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§ 83. Origin and History of the Catacomb.

The Catacombs of Rome and other cities open a new chapter of Church history, which has recently been dug up from the bowels of the earth. Their discovery was a revelation to the world as instructive and important as the discovery of the long lost cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and of Nineveh and Babylon. Eusebius says nothing about them; the ancient Fathers scarcely allude to them, except Jerome and Prudentius, and even they give us no idea of their extent and importance. Hence the historians till quite recently have passed them by in silence.516516    Mosheim and Gibbon in the last century, and even Neander, Gieseler, andBaur, in our age, ignore the very existence of the catacombs, except that Gieseler quotes the well-known passage of Jerome. But Dean Milman, in his History of Christianity, Hase, Kurtz, Kraus, and others, in their manuals, take brief notice of them.16 But since the great discoveries of Commendatore De Rossi and other archaeologists they can no longer be ignored. They confirm, illustrate, and supplement our previous knowledge derived from the more important literary remains.

The name of the Catacombs is of uncertain origin, but is equivalent to subterranean cemeteries or resting-places for the dead.517517    κατακύμβιον, catacumba, also (in some MSS.) catatumba. Various derivations: 1) From κατά (down from, downwards, as in καταβαίνω, κατάκειμαι, καταπέμπω), and τύμβος (compare the late Latin tumba, the French tombe, tombeau, and the English tomb, grave), i.e. a tomb down in the earth, as distinct from tombs on the surface. This corresponds best to the thing itself. 2) From κατά and κοιμάω (to sleep), which would make it equivalent to κοιμητήριον, dormitorium, sleeping place. 3) From κατά and κύμβη (the hollow of a vessel) or (cup), κυμβίον (a small cup, Lat. cymbium), which would simply give us the idea of a hollow place. So Venables in Smith and Cheetham. Very unlikely. 4) A hybrid term from katav and the Latin decumbo, to lie down, to recline. So Marchi, and Northcote and Brownlow (I. 263). The word first occurs in a Christian calendar of the third or fourth century (in Catacumbas), and in a letter of Gregory I. to the Empress Constantia, towards the end of the sixth century (Epp. III. 30), with a special local application to San Sebastian. The earlier writers use the terms κοιμητήρια, coemeteria (whence our cemetery), also cryptae, crypts17 First used of the Christian cemeteries in the neighborhood of Rome, it was afterwards applied to those of Naples, Malta, Sicily, Alexandria, Paris, and other cities.

It was formerly supposed that the Roman Catacombs were originally sand-pits (arenariae) or stone-quarries (lapidicinae), excavated by the heathen for building material, and occasionally used as receptacles for the vilest corpses of slaves and criminals.518518    So Aringhi, Baronius; Severano, Bottari, Boldetti, and all writers prior to Marchi, and his pupils, the two brothers De Rossi, who turned the current of opinion. See Northcote and Br. I. 377 sqq.18 But this view is now abandoned on account of the difference of construction and of the soil. A few of the catacombs, however, about five out of thirty, are more or less closely connected with abandoned sand-pits.519519    The sand-pits and stone-quarries were made wide enough for a horse and cart, and are cut in the tufa litoide and pozzolana pura, which furnish the best building material in Rome; while the catacombs have generally very narrow passages, run in straight lines, often cross each other at sharp angles, and are excavated in the tufa granulare, which is too soft for building-stone, and too much mixed with earth to be used for cement, but easily worked, and adapted for the construction of galleries and chambers. See Northcote and Br. I. 376-390. The exceptions are also stated by these authors. J. H. Parker has discovered loculi for Christian burial in the recesses of a deserted sand-pit.19

The catacombs, therefore, with a few exceptions, are of Christian origin, and were excavated for the express purpose of Christian burial. Their enormous extent, and the mixture of heathen with Christian symbols and inscriptions, might suggest that they were used by heathen also; but this is excluded by the fact of the mutual aversion of Christians and idolaters to associate in life and in death. The mythological features are few, and adapted to Christian ideas.520520    See the remarks of Northcote and Br. I. 276 against J. H. Parker, who asserts the mixed use of the catacombs for heathens and Christians."20

Another erroneous opinion, once generally entertained, regarded the catacombs as places of refuge from heathen persecution. But the immense labor required could not have escaped the attention of the police. They were, on the contrary, the result of toleration. The Roman government, although (like all despotic governments) jealous of secret societies, was quite liberal towards the burial clubs, mostly of the poorer classes, or associations for securing, by regular contributions, decent interment with religious ceremonies.521521    This view is supported by Professor Mommsen, the Roman historian, who says (in "Contemporary Review," vol. xxvii. p. 168): "Associations of poor people who clubbed together for the burial of their members were not only tolerated but supported by the imperial government, which otherwise was very strict against associations. From this point of view, therefore, there was no legal impediment to the acquisition of these properties. Christian associations have from the very beginning paid great attention to their burials; it was considered the duty of the wealthier members to provide for the burial of the poor, and St. Ambrose still allowed churches to sell their communion plate, in order to enlarge the cemeteries of the faithful. The catacombs show what could be achieved by such means at Rome. Even if their fabulous dimensions are reduced to their right measure, they form an immense work, without beauty and ornament, despising in architecture and inscription not only pomp and empty phraseology, but even nicety and correctness, avoiding the splendor and grandeur as well as the tinsel and vanity of the life of the great town that was hurrying and throbbing above, the true commentary of the words of Christ-’My kingdom is not of this world.’21 Only the worst criminals, traitors, suicides, and those struck down by lightning (touched by the gods) were left unburied. The pious care of the dead is an instinct of human nature, and is found among all nations. Death is a mighty leveler of distinctions and preacher of toleration and charity; even despots bow before it, and are reminded of their own vanity; even hard hearts are moved by it to pity and to tears. "De mortuis nihil nisi bonum."

The Christians enjoyed probably from the beginning the privilege of common cemeteries, like the Jews, even without an express enactment. Galienus restored them after their temporary confiscation during the persecution of Valerian (260).522522    Euseb. H. E. VII. 13: 1, τὰ τῶν καλουμένων κοιμητηρίων ἀπολαμβάνειν ἐπιτρέπων χωρία.22

Being mostly of Jewish and Oriental descent, the Roman Christians naturally followed the Oriental custom of cutting their tombs in rocks, and constructing galleries. Hence the close resemblance of the Jewish and Christian cemeteries in Rome.523523    Roller says (in Lichtenberger’s Encycl. des Sc. Rel. II. 685)."Les juifs ensevelissaient dans le roc. A Rome ils ont creusé de grandes catacombes presque identique à celles des chrétiens. Ceux-ci ont été leurs imitateurs. Les Etrusques se servaient aussi de grottes; mais ils ne les reliaient point par des galeries illimitées." Dean Stanley (l.c. p. 274): "The Catacombs are the standing monuments of the Oriental and Jewish character, even of Western Christianity. The fact that they are the counterparts of the rock-hewn tombs of Palestine, and yet more closely of the Jewish cemeteries in the neighborhood of Rome, corresponds to the fact that the early Roman Church was not a Latin but an Eastern community, speaking Greek and following the usages of Syria. And again, the ease with which the Roman Christians had recourse to these cemeteries is an indication of the impartiality of the Roman law, which extended (as De Rossi has well pointed out) to this despised sect the same protection in regard to burial, even during the times of persecution, that was accorded to the highest in the land. They thus bear witness, to the unconscious fostering care of the Imperial Government over the infant church. They are thus monuments, not so much of the persecution as of the toleration which the Christians received at the hands of the Roman Empire."23 The ancient Greeks and Romans under the empire were in the habit of burning the corpses (crematio) for sanitary reasons, but burial in the earth (humatio), outside of the city near the public roads, or on hills, or in natural grottos, was the older custom; the rich had their own sepulchres (sepulcra).

In their catacombs the Christians could assemble for worship and take refuge in times of persecution. Very rarely they were pursued in these silent retreats. Once only it is reported that the Christians were shut up by the heathen in a cemetery and smothered to death.

Most of the catacombs were constructed during the first three centuries, a few may be traced almost to the apostolic age.524524    De Rossi (as quoted by Northcote and Brownlow I. 112): "Precisely in those cemeteries to which history or tradition assigns apostolic origin, I see, in the light of the most searching archaeological criticism, the cradle both of Christian subterranean sepulchres, of Christian art, and of Christian inscriptions; there I had memorials of persons who appear to belong to the times of the Flavii and of Trajan; and finally I discover precise dates of those times."24 After Constantine, when the temporal condition of the Christians improved, and they could bury their dead without any disturbance in the open air, the cemeteries were located above ground, especially above the catacombs, and around the basilicas; or on other land purchased or donated for the purpose. Some catacombs owe their origin to individuals or private families, who granted the use of their own grounds for the burial of their brethren; others belonged to churches. The Christians wrote on the graves appropriate epitaphs and consoling thoughts, and painted on the walls their favorite symbols. At funerals they turned these dark and cheerless abodes into chapels; under the dim light of the terra-cotta lamps they committed dust to dust, ashes to ashes, and amidst the shadows of death they inhaled the breath of the resurrection and life everlasting. But it is an error to suppose that the catacombs served as the usual places of worship in times of persecution; for such a purpose they were entirely unfitted; even the largest could accommodate, at most, only twenty or thirty persons within convenient distance.525525    Schultze (Die Katak., p. 73 and 83) maintains in opposition to Marchi, that the catacombs were nothing but burial place, and used only for the burial service, and that the little chapels (ecclesiolae) were either private sepulchral chambers or post-Constantinian structures.25

The devotional use of the catacombs began in the Nicene age, and greatly stimulated the worship of martyrs and saints. When they ceased to be used for burial they became resorts of pious pilgrims. Little chapels were built for the celebration of the memory of the martyrs. St. Jerome relates,526526    Com. in Ez. 40.26 how, while a school-boy, about a.d. 350, he used to go with his companions every Sunday to the graves of the apostles and martyrs in the crypts at Rome, "where in subterranean depths the visitor passes to and fro between the bodies of the entombed on both walls, and where all is so dark, that the prophecy here finds its fulfillment: The living go down into Hades.527527    He refers to such passages as Ps. 55:15; Num. 16:33.27 Here and there a ray from above, not falling in through a window, but only pressing in through a crevice, softens the gloom; as you go onward, it fades away, and in the darkness of night which surrounds you, that verse of Virgil comes to your mind:

"Horror ubique animos, simul ipsa silentia terrent."528528    Aen. II. 755:
   "Horror on every side, and terrible even the silence."

   Or in German:

   "Grauen rings um mich her, und schreckvoll selber die Stille."

The poet Prudentius also, in the beginning of the fifth century, several times speaks of these burial places, and the devotions held within them.529529    Peristeph. XI. 153 sqq29

Pope Damasus (366–384) showed his zeal in repairing and decorating the catacombs, and erecting new stair-cases for the convenience of pilgrims. His successors kept up the interest, but by repeated repairs introduced great confusion into the chronology of the works of art.

The barbarian invasions of Alaric (410), Genseric (455), Ricimer (472), Vitiges (537), Totila (546), and the Lombards (754), turned Rome into a heap of ruins and destroyed many valuable treasures of classical and Christian antiquity. But the pious barbarism of relic hunters did much greater damage. The tombs of real and imaginary saints were rifled, and cartloads of dead men’s bones were translated to the Pantheon and churches and chapels for more convenient worship. In this way the catacombs gradually lost all interest, and passed into decay and complete oblivion for more than six centuries.

In the sixteenth century the catacombs were rediscovered, and opened an interesting field for antiquarian research. The first discovery was made May 31, 1578, by some laborers in a vineyard on the Via Salaria, who were digging pozzolana, and came on an old subterranean cemetery, ornamented with Christian paintings, Greek and Latin inscriptions and sculptured sarcophagi. "In that day," says De Rossi, "was born the name and the knowledge of Roma Sotterranea." One of the first and principal explorers was Antonio Bosio, "the Columbus of this subterranean world." His researches were published after his death (Roma, 1632). Filippo Neri, Carlo Borromeo, and other restorers of Romanism spent, like St. Jerome of old, whole nights in prayer amid these ruins of the age of martyrs. But Protestant divines discredited these discoveries as inventions of Romish divines seeking in heathen sand-pits for Christian saints who never lived, and Christian martyrs who never died.530530    E. g. Bishop Burnet (who visited the catacombs in 1685): Letters from Italy and Switzerland in 1685 and 1686. He believed that the catacombs were the common burial places of the ancient heathen. G. S. Cyprian (1699), J. Basnage (1699), and Peter Zorn (1703), wrote on the subject in polemical interest against Rome.30

In the present century the discovery and investigation of the catacombs has taken a new start, and is now an important department of Christian archaeology. The dogmatic and sectarian treatment has given way to a scientific method with the sole aim to ascertain the truth. The acknowledged pioneer in this subterranean region of ancient church history is the Cavalier John Baptist de Rossi, a devout, yet liberal Roman Catholic. His monumental Italian work (Roma Sotterranea, 1864–1877) has been made accessible in judicious condensations to French, German, and English readers by Allard (1871), Kraus (1873 and 1879), Northcote & Brownlow (1869 and 1879). Other writers, Protestant as well as Roman Catholic, are constantly adding to our stores of information. Great progress has been made in the chronology and the interpretation of the pictures in the catacombs.

And yet the work is only begun. More than one half of ancient Christian cemeteries are waiting for future exploration. De Rossi treats chiefly of one group of Roman catacombs, that of Callistus. The catacombs in Naples, Syracuse, Girgenti, Melos, Alexandria, Cyrene, are very imperfectly known; still others in the ancient apostolic churches may yet be discovered, and furnish results as important for church history as the discoveries of Ilium, Mycenae, and Olympia for that of classical Greece.

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