Catacombs of Rome: What are they hiding?

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(ORDO NEWS) — It is generally accepted that the catacombs appeared in Rome with the beginning of Christianity, and they were not at all an underground cemetery, but a secret refuge for the first Christians. It is not for nothing that the early Christian church is very often called the catacomb. So the persecuted Christians lived not in Rome, but near Rome, in order to avoid arrest and execution.

Deep and stuffy

But this is not at all the case. The first Roman catacombs, located right next to the city gates, date back to the pre-Christian era. And immigrants from Judea are buried here. Yes, and living underground, and even more so every day to perform divine services is very difficult. The air there is stale and heavy, you can’t stand it for a long time. Modern tourists, for example, often lose consciousness from underground miasms and lack of oxygen.

But the catacombs into which they descend are strikingly different from the dungeons of the 1st-11th centuries AD, which looked like narrow passages with disgusting ventilation. Only in the early Middle Ages these passages were expanded, halls, supports with columns, ventilation ducts appeared. It was then that they really began to hold church services and lead pilgrims to the most famous graves.

However, the period of pilgrimage to the crypts of Christian martyrs and saints ended around the 6th century. The bones of the dead, which the believers had previously adorned with precious stones, were removed from the underground by the decision of the Holy See and transferred to Christian churches. No more underground services were held. And by the 10th century, the catacombs were safely forgotten. However, nobody called them catacombs then. In those days they were known as “caves” and “crypts”.

The underground burials near Rome received this name only in the 16th century, when they were rediscovered by the papal librarian Onofrio Panvinio and the Italian scientist Antonio Bosio. According to one version, the word “catacombs” comes from the name of the burial of St. Sebastian “hell katakimbos”, that is, “in the deepening”, or from “kata tumbos” – “among the tombs”, and the word “katakona”, which is translated from Greek as “Death”, and in medieval Latin it was understood as “descent to burials”.

However, the new formation of the “catacomb” fully satisfied both senses: over the centuries, the Romans hollowed out recess after recess under the ground – graves for their dead. The Romans themselves called them cemeteries.

Roads along the roads

According to popular belief, the catacombs were once ordinary quarries, from where the Romans took stone and clay to build their city. Only the stone, for the most part, was of poor quality, so over time it was abandoned. The passages of underground workings began to be used for a different purpose – as a cemetery. When this happened is an open question. Since, in fact, according to the law of the Twelve Tables, it was strictly forbidden to bury the dead in Rome itself, the funeral took place outside the city limits, mainly along the roads leading from the city.

At different times, the Romans preferred one of two methods of burial – to bury bodies in graves and sarcophagi, or to burn the dead and place their ashes in urns. But for any method of burial, land was required where the cemetery was built, that is, a crypt where either sarcophagi or urns with ashes were placed.

Usually every wealthy family bought out a piece of land for this very purpose. And along the roads leading from Rome and to Rome, such structures can still be seen. One site was used by the Romans for many generations, in some the sarcophagi were located in several “floors”, some were built according to the Etruscan model – with stone beds for dead bodies, some combined rooms with sarcophagi and a columbarium for urns and cenotaphs, but like this the crypt did not look, there was always not enough space in it.

The families of the Romans were large, they included not only all relatives, but also deceased slaves, servants. And if the relatives were arranged with the greatest honor and respect, then a common hall was allocated for everyone else, and when the space there was exhausted, new bodies were placed already in the dug passages under the crypt. It was from such “basements” at cemeteries that the future catacombs were formed.

Pagans and Jews

Only wealthy Roman families could afford their own crypt. The rest were content with simple burials. And the poorest got along with a common grave, or rather a well, where they dumped their bodies. Moreover, for the poor, there was also a law on compulsory burial on the day of death. They must have begun to bury their dead in abandoned mine workings, underground. And this was long before Christianity.

The pagan Roman catacombs are poorly studied and are often hidden by Christian layers, since in the process of Christianization, followers of the new faith appeared in this environment. These include, for example, the three-story catacombs of Priscilla under the via Salaria, which belonged to the noble Glabriya family and were purely pagan almost until the end of the 1st century. They are adorned with Greek inscriptions and Greek painting. Or the rich burials under the Via Latina.

The pagan catacombs, according to Roman diggers, stretch for 60 km towards Cerveteri, and somewhere in the Trastevere area there is an entrance, which is not recommended for tourists to use – there is a real labyrinth of tangled corridors in which it is impossible not to get lost.

The position of the Jews, who lived in Rome as a small and very isolated group, was even worse than that of the poor. The Roman pagans treated them with the strongest prejudice, and the Jews would never share the cemetery peace with those who deny their monotheism. So many of the oldest burials in the Roman catacombs belong to the Jews. They belong to the 1st century BC.

The most famous catacomb burials of the Jews are located in Viña Randanini and opened in 1859. Once the entrance to this underground crypt was in a walled courtyard, then a synagogue was built over it. Jewish burials are located in several tiers, both on the surface of the earth and deep below it. Some burials are decorated with paintings with floral and animal ornaments, candlesticks and other Jewish symbols. The greatest flowering of these catacombs falls on the III-IV centuries, when many new passages were dug. Interestingly, at first, separate underground crypts were built, and only after a long time they were connected to each other by underground galleries.

There are Jewish catacombs in Viña Cimarra and Viña Apolloni, near Monteverde, and in the Villa Torlonia, which was once owned by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. By the way, he was a lover of archeology and, on his orders, exploration of the catacombs under the palace where he lived was conducted.

A mixture of times

Some underground temples are surprising with a combination of pagan and Christian symbols. Researchers believe that they belonged to different Gnostic sects, of which there were a lot in Rome in the first centuries of Christianity. Including the Neopythagoreans, one of the most secret and mystical sects of antiquity, which developed and popularized the philosophical ideas of Pythagoras. According to one of the Roman legends, the Neopythagoreans aroused special rage among ignorant Christians, they were considered sorcerers and pagans. And in the end they were banned at the highest state level. And those who did not renounce their beliefs were executed. Some escaped to the underground catacombs. True, in order not to come into contact with the cruel world, they walled up all the entrances and exits of their catacombs …

The complex of synthetic catacombs in the Termini station area was accidentally opened during the laying of rails in 1917, when the outline of an underground temple appeared under the collapsed road surface. The figure of the god Apollo appeared right before the eyes of the shocked workers, talking with the poet Sappho! Archaeological research in this part of the Roman catacombs was carried out with short interruptions before the Second World War, during and after it. And a significant role in them was played by the same Mussolini, who generously financed this project.

As a result, the temple and the central hall with a ceiling height of 12 meters were opened and restored, from which the rays of the galleries diverged in different directions and in a strict geometric order. In addition to painting with Apollo and Sappho, scientists have also found many other images.


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