Roman Catacombs

Jews first and then the Christians built the catacombs in Rome in the first five centuries of our era. The name means near the caves from the Greek words kata kimbas and said to have first referred to the crypts beneath the basilica of St. Sebastian on the Appian Way. Peter and Paul are both supposed to have been buried there. The practice of Romans was to cremate their dead or to mutilate the bodies and both were disagreeable to Christians and Jews because of the belief of the bodily resurrection. Jewish law had forbidden the burial of the dead within the city walls so the catacombs were all found outside the city a few miles. Most of the catacombs built in the first century were lost due to the expansion of the Roman City limits.

The catacombs were underground cemeteries and consisted of a series of long narrow tunnels, usually about 8 feet high that meander through columns in every direction with large vaulted areas at regular intervals. These larger rooms were used for funeral ceremonies and from time to time as a meeting place. They can contain levels many stories high and stretch for miles. The catacombs of Rome altogether stretch about 600 miles, the cemeteries are mostly Christian. The bodies were placed in hollowed out portions of the rock at the side of the gallery. The entrance was then covered with stones or slabs of marble and inscribed with a monogram forming the Greek name of Christ or the initials DM for Deo Maximo. Frescoes are also found and artwork portraying scenes from the Old and New Testaments. At Naples, the palm tree as a memorial to Judea is prominent in these pictures. Oil lamps and vials of perfume have been found beside the tombs.

These Christian tombs arose out of persecution. Rich Roman Christians donated much of the land and digging underground was cheaper than buying the land on top, and safer. The Christians of that time generally worshipped in private houses and not in the catacombs but many stories have been written about the primitive church worshipping in secret among these dreary crypts and of the burying of their dead. About the fourth century, they began to be venerated as the shrines of the martyrs and visited by Christian pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire.

Of the approximately 40 catacombs known, there are five Roman catacombs now open to the public: the catacombs of St. Agnes, Priscilla, Domitilla, St. Sebastian and St.Callixtus. Many poor Christians, martyrs, saints and several popes are buried in the catacombs.

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