The catacombs of Rome

“There were 500,000 people buried here,” my guide whispers.

She leads me down a dimly lit, narrow passage that seems to go on forever. To either side the rough walls are lined with small niches.

“These are where the bodies were kept. There are twenty kilometers of tunnels, and while most of the tombs are now empty, some are still unopened.”

We are in the Catacombs of Domitilla, one of the largest of a half dozen underground burial places dug out by Christians during the second and third centuries AD, when most of the Roman Empire was still pagan. My guide, a knowledgeable young Polish woman, is leading me through a warren of passageways, rooms, even subterranean churches. Incredible facts drop from her mouth every minute.

“This is the oldest of the catacombs with some of the earliest Christian paintings anywhere. There’s even a painting of the Last Supper that’s 1,800 years old.”

The frescoes are tucked away in little vaults built by wealthy families, or on the domes of small mausoleums. They show simple Christian scenes–the Good Shepard, baptism, the saints, painted in a capable but not overly talented hand.

“Since most people were pagan, the early Christians had trouble getting good artists. You can see it with the inscriptions too. They’re not done in orderly lines and clear letters like you see on monuments above ground.”

Somehow that makes me like them more, that these paintings were done by common people, not famous artists. The ones showing prayer are the most evocative because they seem to portray real individuals as they looked in life. They all take the same pose–with arms flexed outwards, palms up.

“This is how everyone prayed back then, both pagans and Christians,” my guide explains.

“Shi’ite Muslims still start their prayers in that pose,” I say.

She gives me a narrow look before leading me down another hallway. We pass a vertical shaft where we can still see small footholds cut into the side for the original builders to climb to the levels above and below us. The walls and ceiling of the tunnels are rough, with traces of the last cuts of the pick clearly visible. The stone is volcanic tufa, a rock so soft that it can be scraped with a fingernail, yet compact enough that it can support an immense amount of weight.

My guide stops in the middle of the hall and points to the wall.

“Look, this one is still buried here.”

One of the niches is sealed up with a rectangular slab. I know I’m not supposed to touch but I do anyway, pressing my hand against the cool, damp stone. Inches beyond my warm flesh lie the cold bones of one of the earliest followers of the world’s biggest religion. What I’d give to talk to him or her for just five minutes. My guide notices what I’m doing and smiles.

“Most of the bones were removed in the Middle Ages to protect them from relic hunters, but a few hundred tombs still remain unopened,” she explains.

%Gallery-102540%Sadly this slab is blank. Some have the person’s name carved on them. In some sections of the tunnel fragments of these tomb facings have been plastered onto the wall by later hands. The earliest inscriptions are in Greek, the language of the New Testament. Later ones, dating to the fourth century when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, are in Latin.

Pagan Romans cremated their dead, but Christians believed in resurrection and practiced burial so the body could rise up on Judgment Day. The Roman Empire was generally tolerant of other religions, incorporating new gods into the existing pantheon, but it looked upon monotheistic Christianity and Judaism with mistrust. While followers of Jupiter or Mithras or Ra acknowledged the existence of other gods, the monotheists dismissed all other gods as impostors or demons. Even worse, they refused to sacrifice to the deified emperors. Several emperors persecuted them, although the extent and violence of these persecutions have been exaggerated by early Christian chroniclers. The image of thousands of Christians being thrown to the lions is myth. People were sometimes killed, but more often their churches would be destroyed and property confiscated. The main victims were church leaders like bishops and early popes, some of whom are buried here; regular Christians were generally left alone. Many of the biggest catacombs were built right under the Appian Way, the main road leading into the city and lined with the tombs of wealthy pagans. While everyone knew where they were, most pagans were content to leave the Christians to their strange rituals as long as they kept out of sight and didn’t cause trouble.

Two other networks of catacombs along the Appian Way are popular with visitors. The Catacombs of San Callisto are as impressive as those of Domitilla and have several good frescoes. The Catacombs of San Sebastiano, under the church of the same name, are smaller and less well preserved, yet there’s an interesting room used for funeral banquets where early Christians carved their names or the names of their departed loved ones along with prayers. All three catacombs can be seen in a single day.

The catacombs stay at a constant 15°C (59°F), so it’s best to bring a long-sleeved shirt or light sweater. Photography is not allowed. I won’t ask how GerardM at Wikimedia Commons got the above image, or how the photographers who took the pictures of the frescoes in the attached gallery got theirs. I’ll assume they went through the red tape to get permission from Papal Commission of Archaeology. I’ve heard that if I do the same I can get a papal archaeologist to guide me through parts of the catacombs closed to regular visitors. My guide warns me I need a valid reason and lots of patience with bureaucracy. Perhaps next year I’ll be back.

“We’re nearing the end of the tour,” my guide says, “but I have one last thing to show you.”

We come to a large, empty tomb that has been converted into a display case for artifacts found by the archaeologists. Through the metal grille I see oil lamps the Christians used to find their way through the dark, shells that were pressed into the wall near a tomb to help identify the occupant, and bits of cheap glass jewelry.

In one corner are a collection of little ceramic animals, dolls, and rattles, simple toys put in front of the graves of children.

Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side.

Coming up next: The Death of Paganism!