Topic: Rome catacombs history and facts


Rome catacombs history and facts: the wonders of the Eternal City, varied and almost countless as they are, do not all exist on the surface of the soil or in the broad light of day. Let’s have a closer look to the Rome catacombs history and facts.


Rome catacombs history and facts

The wonders of the Eternal City, varied and almost countless as they are, do not all exist on the surface of the soil or in the broad light of day. Under most of the edifices, not excluding those of very ancient date, or of the time of the republic and early empire, are substructions or parts of buildings still more ancient and, again, beneath these are extensive excavations cut through the soil and rock, the date of which or of the commencement of which is to be sought for in the remotest periods or on the verge of the fabulous ages.

Rome catacombs history and facts: the Roma Subterranea

Besides the outer, there is an inner world; in addition to the Rome upon the earth, there is another Rome under the earth, a Roma Subterranea. Every one of the seven hills on which the city stood, and stands, is perforated, honeycombed, by passages, dark galleries, low corridors, and vaulted halls, where the sun never shines, and where the progress of the hours and the change of the seasons can never make themselves be felt. The entrances into many of these gloomy labyrinths have been blocked up, or are concealed by bushes and Tick-growing underwood; others have been choked at a short distance from their mouths by landslides, and  some are accessible, in part only, by descending through chasms which have been opened by the accidents of nature, or by the curiosity of men, who felt the earth sound hollow under their feet, and were anxious to know what the cavity might contain.

Rome catacombs history and facts: hidden treasures

A hankering after hidden treasures has been the cause of some of these openings, which descend into the subterranean chambers like the shaft of a well. But many of these rock-hewn labyrinths are open, though none of them throughout their full extent, and have been accessible, and places of resort for religious celebrations, ever since the commencement of the sixteenth century, when the papal court, in improving the outer, found time and money to devote to the inner Rome.

Rome catacombs history and facts: the geolocation

They abound not only at Rome, but at Naples, and nearly all through the south of Italy; they are traced in Sicily, in Greece, in nearly all the Greek islands, and in Asia Minor; and they are never found except in the vicinity of some considerable and ancient city, or near to the spot where some such city once stood. These quarries were first opened by people who were ancient long before the first stone of the Eternal City was laid, and long anterior to what we understand by the Rome of Romulus and Remus, this people had abiding-places and a stronghold here on the Tiber, the materials for the building of which were found at hand, and extracted by their industry from the bowels of the earth.

Rome catacombs history and facts: the records

The records of this remarkable race have perished, and their language, known only through inscriptions dug out of the earth, is a puzzle and a riddle to scholars, and a riddle not likely to be ever guessed but call them Cimmerians or Pelasgi, Etrurians or Etruscans (the latter being a designation by which at least a portion of them were well known to the Romans), they were indisputably a people who had, at one time, attained to a very high state of civilization, and to great perfection in the arts.

Rome catacombs history and facts: the descriptions

No ancient writer, of whom the works are extant, has left us a description of these immense quarries, or of the uses to which they were applied when they were no longer worked. Antiquarians of the modern ages have been able to collect only a few ancient allusions to these crypts. That some of them, or recondite portions of them, were used as places of sepulture by the Etrurians, who first dug them, there can be very little doubt, for that people, as proved by the discovery of innumerable graves and sarcophagi, were accustomed rather to bury than to burn their dead.

Rome catacombs history and facts: the direct testimony

There is also direct testimony as well as induction to show that the Romans buried many of their corpses. Incremation was always expensive, during the later years of the republic, and for a very long time under the empire, the funeral pile, with its oil, its incense, its cinnamon, and precious spices, and its elaborate ceremonies, cost such sums as could be afforded only by the wealthy.

Rome catacombs history and facts: the mortal remains

From the beginning, and through all periods, the Romans appear to have consigned the mortal remains of their slaves and their poor to the river, to the earth, or to the quarries, the great deposit of the last kind being under the Esquiline Hill. Here were interred the poor slaves, people of servile condition, and criminals who had suffered the last penalty of the law and here, on or under the Esquiline Mount, birds of prey are represented as flocking to devour the dead bodies. Horace says, “This was the common sepulchre of the miserable plebeians” and Propertius seems to allude to the Esquiline caverns when he says that that mount was destined to the lowest classes of the people.To contain all the dead slaves and vile plebeians in the time of Augustus, large spaces must have been required, however much the bodies were huddled together. Many of the rude inscriptions, designs, or scrawls, found in the crypts, have nothing to do with Christianity, and were evidently set where they are before the introduction of our faith.

Rome catacombs history and facts: the graves

In the great majority of instances the graves consist of deep, oblong, shelf-like incisions in the tufa, wherein, after the lower surface had been hollowed out a little for its reception, the body was placed; and then, when the offices had terminated, and friends had looked their last, the aperture was sealed up. In the case of a martyr a palm branch, symbol of conquest, was painted or carved outside. A little vase, probably a lachrymatory, for holding tears of grief, was often stuck on by means of plaster to the edge.

There is, however, another kind of tomb, called arcosolium, in the construction of which a deeper incision was made into the wall; and in this, instead of the mere niche or shelf, you have a capacious sarcophagus hollowed into the lower surface of the cutting”, while over it is arch fashioned in the stone. The remains of Christians held in high repute were usually deposited here ; though sometimes an arcosolium was appropriated for the burial of a family, in which case two or three shelves were excavated in the tufa beyond the sarcophagus, under the arch.Three Roman tiles are fixed into the tufa roughly by means of plaster, or strong cement, and in this way the opening is hermetically closed. Often a strip of marble or fragment of stone was substituted for the ordinary Roman tile in sealing the tombs ; for the latter fabric, though cheap and easily procurable, was not so well adapted to take inscriptions ; and it soon became the custom to write the name of the dead, his age, and other particulars, on the outer covering to his grave. The early tenants of the Catacombs were principally converted pagans, the lesser number being Jews; thus Illustrations of Jewish history are very frequent.


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