The Catacombs are among Rome’s top 10 tourist attractions. They are underground cemeteries, used by the Jewish, but especially the Christian communities. The first Christian Catacombs in Rome were built in the 2nd century and the practice of using underground burial places was continued until the 5th. Christians used to gather in the cemetaries to celebrate their martyrs’, but also their personal loved ones’ anniversaries.
A brief history of the Catacombs in Rome
It is a persistent, but untrue, myth that during the persecutions the Catacombs were used as hiding places. They were used, but rarely, as places of refuge in order to be able to peacefully celebrate the Eucharist. When the persecutions stopped the Catacombs became shrines and many Christians from all over the Roman empire undertook pilgrimages there.
Roman law forbade burial inside the city walls, therefore all catacombs are outside the city, along the consular roads.
One of the reasons for the existence of the catacombs is simple lack of space. Since the Christians preferred burial above cremation the cemeteries above ground filled up quickly and the catacombs created a lot more space. It was also cheaper for the Christians, who were generally not among the richer Romans, to dig deeper into land already owned than to buy vaster stretches of land.
Another reason for the underground burial places is the sense of community the Christians had. The existence of the catacombs allowed them to meet and to display their religious symbols without being disturbed.
The first Roman Christians did not have their own cemeteries, but, unless they owned land, were buried in normal “pagan” burial places, which is why Saint Peter was buried in the necropolis, the city of the dead, on the Vatican Hill, and Saint Paul in another one alongside the Via Ostiense.
When the Christians became richer, they started burying their dead underground. Many of the fist catacombs started out as family tombs, in the first half of the second century. Gradually also Christian non-family members were admitted to those tombs. Through donations, purchases of new land and even direct initiatives by the Church itself some of the catacombs grew rapidly in size. The Catacombs of Saint Callixtus were organized by the church and its administration as well was in the hands of the church.
The edict of Milan was issued by the emperors Constantine and Licinius and put an end to religious persecution and the Christians became free to worship as they pleased, the catacombs did not stop functioning as cemeteries until the beginning of the fifth century. From then on normal people were buried in regular cemeteries and martyrs in basilicas.
Over the years the Goths and the Longobards sacked Rome and destroyed many monuments and looted and pillaged the catacombs. The Popes decided to remove the martyrs’ and saints’ relics from the catacombs and place them inside various churches inside Rome itself. As a result, the catacombs themselves were abandoned and left to decay. The entrances gradually disappeared and by the end of the Middle Ages most of them were completely forgotten.Â The exceptions were the catacombs of Saint Sebastian, Saint Lawrence and Saint Pancratius.
Two people, Antonio Bosio (1575-1629), the “Columbus of Subterranean Rome”, and Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894) are responsible for the rediscovery of the catacombs.