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The Catacombs in Rome – Myths and Realities

Movies and novels have popularized the idea that the underground catacombs were used as hiding places for Christians escaping persecution. I learned on my recent visit to Rome that this is a myth. I toured the San Sebastian Catacombs, one of almost sixty catacomb complexes outside of Rome. Nearly 7 million people were buried in these underground chambers between the second and fifth centuries.

In ancient Rome burial was not allowed within the city walls, so most Romans were cremated. However, Christians preferred burial because they believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead. Christian landowners outside the city provided land that could be used for burial. To make the most of the property, the catacombs were excavated very deeply. The catacombs of San Sebasti√°n had five levels and extended 17 kilometers.

The first thing our guide did was turn off the lights so we could experience how dark it would have been in a catacomb. That, combined with the 95% humidity and the unbearable stench of all those rotting bodies, would have made it virtually impossible for anyone to hide in a catacomb for very long. While the catacombs were being built, the skylights provided ventilation and light, but when the building was completed, they were closed. Our guide also told us that there were detailed plans showing the layout of the catacombs. The Romans knew where all the entrances were. If the Christians had tried to hide there, they would have been easily discovered.

The catacombs were big business. People paid a lot of money to be buried in them, especially in a coveted spot near a martyr. Constantine ruined that economic opportunity when he endorsed Christianity as the state religion, thus ending martyrdom. If families wanted a special painting or symbol such as a cross, dove, or fish on the rock near the burial site, they had to pay a little more.

We toured different types of burial sites. Families could buy an entire room and be buried together. We did see longer shelves on the walls for adults, though not that long, because in the 3rd century the tallest Roman was only five feet tall. There were larger arched corners where seven or eight people could be buried together. The type of funerary opening that seemed most frequent was the small one for children. The infant mortality rate at that time was very high.

The catacombs continued to be used until around 540 when the barbarian Goths and Vandals began attacking Rome, making it too dangerous to leave the city to bury them. It became more common for people to be buried in or near the churches and basilicas within Rome. These invaders pillaged the catacombs and many were flooded over time. By the 8th century, most of the holy relics in the catacombs had been moved to churches in Rome and the catacombs were abandoned. They were rediscovered by accident in 1578, but it was not until the end of the 19th century that Italian archaeologists began to excavate them. This was dangerous work. Our guide told us that an archaeologist was lost in a maze of catacombs for five days and nearly died.

Five Roman catacomb complexes have been opened and partially fortified to make them safe for visitors. Mussolini handed over control of the catacombs to the Catholic Church in 1929, so they are now in charge of maintaining the sites. Having only seen the catacombs vicariously in movies like Angels & Demons, I appreciated the opportunity to tour them in person and learn both the myths and facts about them.

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