the inscriptions of the Lapidarian Gallery, all arranged under the papal supervision, contain no addresses to the mother of our Lord (Maitland, p. 14). They point only to Jesus as the great Mediator, Redeemer, and Friend. Farther, instead of speaking of masses for the repose of souls, or representing departed believers as still to pass through purgatory, the inscriptions describe the deceased as having entered immediately into eternal rest. 'Alexander,' says one of them, 'is not dead, but lives beyond the stars, and his body rests in this tomb.' 'Here,' says another, 'lies Paulina, in the place of the blessed.' 'Gemella,' says a third, 'sleeps in peace.' 'Aselus,' says a fourth, 'sleeps in Christ' (Maitland, pp. 33, 41, 43, 170). On a third point, viz. celibacy, we gather the following testimony from the tombs. Hippolytus tells us (Philosophunmena, lib. 9) that, during the episcopate of Zephyrinus. Callistus was 'set over the cemetery.' This was probably considered a highly important trust, as, in those perilous times, the safety of the Christians very much depended on the prudence, activity, and courage of the individual who had the charge of their subterranean refuge. The new curator seems to have signalized himself by the ability with which he discharged the duties of his appointment; he probably embellished and enlarged some of these dreary caves; and hence a portion of the Catacombs was designated 'the cemetery of Callistus.' Hippolytus, led astray by the ascetic spirit beginning so strongly to prevail in the commencement of the third century, was opposed to all second marriages, so that he was sadly scandalized by the exceedingly liberal views of his Roman brother on the subject of matrimony; and he was so ill-informed as to pronounce them novel. 'In his time,' says he indignantly, 'bishops, presbyters and deacons, though they had been two or three times married, began to be recognized as God's ministers; and if any one of the clergy married, it was determined that such a person should remain among the clergy as not having sinned' (Philosophumena, lib. 9. Tertullian corroborates the charge of Hippolytus, De Pudicitia, cap. 1). We cannot tell how many of the ancient bishops of the great city were husbands. We know, however, that, long after this period, married bishops were to be found almost everywhere. One of the most eminent martyrs in the Diocletian persecution was a bishop who had a wife and children (Eusebius, lib. 8, 100:9). Clemens Romanus speaks as a married man (Ep.ad Cor. § 21). But the inscriptions in the Catacombs show that the primitive Church of Rome did not impose celibacy on her ministers. There is, for instance, a monument 'To Basilus, the presbyter, and Felicitas, his wife;' and on another tombstone, erected about A.D. 72, or only four years before the fall of the Western Empire, there is the following singular record: 'Petronia, a deacon's wife, the type of modesty. In this place I lay my bones: spare your tears, dear husband and daughters, and believe that it is forbidden to weep for one who lives in God' (Maitland, p. 191-193; Aringhi, 1:421, 419). 'Here,' says another epitaph, 'Susanna, the happy daughter of the late presbyter Gabinus, lies in peace along with her father' (Aringhi, 2:228; Rome, 1651). In the Lapidarian Gallery of the Vatican there are other epitaphs to the same effect." The doctrinal lessons to be drawn from the Catacombs are also treated in two articles in the Revue Chretienne (15 Mai. 1864; 15 Juin, 1864), by Roller, who, after a careful study of the conformation, etc. of the Catacombs, and of their tombs, chapels, etc.; of the inscriptions, of the paintings, and, finally, of the sarcophagi, with their sculptures, arrives at the following conclusions: The use of the Catacombs as places of worship dates from the 3d century; the substitution of the altar for the communion- table dates from the 4th. The Episcopal Cathedra appears at about the beginning of the 5th century. No specifically Romanist doctrine finds any support in inscriptions dating before the 4th century. We begin to trace signs of saintworship in the 5th century. The first idea of the transmission of power from Christ to Peter dates from the latter part of the 5th to the beginning of the 6th, and even then Peter's figure does not appear armed with the keys, as in the later symbolism. Finally, Protestantism has everything to gain, and nothing to lose, from the most thorough study of the remains gathered with so much care from the Catacombs by the authorities of the Church of Rome.
VI. Later History and Literature. —
1. Middle Age. — After the 6th century no additions seem to have been made to the Catacombs. After a corridor or passage was filled, it appears to have been blocked up with stone. The irruption of the barbarians seems to coincide with the disuse of the ancient cemeteries as burial-places, and they fell into neglect and ruin. Pope Paul I († 767) removed the bones of many martyrs and so-called saints from the Catacombs, and distributed them among churches and monasteries. But the tombs of the martyrs continued to be objects of reverence, and pilgrimages were made to them, especially to those of St. Sebastian, over which a church had been built, and which remained accessible. The Crusaders thronged the subterranean corridors, and carried off bones of the dead in such numbers that the popes denounced the act as a crime for which the penalty should be excommunication. With these exceptions, the Catacombs may be said to have been almost entirely forgotten for several centuries. Their ingresses became, for the most part, unknown even to the clergy; and one of the earliest records of their being visited in later ages is found in the names of Raynuzio Farnese (father of Paul III) and others, marked by an inscription in the Catacombs of St. Callistus, of date 1490.
2. Modern Scientific Exploration. — In 1578 a Dominican named Alphonse Ciacconio, learning that a cemetery (St. Priscilla's) had been opened on the Salarian Way, made a partial exploration of it, and gave designs of sculptures, etc. found in it. About 1590 he was joined by a young Frenchman named Wingh. But Antonio Bosio († 1600) was the real founder of the modern study of the Catacombs. He devoted to it thirty years of labor, the fruits of which appeared only after his death, in Roma Sotterranea, compiled from Bosio's MSS. by Severano, an Oratorian priest (Roma, 1632, 1 vol. fol.), and subsequently another Oratorian, Aringhi, brought out, with additions, the same work in Latin (Rome, 1651, 2 vols. fol.; Cologne, 1659, 2 vols. fol.). The works of Bosio and Aringhi were like a revelation to the learned world, and gave a great impulse to archaeological studies. In 1702 appeared Fabretti's Inscriptiones Antiquce, and in 1720 Cimiteri dei Santi Martiri, by Boldetti, the fruit of thirty years' labor. The Sculture e Pitture Sacre (Sacred Sculptures and Paintings from the Cemeteries of Rome, 3 vols. fol.), by Bottari (1737-54), is a very valuable and fully illustrated work, using Bosio's materials, and even his copperplates. Original sketches of sculptures from the Catacombs are given by D'Agincourt, Histoire d'art par es Monuments (Paris, 1811-23, 6 vols. fol.). But in the eighteenth century little was done for the exploration or illustration of the Catacombs, and it is only since 1820 that the research has been carried on in a really scientific way, and the honor of this is largely due to the Jesuit padre Giuseppe Marchi, whose Monumenti Primitivi delle Arte Christiane (Roma, 1844, 70 plates, 4to) is confined wholly to the topography and architecture of the Catacombs. It was to have been followed by a second volume on the paintings, and a third on the sculptures. The French government has been at the expense of publishing, under the patronage of the Academy of Inscriptions, the finely-illustrated work of Perret, Les Catacombes de Rome (Paris, 1852-3, 6 vols. fol.), a work of more artistic than original scientific value, but yet exceedingly valuable for study. The 5th volume gives 430 Christian inscriptions, carefully reproduced. But all previous works are thrown into the shade by those of Chevalier G. B. di Rossi, who has given many years to personal research in the Catacombs (aided by his brother Michele di Rossi), and whose Roma Sotterranea, of which vol. 1 appeared in 1866 (4to, with Atlas of 40 plates), will, when completed (in 3 vols.), make the study of the Catacombs easy, without a personal visit to Rome. He has also published (under the patronage of Pius IX) Inscriptiones Christiance urbis Rome (1861, vol. 1, fol.), containing the Christian inscriptions of Rome anterior to the 6th century. Among minor works are Northcote (Romans Cath.), The Roman Catacombs (London, 1859, 2d ed. 12mo); Maitland, Church in the Catacombs (Lond. 1847, 2d ed. 8vo); Kip, The Catacombs of Rome (N. Y. 1854, 12mo); Bellermann, Aelt. christliche Begräbnissstätten u. d. Katacomben zu Neapel (Hamb. 1819). See also Murray, Handbook of Rome, § 35; Schaff, Church Hist. 1, § 93; Remusat, Musee Chretien de Rome (in Rev. d. Deux Mondes, 15 Juin, 1863); Jehan, Dict. des Origines du Christianisme, p. 212 sq.; Martigny, Dict. des Antiquits Chret. p. 106 sq.; Lecky, History of Rationalism, 1:216 sq.; English Review, 5:476; Edinburgh Rev. vol. 109, p. 101; vol. 120, p. 112 (Am. ed.); Bouix, Theologie des Catacombes (Arras, 1864). SEE CRYPTS; SEE LOCULUS; SEE INSCRIPTIONS; SEE SYMBOLISM.