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From Burial Grounds to Pilgrimage Site | Tracing the Rich History of the Roman Catacombs


If you're heading to Rome, you simply cannot miss the incredible catacombs that hide beneath the city's streets. These subterranean labyrinths hold a significant place in the annals of Rome, being used as burial sites by early Christians around the 2nd century, these tombs remained undiscovered until the 16th century. Today, these catacombs are one of the most popular tourist destinations in Rome, which offers a glimpse into the past and the fascinating practices of the ancient Romans.

Rome Catacombs Timeline

  • 2nd Century: Early Christians began using the catacombs as burial sites, driven by the city's stringent burial regulations.
  • 3rd Century: The catacombs expanded rapidly, and become more sophisticated, with rooms for funerary banquets and family tombs. 
  • 4th Century: Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Mila, granting religious freedom and leading to a decline in catacomb burials.
  • 6th Century: Catacombs start to be used solely for martyrs’ memorial services, unfortunately suffering from widespread vandalism.
  • 10th Century: Catacombs fell into abandonment, prompting the relocation of relics to the basilicas above ground. 
  • 16th Century: The rediscovery of the Catacombs by Antonio Bosio, a pioneering archaeologist, brings attention to this hidden underground world.
  • 17th-19th Centuries: Scholars and explorers continue to uncover and document the catacombs' intricate network of tunnels and chambers.
  • 19th Century: The catacombs became a popular destination for tourists, attracting visitors from all over the world.

History of Rome Catacombs Explained

History of Rome Catacombs

Early Christian Burials

2nd century AD

During the 2nd century AD, the catacombs emerged as burial sites due to the city's restrictive laws on burials. Early Christians, seeking a safe place to honor their deceased loved ones and practice their faith began using these underground tunnels as burial sites. They became not only a final resting place for the faithful but also became spaces for communal gatherings, including funerary banquets and memorial services. These tombs feature unique artwork and inscriptions that depict the Christian faith during this time period. 

History of Rome Catacombs

Golden Age of Catacombs

3rd century AD

During this period, the catacombs reached their zenith in both, size and sophistication. Elaborate frescoes adorned the walls of the burial chambers, depicting scenes from the Bible and showcasing artistic expression of early Christianity. Families acquired private tombs within the catacombs, creating intimate spaces for remembrance and commemoration in the form of funerary banquets and family tombs. The tombs were used to commemorate the death of martyrs and other significant figures in the Christian faith making it a significant center for Christian devotion and pilgrimage. 

History of Rome Catacombs

Decline of the Catacombs

4th to 10 th Centuries AD

With the issuance of the Edict of Milan by Emperor Constantine, which granted religious freedom, Rome saw the end of persecution against Christians. This resulted in a shift in burial practices, with people moving away from Catacomb burials. However, this also prompted Roman Christians to flock to the catacombs in search of relics from the martyrs, resulting in pillaging and rampant vandalism. By the 6th century AD, the catacombs were primarily used for martyrs' memorial services, and some paintings were added as late as the 7th century AD. The catacombs also suffered violations during the invasions by Ostrogoths, Vandals, and Lombards, who sought valuable treasures from the tunnels. As the 10th century AD dawned, the catacombs were practically abandoned, and holy relics were transferred to above-ground basilicas.

History of Rome Catacombs

Rediscovery of the Catacombs

16th-19th century AD

The catacombs were rediscovered during the 16th century thanks to Antonio Bosio, an esteemed archaeologist, who dedicated decades to exploring and researching these subterranean marvels, culminating in his work "Roma Sotterranea" published in 1632. Giovanni Battista de Rossi, another prominent archaeologist, furthered the professional study of catacombs with extensive research and publications. Additional catacombs were discovered near Rome in 1956 and 1959, enriching our understanding of the early Christian church. Their discoveries not only unveiled the historical importance of the catacombs but also contributed to the broader understanding of ancient Roman society and early Christian practices.

Construction of Roman Catacombs

History of Rome Catacombs

Skilled excavators known as fossors were responsible for carving these intricate tunnels and chambers. They meticulously carved galleries, passages, and narrow steps that descended several stories, creating a vast subterranean labyrinth. They harnessed the natural properties of tufa, a volcanic rock that was easy to dig into but hardened over time, providing stability to the catacombs.

One of the innovative techniques employed was the carving of burial niches, known as loculi, into the walls. These loculi, measuring around 40 to 60 centimeters in height and 120 to 150 centimeters in length, were designed to hold the deceased. Chambers were also constructed to accommodate stone sarcophagi, where bodies were placed and sealed with slabs bearing details of the deceased.

The construction of the catacombs faced challenges, including the labor-intensive excavation process and the need for proper structural support. Despite these obstacles, the catacombs were meticulously carved and expanded over time, becoming an impressive feat of engineering and a testament to the ingenuity of the ancient craftsmen.

Religious Significance and Early Christian Practices

For early Christians, the catacombs served as sacred burial grounds. While the concept of catacombs originated from Jewish burial practices, by the end of the 6th century, there were over 60 Christian catacombs. These catacombs not only provide a resting place for the deceased but also served as a connection point for various Christian communities. The art within the catacombs depicted social hierarchies and conveyed the ideals and worldviews of early Christians during the first few centuries.

Some scholars suggest that the catacombs were primarily utilized for memorial gatherings more than anything else, and were not really used as hiding places during periods of persecution.

Burial Customs and Rituals Within the Catacombs.

Excavators known as fossors constructed vast systems of galleries and passages within the catacombs, creating a multi-leveled underground network. These galleries, descending several stories, were joined by narrow steps. The passages themselves were approximately 2.5 by 1 meter in size, while burial niches called loculi were carved into the walls.

Bodies were placed within stone sarcophagi in their clothing and wrapped in linen, with the chamber sealed by a slab bearing details such as the name, age, and date of death. The surviving fresco decorations provide valuable evidence of Early Christian art, initially featuring Roman styles adapted for religious purposes Some families were even able to construct rooms called cubicula, which housed multiple loculi and provided architectural elements for decorative purposes. They were essentially family tombs, where deceased family members could rest together.

Artistic Legacy in the Roman Catacombs

History of Rome Catacombs

Christian art in the catacombs can be classified into three categories: iconographic, stylistic, and technical. From the 1st to the 6th century, Roman Christian catacombs witnessed a progression of artistic phases, including an early phase, an Old Testament phase, and a New Testament phase. The surviving fresco decorations serve as the primary evidence for Early Christian art. They initially showcased Roman styles adapted from secular iconography for religious purposes.

The catacombs also feature architectural elements that supported artistic programs. The cubiculas used for family burials provided a canvas for decorative embellishments. Additionally, the curved recessed areas within the walls, known as arcosolia, served as prime spaces for artistic expression.

The artistic legacy of the catacombs not just offers insight into Christianity, but also into the broader Roman artistic traditions of the time, reflecting the fusion of Roman and early Christian influences.

Roman Catacombs Today

Since the 20th century, the catacombs began to be seen as a popular tourist attraction, drawing visitors from all over the world. They are also an important archeological site offering a unique and fascinating glimpse into the history of early Christianity and the role it played in the city's development. Visitors can explore these underground tombs and learn about the lives and beliefs of those who were buried here centuries ago.

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Guided Tour of Roman Catacombs, Basilica San Martino Ai Monti & Capuchin Crypts
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Frequently Asked Questions about Rome Catacombs

How old is Rome Catacombs?

The Catacombs date back to the 2nd century AD, making them over 1,800 years old.

How long did it take to build Rome Catacombs?

The catacombs were not built in a specific timeframe. They expanded over several centuries as more chambers and passages were carved out by skilled excavators, primarily between the 2nd and 5th centuries AD.

Who built the Catacombs in Rome?

The catacombs were not designed by a specific architect. Skilled excavators, known as fossors, were responsible for creating the intricate underground network.

What is the historical significance of the Rome Catacombs?

The Catacombs played a significant role in early Christian history, serving as burial sites and places of worship during times of persecution. They offer insights into early Christian practices and the cultural landscape of ancient Rome.

Where are the Roman Catacombs located?

The catacombs are scattered across different areas near Rome, such as the Appian Way, Via Ostiense, and Via Labicana. Some well-known catacomb sites include the Catacombs of Domitilla, Catacombs of San Callisto, Catacombs of Priscilla, and Catacombs of San Sebastiano.

What are the Roman Catacombs famous for?

The Catacombs is a vast underground network of burial chambers known for intricate frescoes that depict early Christian art that provide insights into early Christianity and ancient Roman culture.

How much does it cost to visit the Roman Catacombs?

The tour prices start from €20, and the ticket prices vary depending on the catacomb site you choose to visit and the type of experience you opt for.

Are there guided tours explaining the history of the Roman Catacombs?

Yes, guided tours are available at the catacombs, providing in-depth explanations about their history, significance, and artwork found within. It is highly recommended to join a guided tour to make the most of your visit.

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