Ancient Christian subterranean cemeteries found in Naples, Syracuse, Malta, Tunisia, and various parts of the Roman Empire, but particularly in the environs of Rome. The name comes from the accidental location of the cemetery of Callistus on the Via Appia near the circus of Maximus and the basilica of St. Sebastian in a depression (κατὰ κήμβας, near the low place) between two hills. The term was used to locate the cemetery of Callistus in the 3d century. As this was the only underground cemetery known during the Middle Ages, upon the rediscovery of the early Christian cemeteries in the 16th century the word catacomb was applied generally to all such subterranean burial places.
Christian Cemeteries. The primitive Christians interred their dead in the pagan burial places. Gradually, however, they obtained control of sections of these burial sites that they called cemeteries (κοιμητήρια, place of
rest) as an indication of their belief in a final resurrection. Roman law forbade burial within populated areas; hence cemeteries were located outside the city walls, particularly alongside the main or consular roads. Roman families constructed mausoleums and funeral monuments in rows on the large thoroughfares, where they could be seen by passersby and could be used for memorial services and banquets. The ashes of infants, slaves, freedmen, clients, and relatives of a family were buried in these usually commodious structures; the poorer classes, particularly when inhumation became more general (during the 1st century a.d.), used obscure parts of the terrain for simple graves in the cemetery areas, and there were also various types of funeral monuments placed at ground level.
Christian Burial. Since the Christians were opposed to cremation, under the influence of Jewish practice and in imitation of the burial of Christ, they apparently used the simplest types of ground burial at first. Information revealed by the excavations of the tomb of St. Peter in the Vatican and details regarding the care for the remains of the martyr polycarp of smyrna (d. c. 156) indicate that during the 2d and early 3d centuries special attention was paid to preserving the identity of Christian martyr graves, and memorial ceremonies were held on occasion in the cemeteries in keeping with the customs of Roman society. During this period likewise, Christians were buried in the large vaults of the nobler families to which they were attached by relationship or service.
The earliest catacombs as such date from the 3d century; they appear to be extensions of the family-type mausoleum that could no longer accommodate new burials, although they were continually in process of reuse from generation to generation. Despite the fact that the Christian religion was not officially tolerated in the Roman Empire, the family ownership of burial sites was not generally challenged, and cemeteries were protected by law as loca religiosa, or religious places. Evidently a number of Christian family-owned sites were joined together, and as space on the ground level became inadequate, caves were dug out beneath the soil after the fashion of the Etruscan burial sites. These were linked together eventually by networks of passages, a yard or so wide, and about six feet in height; and graves (called loculi ) were dug in the tufa walls, between one-and-a-half and two feet high and four to five feet in length, one on top of the other. Some were wide enough to hold two or three bodies (locus bisomus, trisomus ). These individual graves were closed with rectangular slabs of slate, marble, chalk, or earthenware. The name of the defunct person was chiseled or scratched on this cover, frequently with the age, date of death, and a symbol or blessing formula. Sometimes a representation of the deceased in a gold, glass, coin, ivory, or metal figure was affixed. Often small vessels with perfume or oil lamps were found in or near these graves, but the majority lack identification and appear to be the burial places of the unknown or of abandoned children.
The nature of the soil in the Roman countryside made this type of cemetery possible, since the low hills are composed of tufa, a soft clay that on drying becomes hard as stone. The digging was done by fossores, a corporation of grave diggers who apparently plotted the direction of their excavations and dug two, three, or four levels, going further into the earth for expansion, but respected the property rights of surrounding owners and understood basic geological principles for safety. In the 3d century Christian places of burial came under the ownership of the local community. The cemetery of Callistus on the Via Appia had been confided to the charge of the Deacon Callistus (later pope) by Pope zephyrinus (199–217); and under Pope fabian (236–250) the seven (regionary) deacons had control of the cemeteries attached to the churches of their regions. In the 4th century, they came under the charge of the priests attached to the title churches, each of which had its own cemetery along the nearest consular road outside the city.
There is no evidence for the construction or use of the catacombs as refuges during the periods of persecution. It was only in the 4th century, when the cult of martyrs became general, that they were used for memorial services. Within the complex of the net of corridors constituting the catacombs, rectangular or round rooms were also constructed and used for burial; bodies were buried in the walls, or in sarcophagi, sometimes placed in a recess or niche with an arched top called an arcosolium. The walls of these rooms, called triclia, as in the cemetery beneath the basilica of St. sebastian, were decorated at first with figured motifs similar to pagan ornamentation, then gradually with specifically Christian symbols. Only toward the middle of the 3d century is there evidence of the introduction of definitely Christian scenes. The figures used are borrowed from contemporary art.
In the 4th century both on the walls of the catacombs and on the sides of the sarcophagi, representations of the Good Shepherd, the Orans, the Zodiac, Daniel, Noah, Jonah, catechetical and baptismal scenes appear. Scenes from the Old and New Testaments, particularly the Eucharistic banquet, become somewhat common; and after the 4th century and the construction of the basilicas, Christ is depicted among the Apostles and the Christian faithful.
In estimating the place and extent of use of the catacombs by the early Christians, it must be remembered that, as they disappeared from sight from the 9th to the 16th century, and despite the removal of many of the remains authorized by the 9th-century popes, they were preserved almost intact, while the ground and open air level cemeteries were destroyed by the ravages of time. It would seem that before the Constantinian Peace of the Church (313) the catacombs were considered an integral part of the Christian cemetery. They were confiscated during the Valerian (258) and Diocletian (303) persecutions,
but they were later restored to Christian control (specifically, in 260 and 311, respectively).
Rediscovery. The catacombs were rediscovered in the 16th century by Renaissance humanists whose primary aim was a search for ancient inscriptions and artifacts. Antonio Bosio described his findings in his Roma sotterranea. His immediate successors pillaged the catacombs for works of art and the relics of the martyrs, frequently using false criteria in their attempts to utilize their discoveries for apologetic purposes.
In the 19th century the Jesuit G. Marchi (1795–1860) and G. B. de rossi (1822–94) undertook a scientific study of the Roman catacombs, using for guidance evidence furnished by the calendars, martyrologies, legends, liturgical texts, and patristic writings, as well as the itineraries of pilgrims from the Byzantine and Carolingian ages and sylloges or collections of inscriptions. Thus they were able to identify and give chronological and cultic placement to the main factors of early Christian life to which the catacombs witness. This work of discovery and identification is still being pursued.
The Principal Roman Catacombs. The excavations beneath St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican revealed a number of burial sites, mainly rows of mausoleums along the roads that bifurcated the original bill. These had been originally pagan monuments that were gradually utilized by the Christians; and from the 3d century, Christian symbols and decorations appear in some of the tombs. Peter had apparently been buried in a simple grave in a clear space that had other, mainly primitive-type, graves; and in the late 2d century a small monument was erected in a wall that passed over the Petrine grave. The 2d-and early 3d-century popes seem to have been buried in the vicinity of Peter's grave. There is no indication of catacomb construction in this area; but the information supplied by these discoveries proved most useful in interpreting findings in other Christian cemeteries and catacombs.
On the Via Appia there were three cemeteries, each with its catacombs: Callistus, with its crypt of 3d-century popes and St. Cecilia; Praetextatus, near the Roman Jewish catacombs and the syncretist hypogeums; and the Ad Catacumbas under the basilica of St. Sebastian. On the Via Ostiensis were the tombs of St. Paul and St. Timothy; and the cemeteries of Commodilla and of St. Thecla. The cemetery Ad Duas Lauras on the Via Labicana has preserved some of the better 3d-and 4th-century Christian art, including agape banquet scenes and depictions of New Testament incidents from the Constantinian age.
On the Via Tiburtina were the cemetery of Cyriacus, where St. lawrence had been buried; the cemetery of hippolytus; and an anonymous cemetery, discovered in 1927 almost intact, with the tomb of the martyr Novatian. The Via Nomentana had the cemetery of SS. Alexander, Eventius, and Theodulus at the 10th milestone. It contained a memoria over which was built a basilica honoring these martyrs. It was the site likewise of the cemetery and basilica of St. agnes, of the cemetery of St. Nicomedes, of the Coemeterium maius with the picture of four saints, and an arcosolium in which a cathedra and benches had been carved out of tufa.
On the Via Salaria were the catacombs of Priscilla and of the Giordani; of Maximus and Felicitas; and of Traso or St. Saturninus. The Via Aurelia contained the cemeteries of St. Pancratius, SS. Processus and Martinian, and Calepodius, where St. Callistus was buried. The last was discovered in 1960 and contains paintings that represent the martyrdom of the saint. A similar new discovery was made at the conjunction of the Via Salaria with the modern Via Dino Compagni. Its contents were explored by A. Ferrua.
The cemetery of Pamphilus was discovered on the Via Salaria Vetus in 1920. One of the oldest catacombs is that of Domitilla on the Via Ardeatina, with its reminiscences of the ancient Roman family of the Flavii. The names given these catacombs reflect the earliest owners
Bibliography: p. testini, Archeologia cristiana (Rome 1958). a. bosio, Roma sotterranea, ed. g. severano (Rome 1632). g. marchi, Monumenti delle arti cristiane primitive …, v.1 Architettura cimiteriale (Rome 1844–47). p. styger, Die römischen Katakomben (Berlin 1933). l. hertling and e. kirschbaum, The Roman Catacombs and Their Martyrs, tr. m. j. costelloe (2d ed. London 1960). a. ferrua, Le pitture della nuova catacomba di Via Latina (Rome 1960). m. j. johnson, "Pagan-Christian Burial Practices of the Fourth Century : Shared Tombs?" Journal of Early Christian Studies 5 (Spr 1997) 37–59. j. b. barclay, "The depiction of figures from the Hebrew Scriptures in the art of the Roman catacombs," in Prayer and Spirituality in the Early Church, ed. p. allen (Everton Park, Queensland, Australia 1998) 97–110.
[f. x. murphy/eds.]
CATACOMBS , deep, subterranean tunnels, intended for the most part for the burial of the dead. The name is derived from the late Latin catacumba (etymology uncertain) and originally indicated a particular cave, "ad Catacumbas," on the Appian Way outside Rome. Since the ninth century c.e., however, it has been used to designate any subterranean place intended for the burial of the dead. The catacombs of the Christians were already known in the Middle Ages; those of the Jews have come to light only in relatively modern times.
Six Jewish catacombs have been found in Rome, mainly along the Appian Way: (1) Monteverde, near the ancient Via Portuensis, which was discovered in 1602 and reopened between 1740 and 1745, contains a wealth of inscriptions in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew (A. Bosio, Roma sotterranea, 2 (Rome, 1632), ch. 2; N. Mueller and N.A. Bees, Die Inschriften der juedischen Katacombe am Monteverde zu Rom (1919); Frey, Corpus, 1 (1936), 206–359); (2) Vigna Randanini, discovered in 1859 near the Appian Way, contains Greek and Latin inscriptions (R. Garrucci, Dissertazioni archeologiche di vario argomento, 2 (1865), 150–2; Frey, Corpus, 1 (1936), 53–145); (3) Vigna Cimarra was discovered in 1866 in the vicinity of the preceding catacomb, but all traces of it have been lost (Frey, Corpus, 1 (1936), 194–7); (4) Catacomb of Via Labicana, in the vicinity of Porta Maggiore, was discovered in 1882, but all traces of it have also been lost (Frey, Corpus, 1 (1936), 46–50); (5) Catacomb of Via Appia Pignatelli, discovered in 1885, is small and not easily accessible today (Frey, Corpus, 1 (1936), 50–53); and
(6) Villa Torlonia, on the Via Nomentana, is both extensive and well preserved and contains remarkable decorations (H.W. Beyer and H. Lietzmann, Die juedische Katacombe der Villa Tolornia in Rom (1930); Frey, Corpus, 1 (1936), 9–46).
The Roman catacombs consist of a great labyrinth of tunnels dug deep into the earth under the hills surrounding the city. The construction of the Jewish and Christian catacombs is similar: the tunnels are placed at different levels, frequently as many as four or five, one upon the other, and they cross several times on the same level. The main tunnels, about one meter wide and three to four meters high, are themselves connected by smaller tunnels whose walls contain horizontal graves or burial niches (loculi) in which the corpses were placed. Unlike the Christian catacombs, the Jewish ones do not contain large rooms for gatherings or religious celebrations, since Judaism was a permitted religion in the Roman Empire, and public worship was permitted. The little open spaces which are found in the Jewish catacombs may have served for the washing of the corpses before burial or for family graves. In order to explain the use by the Jews of Rome of catacombs it has been suggested that the practice was adopted by those Jews who were averse to following the Roman and Greek custom of cremation (as some, in fact did) but who were reluctant to perform their burials openly. The use of catacombs is permitted in Jewish tradition and can even be considered as a return to the early traditions of Ereẓ Israel (cf. the Cave of *Machpelah, see Gen 23; Isa. 22:16). The modest nature of the tombs has been attributed to the great poverty of the community, but it should be noted that ostentatious tombs were condemned by Jewish tradition (cf. Gen. 3:19). Although the tombstones have few identifying data they constitute a valuable source for reconstructing the history of the Roman Jews in the classical period.
The inscriptions date from the period between the first and fourth centuries c.e. The predominating language dating from the first to third centuries is Greek (76%). There are also some Latin inscriptions, written however in the Greek alphabet. From the third century on, the use of Latin in the Latin script becomes usual (23%). There is also one epigraph written in Greek with Latin letters. There are a few words in Hebrew:שאלים על ישראל, שלום (sic, with the א mater lectionis which is found sometimes also in Venosa; H.J. Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome (1960), ch. 4). The names are for the most part foreign: Latin (46%) and Greek (31%). The Semitic names (13%) include Astar, Benjamin, Eli, Gadias, Jacob, Jonathan, Judas (twice), Mara-Maria-Marta, Rebekah, and Sarah. That there are many double names is explained by the fact that most of the Roman Jews were freedmen, who on emancipation adopted the surname of their former master. The inscriptions are useful both for giving a picture of the intimacy of family life, and for attempting to reconstruct the life of the community and its organization.
The seven-branched candelabrum (*menorah) is almost always found among the symbols which surround the inscriptions. Although the use of the menorah symbolically was widespread throughout the entire Jewish world, it may be assumed that in Rome its use was particularly common because of its prominent representation on the Arch of Titus (Kaufmann). Among the other objects represented are the Sefer Torah, the shofar, the lulav and etrog, a palm branch, the circumcision knife, the pomegranate, and an ampula for oil. Of the various scholars who have viewed these objects as symbols, Goodenough (Goodenough, Symbols, 4 (1954), 209) asserts that "the cult objects which the Jews of the Greco-Roman period depicted on their synagogues and tombs have gone far to confirm the surmise that they were Jewish substitutes for pagan symbols similarly used." However, the opinion of those who see in these representations merely a sign of an attachment to the Torah and to its precepts is more probable. Representations of birds and animals, hens, roosters, sheep, bulls, rams, peacocks, eagles, and lions, are also found, as well as representations of trees, flowers, fruit, of the sun and stars, and rather frequently of the heart. Some pagan mythological representations have also been found (Victory crowning a nude youth, the goddess Fortuna, etc.).
A small town in Apulia, southern Italy, some Jewish catacombs were found between 1853 and 1935. The tombs, dug into the pavement of volcanic tufa, were found open and empty. The tunnels are wider (two meters) than those in Rome and the arcosolia (arched niches in the catacombs) are on the top with a column of burial niches underneath; they probably date from the fourth to the seventh or eighth centuries. Their major interest lies in the numerous inscriptions in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Hebrew is used much more extensively in Venosa than at Rome. In addition to שלום על משכבו, שלום על ישראל־אמן ,שלוםthere also occur invocations with the name of the deceased שלום על בני ריקיאנו and even a short Hebrew epitaph inserted in the middle of the Latin text. In another, the Hebrew text precedes the Latin translation, while one is only in Hebrew משכבו של ביטה בן פווסטינו־נוח נפש נשמתו לחיי(י) עולם. Finally, another epitaph is in Greek transcribed in Hebrew characters, with the invocations in Hebrew שלום על משכבו־טפוס סהקונדינו פרסביטרו אטון אגדואנטא קימיסי אן יראנא (τάφος Σεκουνδίνου πρεσβυτέρου ὲτῶν ὸγδοῆντα κοίμησις ὲν εὶρήνῃ).
In one inscription, surmounted by a seven-branched menorah, is the invocation "God give rest to his soul with the righteous of Paradise until he leads them into the House of Sanctuary and he will be placed among all those who are inscribed for life in Jerusalem."
On the island of Sardinia, a Jewish catacomb was discovered in S. Antioco (Sulcis). This consisted of a large room with only eight burial niches, dating from the Roman period. In the Latin inscriptions some conventional Hebrew words may be read; one of these is written from right to left. On the island of Sicily, whose terrain is suited to the construction of tombs excavated into the rock, many catacombs have been found, but it is impossible to determine whether they are Jewish or Christian. There is, for example, an arcosolium without an inscription, with only a menorah, in the middle of a group of little Christian catacombs. However it appears certain that there are Jewish catacombs at Syracuse and inscriptions which are definitely Jewish have been found also in Catania. Jewish catacombs have been found on the island of *Malta. Jewish catacombs have been found also in Alexandria, Egypt (where the excavations have not produced enough material for any definitive conclusions), at Cyrene in Libya, and at Carthage. Of the Jewish catacombs found in various other parts of the Mediterranean world, those in Ereẓ Israel have particular importance.
General and Rome: H.J. Leon, The Jews of Ancient Rome (1960), includes bibliography; A. Berliner, Geschichte der Juden in Rom (1893); Frey, Corpus; Goodenough, Symbols; Baron, Social2, index; Milano, Bibliotheca, s.v. Roma; V. Colorni, in: Annali di Storia del Diritto, 8 (1964). catacombs of venosa: F. Luzzatto, in: rmi, 10 (1935/36), 203–5; H.J. Leon; in: jqr, 44 (1953/54), 267ff.; E. Lauridia, Guida di Venosa (19592); D. Colombo, in: rmi, 26 (1960), 446f.; L. Levi, ibid., 28 (1962), 132–53 (Scritti F. Luzzato); g.i. Ascoli, Iscrizioni inedite… Napolitano (1880). catacombs of sardinia: A. Taramelli, Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità (1908), 150ff; Good-enough, Symbols, 2 (1953), 56. catacombs of sicily: P. Orsi, in: Roemische Quartalschrift…, 14 (1900), 190ff.; Goodenough, Symbols, 2 (1953), 56. catacombs of malta: Goodenough, loc. cit.; E. Becker, Malta Sotterranea (Ger., 1913); catacombs of cyrene: Goodenough, op. cit., 57. catacombs of carthage: Goodenough, op. cit., 63–69.
[Alfredo Mordechai Rabello]
Burial places for the dead come in a variety of forms. One ancient form is the catacomb, an underground city of the dead consisting of galleries or passages with side recesses for tombs. A related form is the ossuary, a Native American communal burial place or a depository (a vault, room, or urn) for the bones of the dead.
Catacombs originated in the Middle East approximately 6,000 years ago. These earliest examples were often secondary burials where the bones of the dead were placed in ossuary containers. Initially, the dead were buried within settlements, but with the progressive urbanization of the ensuing millennia, burials moved outside of the towns. From 3300 to 2300 b.c.e., several generations of one family were typically buried in a single cave, whether natural or artificial. Pastoral nomads also used caves that were entered through a vertical shaft. Multiple interments in caves continued over succeeding millennia, together with other forms of burial. There is evidence of the use of long subterranean channels and spacious chambers by about 1500 B.C.E. By the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of Israel and Judah, some burial caves were quite large and elaborate.
After the Roman conquest of Palestine, many Jews settled in Rome and adapted the burial customs of the Middle East to their new environment. In contrast to the Roman practice of cremation, the Jews buried their dead in catacombs they created for this purpose. Jewish catacombs can be recognized by inscriptions of the menorah, the seven-branched candlestick, on gravestones and lamps. Used only for burials, they are not as elaborate as the later multipurpose Christian catacombs.
Early Christians were regarded as a Jewish sect, and their dead were buried in catacombs modeled on those of the Jews. Early Christian martyrs buried in the catacombs became objects of veneration, so that the wish for burial near these martyrs ensured the continued use of the catacombs until the early fifth century C.E., when the Goths invaded. In the eighth and ninth centuries the remains of the martyrs were moved to churches, and the catacombs fell into disuse; by the twelfth century they were forgotten. Since their rediscovery in 1578, they have been the object of constant excavation, exploration, and research. Although the Roman catacombs are the best known, others have been found throughout Italy (in Naples, Chiusi, and Syracuse), in North Africa (in Alexandria and Susa), and in Asia Minor.
A vast literature describes and discusses the Roman catacombs. Because interment was forbidden within the boundaries of the city, these catacombs are all found outside the city. From the fourth century, consistent with the cult of martyrs, the catacombs served not only as tombs but also for memorial services.
A first level of the catacombs is from thirty-three to forty-nine feet below the surface, with galleries ten to thirteen feet high; sometimes there are three or even four levels. Niches for the bodies line the passages. The walls and ceilings, made of plaster, are generally painted in the fresco manner— with watercolors before the plaster is dry. From about the fourth century C.E., shafts were dug from the galleries to the surface to provide light and air.
The inscriptions reflect the changing values of society. As conversions to Christianity became more common, nobler names appeared more frequently. With the gradual decline of slavery, there were fewer distinctions noted between slaves and freed men.
Catacombs, primarily a curiosity and tourist attraction in the twenty- and twenty-first centuries, are sparsely written about in fiction. However, one example by Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, is "The New Catacomb," a story of two young colleagues, one extremely shy, the other a womanizer, both noted experts on catacombs. The womanizer has enticed a young woman away from an unknown fiancé, then abandoned her. The shy one tells the other of a new catacomb he has discovered, which will make him famous, and offers to show it to him. Deep in the labyrinth he leaves his colleague to die in the dark, informing him that it was his own fiancé who had been abandoned.
See also: Burial Grounds; Charnel Houses; Christian Death Rites, History of
Avigad, Machman. "Beth Shearim." Encyclopedia Judaica Yearbook. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. "The New Catacomb." In Tales of Terror and Mystery, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.
Mazar, Amihai. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000–586 b.c.e. New York: Doubleday, 1990.
Murphy, F. X. "Catacombs." New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 3. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.
Rabello, Alfredo Mordechai. "Catacombs." Encyclopedia Judaica Yearbook. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972.
1. Single subterranean crypt, gallery, or passage cut into and hollowed out of rock and lined with rectangular recesses (loculi) or arched niches (arcosolia) for the entombment of corpses. Catacomb is properly the name given to the public underground cemetery beneath the basilica of San Sebastiano, on the Via Appia, outside Rome, but may also relate to the atrium in front of an early church portico in which the dead were permitted to be buried. It is also used to describe any built basement used for the entombment of coffined bodies, usually associated with C19 cemeteries or cemetery-chapels. There is a good example of a brick-vaulted catacomb under the Anglican chapel at the General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green, London (1837). A small underground burial-place with rock-cut loculi, etc., intended for one group or family, was called hypogeum in Antiquity, while a large chamber (often elaborately decorated) in a public catacomb was called cubiculum.
2. The plural, catacombs, is the term for a large subterranean public cemetery of great size, labyrinthine, and on many levels, such as those in the vicinity of Rome.
J. Curl (ed.) (2001);
The term catacombs was subsequently given to other subterranean cemeteries in Rome (rediscovered in the late 16th century), especially as traditional places of refuge for early Christians in times of persecution.
cat·a·comb / ˈkatəˌkōm/ • n. (usu. catacombs) an underground cemetery consisting of a subterranean gallery with recesses for tombs, as constructed by the ancient Romans. ∎ an underground construction resembling or compared to such a cemetery.