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THE

ATLANTIC MONTHLY.

A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.

* * * * *

VOL. I - MARCH, 1858. - NO. V.

* * * * *


THE CATACOMBS OF ROME.


- - - - parti elette
Di Roma, che son state cimitero
Alla milizia che Pietro seguette.

PARADISO, c. ix.

"Roma Sotterranea," - the underground Rome of the dead, - the buried city
of graves. Sacred is the dust of its narrow streets. Blessed were those
who, having died for their faith, were laid to rest in its chambers.
_In pace_ is the epitaph that marks the places where they lie.
_In pace_ is the inscription which the imagination reads over the
entrance to the Christian Catacombs.

Full as the upper city is of great and precious memories, it possesses
none greater and more precious than those which belong to the city under
ground. Republican Rome had no braver heroes than Christian Rome. The
ground and motives of action were changed, but the courage and devotion
of earlier times did not surpass the courage and devotion of later
days, - while a new spirit displayed itself in new and unexampled deeds,
and a new and brighter glory shone from them over the world. But,
unhappily, the stories of the early Christian centuries were taken
possession of by a Church which has sought in them the means of
enhancing her claims and increasing her power; mingling with them
falsehoods and absurdities, cherishing the wildest and most unnatural
traditions, inventing fictitious miracles, dogmatizing on false
assertions, until reasonable and thoughtful religious men have turned
away from the history of the first Christians in Rome with a sensation
of disgust, and with despair at the apparently inextricable confusion of
fact and fable concerning them.

But within a few years the period to which these stories belong has
begun to be investigated with a new spirit, even at Rome itself, and in
the bosom of the Roman Church. It was no unreasonable expectation, that,
from a faithful and honest exploration of the catacombs, and examination
of the inscriptions and works of art in them or derived from them, more
light might be thrown upon the character, the faith, the feeling, and
the life of the early Christians at Rome, than from any other source
whatever. Results of unexpected interest have proved the justness of
this expectation.

These results are chiefly due to the labors of two Romans, one a priest
and the other a layman, the Padre Marchi, and the Cavaliere de Rossi,
who have devoted themselves with the utmost zeal and with great ability
to the task of exploration. The present Pope, stimulated by the efforts
of these scholars, established some years since a Commission of Sacred
Archeology for the express purpose of forwarding the investigations
in the catacombs; and the French government, soon after its military
occupation of Rome, likewise established a commission for the purpose of
conducting independent investigations in the same field.[A]

[Footnote A: In 1844, Padre Marchi published a series of numbers,
seventeen in all, of a work entitled _Monumenti delle Arti Cristiane
Primitive nella Metropol del Cristianesmo_. The numbers are in quarto,
and illustrated by many carefully executed plates. The work was never
completed; but it contains a vast amount of important information,
chiefly the result of Padre Marchi's own inquiries. The Cavaliere de
Rossi, still a young man, one of the most learned and accomplished
scholars of Italy, is engaged at present in editing all the Christian
inscriptions of the first six centuries. No part of this work has yet
appeared. He is the highest living authority on any question regarding
the catacombs. The work of the French Commission has been published at
Paris in the most magnificent style, in six imperial folio volumes,
under the title, _Catacombes de Rome_, etc., etc. _Par_ LOUIS PERRET.
_Ouvrage publié par Ordre et aux Frais du Gouvernement, sous la
Direction d'une Commission composée de_ MM. AMPERE, INGRES, MERIMÉE,
VITET. It consists of four volumes of elaborate colored plates of
architecture, mural paintings, and all works of art found in the
catacombs, with one volume of inscriptions, reduced in fac-simile from
the originals, and one volume of text. The work is of especial value as
regards the first period of Christian Art. Its chief defect is the want
of entire accuracy, in some instances, in its representations of the
mural paintings, - some outlines effaced in the original being filled out
in the copy, and some colors rendered too brightly. But notwithstanding
this defect, it is of first importance in illustrating the hitherto very
obscure history and character of early Christian Art.]

The Roman catacombs consist for the most part of a subterranean
labyrinth of passages, cut through the soft volcanic rock of the
Campagna, so narrow as rarely to admit of two persons walking abreast
easily, but here and there on either side opening into chambers of
varying size and form. The walls of the passages, through their whole
extent, are lined with narrow excavations, one above another, large
enough to admit of a body being placed in each; and where they remain
in their original condition, these excavations are closed in front by
tiles, or by a slab of marble cemented to the rock, and in most cases
bearing an inscription. Nor is the labyrinth composed of passages upon a
single level only; frequently there are several stories, connected with
each other by sloping ways.

There is no single circumstance, in relation to the catacombs, of more
striking and at first sight perplexing character than their vast extent.
About twenty different catacombs are now known and are more or less
open, - and a year is now hardly likely to pass without the discovery
of a new one; for the original number of underground cemeteries, as
ascertained from the early authorities, was nearly, if not quite, three
times this number. It is but a very few years since the entrance to the
famous catacomb of St. Callixtus, one of the most interesting of all,
was found by the Cavaliere de Rossi; and it was only in the spring
of 1855 that the buried church and catacomb of St. Alexander on the
Nomentan Way were brought to light. Earthquakes, floods, and neglect
have obliterated the openings of many of these ancient cemeteries, - and
the hollow soil of the Campagna is full "of hidden graves, which men
walk over without knowing where they are."

Each of the twelve great highways which ran from the gates of Rome was
bordered on either side, at a short distance from the city wall, by the
hidden Christian cemeteries. The only one of the catacombs of which even
a partial survey has been made is that of St. Agnes, of a portion of
which the Padre Marchi published a map in 1845. "It is calculated to
contain about an eighth part of that cemetery. The greatest length of
the portion thus measured is not more than seven hundred feet, and its
greatest width about five hundred and fifty; nevertheless, if we measure
all the streets that it contains, their united length scarcely falls
short of two English miles. This would give fifteen or sixteen miles for
all the streets in the cemetery of St. Agnes."[B] Taking this as a fair
average of the size of the catacombs, for some are larger and some
smaller, we must assign to the streets of graves already known a total
length of about three hundred miles, with a probability that the unknown
ones are at least of equal length. This conclusion appears startling,
when one thinks of the close arrangement of the lines of graves along
the walls of these passages. The height of the passages varies greatly,
and with it the number of graves, one above another; but the Padre
Marchi, who is competent authority, estimates the average number at ten,
that is, five on each side, for every seven feet, - which would give a
population of the dead, for the three hundred miles, of not less than
two millions and a quarter. No one who has visited the catacombs can
believe, surprising as this number may seem, that the Padre Marchi's
calculation is an extravagant one as to the number of graves in a given
space. We have ourselves counted eleven graves, one over another, on
each side of the passage, and there is no space lost between the head
of one grave and the foot of another. Everywhere there is economy of
space, - the economy of men working on a hard material, difficult to be
removed, and laboring in a confined space, with the need of haste.

[Footnote B: The foregoing extract is taken from a book by the Rev. J.
Spencer Northcote, called _The Roman Catacombs, or some Account of the
Burial-Places of the Early Christians in Rome_: London, 1857. It is the
best accessible manual in English, - the only one with any claims to
accuracy, and which contains the results of recent investigations. Mr.
Northcote is one of the learned band of converts from Oxford to Rome. A
Protestant may question some of the conclusions in his book, but not its
general fairness. Our own first introduction to the catacombs, in the
winter of 1856, was under Mr. Northcote's guidance, and much of our
knowledge of them was gained through him. Mr. Northcote estimates the
total length of the catacombs at nine hundred miles; we cannot but think
this too high.]

This question of the number of the dead in the catacombs opens the way
to many other curious questions. The length of time that the catacombs
were used as burial-places; the probability of others, beside
Christians, being buried in them; the number of Christians at Rome
during the first two centuries, in comparison with the total number
of the inhabitants of the city; and how far the public profession
of Christianity was attended with peril in ordinary times at Rome,
previously to the conversion of Constantine, so as to require secret and
hasty burial of the dead; - these are points demanding solution, but of
which we will take up only those relating immediately to the catacombs.

There can, of course, be no certainty with regard to the period when the
first Christian catacomb was begun at Rome, - but it was probably
within a few years after the first preaching of the Gospel there. The
Christians would naturally desire to separate themselves in burial from
the heathen, and to avoid everything having the semblance of pagan
rites. And what mode of sepulture so natural for them to adopt, in
the new and affecting circumstances of their lives, as that which was
already familiar to them in the account of the burial of their Lord?
They knew that he had been "wrapped in linen, and laid in a sepulchre
which was hewn out of a rock, and a stone had been rolled unto the door
of the sepulchre." They would be buried as he was. Moreover, there was
a general and ardent expectation among them of the second coming of the
Saviour; they believed it to be near at hand; and they believed also
that then the dead would be called from their graves, clothed once more
in their bodies, and that as Lazarus rose from the tomb at the voice of
his Master, so in that awful day when judgment should be passed upon the
earth their dead would rise at the call of the same beloved voice.

But there were, in all probability, other more direct, though not more
powerful reasons, which led them to the choice of this mode of burial.
We read that the Saviour was buried - at least, the phrase appears
applicable to the whole account of his entombment ... "as the manner
of the Jews is to bury." The Jewish population at Rome in the early
imperial times was very large. They clung, as Jews have clung wherever
they have been scattered, to the memories and to the customs of their
country, - and that they retained their ancient mode of sepulture was
curiously ascertained by Bosio, the first explorer of the catacombs.
In the year 1602, he discovered a catacomb on what is called Monte
Verde, - the southern extremity of the Janiculum, outside the walls of
Rome, near to the Porta Portese. This gate is in the Transtiberine
district, and in this quarter of Rome the Jews dwelt. The catacomb
resembled in its general form and arrangements those which were of
Christian origin; - but here no Christian emblem was found. On the
contrary, the only emblems and articles that Bosio describes as having
been seen were plainly of Jewish origin. The seven-branched candlestick
was painted on the wall; the word "Synagogue" was read on a portion of
a broken inscription and the whole catacomb had an air of meanness and
poverty which was appropriate to the condition of the mass of the Jews
at Rome. It seemed to be beyond doubt that it was a Jewish cemetery. In
the course of years, through the changes in the external condition and
the cultivation of Monte Verde, the access to this catacomb has been
lost. Padre Marchi made ineffectual efforts a few years since to find
an entrance to it, and Bosio's account still remains the only one that
exists concerning it. Supposing the Jews to have followed this mode of
interment at Rome, it would have been a strong motive for its adoption
by the early Christians. The first converts in Rome, as St. Paul's
Epistle shows, were, in great part, from among the Jews. The Gentile and
the Jewish Christians made one community, and the Gentiles adopted the
manner of the Jews in placing their dead, "wrapped in linen cloths, in
new tombs hewn out of the rock."

Believing, then, the catacombs to have been begun within a few years
after the first preaching of Christianity in Rome, there is abundant
evidence to prove that their construction was continued during the time
when the Church was persecuted or simply tolerated, and that they were
extended during a considerable time after Christianity became the
established creed of the empire. Indeed, several catacombs now known
were not begun until some time after Constantine's conversion.[C] They
continued to be used as burial-places certainly as late as the sixth
century. This use seems to have been given up at the time of the
frequent desolation of the land around the walls of Rome by the
incursions of barbarians, and the custom gradually discontinued was
never resumed. The catacombs then fell into neglect, were lost sight of,
and their very existence was almost forgotten. But during the first five
hundred years of our era they were the burial-places of a smaller or
greater portion of the citizens of Rome, - and as not a single church
of that time remains, they are, and contain in themselves, the most
important monuments that exist of the Christian history of Rome for all
that long period.


[Footnote C: For instance, about the middle of the fourth century, St.
Julius, then Pope, is said to have begun three. See Marchi's _Momumenti
delle Arti Cristiane_, p. 82.]

It has been much the fashion during the last two centuries, among a
certain class of critics hostile to the Roman Church, and sometimes
hostile to Christianity, to endeavor to throw doubts on the fact of
this immense amount of underground work having been accomplished by the
Christians. It has been said that the catacombs were in part the work of
the heathen, and that the Christians made use of excavations which they
found ready to their hand. Such and other similar assertions have been
put forward with great confidence; but there is one overwhelming
and complete answer to all such doubts, - a visit to the catacombs
themselves. No skepticism can stand against such arguments as are
presented there. Every pathway is distinctly the work of Christian
hands; the whole subterranean city is filled with a host of the
Christian dead. But there are other convincing proofs of the character
of their makers. These are of a curiously simple description, and are
due chiefly to the investigations of late years. Nine tenths of the
catacombs now known are cut through one of the volcanic rocks which
abound in the neighborhood of Rome. Of the three chief varieties of
volcanic rock that exist there, this is the only one which is of little
use for purposes of art or trade. It could not have been quarried for
profit. It would not have been quarried, therefore, by the Romans,
except for the purposes of burial, - and the only inscriptions and other
indications of the character of the occupants of these burial-places
prove that they were Christian.[D] They are very different from the
sepulchres of the great and rich families of Rome, who lined the Appian,
the Nomentan, and Flaminian Ways with their tombs, even now magnificent
in ruin; very different, too, from the _columbaria_, or pigeon-holes,
in which the ashes of the less wealthy were packed away; and still more
different from the sad undistinguished ditch that received the bodies of
the poor: -

"Hoc miserae plebi stabat commune sepulcrum."

[Footnote D: The volcanic rocks are the _Tufa litoide_, very hard, and
used for paving and other such purposes; difficult to be quarried, and
unfit for graves on account of this difficulty. The _Tufi granulare_, a
soft, friable, coarse-grained rock, easily cut, - fitted for excavation.
It is in this that the catacombs are made. It is used for very few
purposes in Rome. One may now and then see some coarse filling-up of
walls done with it, or its square-cut blocks piled up as a fence. The
third is the _Pura pozzolana_, - which is the _Tufa granulare_ in a state
of compact sand, yielding to the print of the heel, dug like sand, and
used extensively in the unsurpassed mortar of the Roman buildings.]

It not unfrequently happens in the soil of the Campagna, that the vein
of harder rock in which the catacombs are quarried assumes the soft and
sandy character which belongs to it in a state of decomposition. The
ancient Romans dug this sand as the modern Romans do; and it seems
probable, from the fact that some of the catacombs open out into
_arenaria_, or sandpits, as in the case of the famous one of St. Agnes,
that the Christians, in time of persecution, when obliged to bury with
secresy, may have chosen a locality near some disused sandpit, or near a
sandpit belonging to one of their own number, for the easier concealment
of their work, and for the safer removal of the quarried tufa. In such
cases the tufa may have been broken down into the condition of sand for
removal. In later times, as the catacombs were extended, the tufa dug
out from one passage was carried into the old passages no longer used;
and thus, as the catacomb extended in one direction, it was closed up in
another, and the ancient graves were concealed. This is now one of the
great impediments in the way of modern exploration; and the same process
is being repeated at present; for the Church allows none of the earth or
stone to be removed that has been hallowed as the resting-place of the
martyrs, and thus, as one passage is now opened, another has to be
closed. The archaeologists may rebel, but the priests have their way.
The ancient filling up was, however, productive of one good result; it
preserved some of the graves from the rifling to which most were exposed
during the period of the desertion of the catacombs. Most of the graves
which are now found with their tiled or marble front complete, and with
the inscription of name or date upon them unbroken, are those which were
thus secluded.

But there is still another curious fact bearing upon the Christian
origin of the catacombs. They are in general situated on somewhat
elevated land, and always on land protected from the overflow of the
river, and from the drainage of the hills. The early traditions of the
Church preserve the names of many Christians who gave land for the
purpose, - a portion of their _vignas_, or their villas. The names of the
women Priscilla, Cyriaca, and Lucina are honored with such remembrance,
and are attached to three of the catacombs. Sometimes a piece of land
was thus occupied which was surrounded by property belonging to those
who were not Christian. This seems to have been the case, for instance,
in regard to the cemetery of St. Callixtus; for (and this is one of
the recent discoveries of the Cavaliere de Rossi) the paths of this
cemetery, crossing and recrossing in three, four, and five stages, are
all limited to a definite and confined area, - and this area is not
determined by the quality of the ground, but apparently by the limits of
the field overhead. There can be no other probable explanation of this
but that Christians would not extend their burial-place under land that
was not in their possession. Many other facts, as we shall see in other
connections, go to establish beyond the slightest doubt the Christian
origin and occupation of the catacombs.

Descending from the level of the ground by a flight of steps into one of
the narrow underground passages, one sees on either side, by the light
of the taper with which he is provided, range upon range of tombs cut,
as has been described, in the walls that border the pathway. Usually the
arrangement is careful, but with an indiscriminate mingling of larger
and smaller graves, as if they had been made one after another for young
and old, according as they might be brought for burial. Now and then a
system of regularity is introduced, as if the _fossor_, or digger, who
was a recognized officer of the early Church, had had the leisure for
preparing graves before they were needed. Here, there is a range of
little graves for the youngest children, so that all infants should be
laid together, then a range for older children, and then one for the
grown up. Sometimes, instead of a grave suitable for a single body, the
excavation is made deep enough into the rock to admit of two, three, or
four bodies being placed side by side, - family graves. And sometimes,
instead of the simple _loculus_, or coffin-like excavation, there is
an arch cut out of the tufa, and sunk back over the whole depth of the
grave, the outer side of which is not cut away, so that, instead of
being closed in front by a perpendicular slab of marble or by tiles, it
is covered on the top by a horizontal slab. Such a grave is called an
_arcosolium_, and its somewhat elaborate construction leads to the
conclusion that it was rarely used in the earliest period of the
catacombs[E]. The _arcosolia_ are usually wide enough for more than
one body; and it would seem, from inscriptions that have been found upon
their covering-slabs, that they were not infrequently prepared during
the lifetime of persons who had paid beforehand for their graves. It is
not improbable that the expenses of some one or more of the cemeteries
may have been borne by the richer members of the Christian community,
for the sake of their poorer brothers in the faith. The example of
Nicodemus was one that would be readily followed.

[Footnote E: There is one puzzling circumstance in the cemetery of S.
Domitilla. _All_ the graves in this cemetery are _arcosolia_, and yet
the date of construction is early. The Cavaliere de Rossi suggests that
the cemetery was begun at the expense of the Domitilla whose name it
bears, the niece of Domitian, previously to her banishment; that her
position enabled her to have it laid out from the beginning on a regular
plan, and to introduce this more expensive and elaborate form of
grave, which was continued for the sake of uniformity in the later
excavations.]

But beside the different forms of the graves, by which their general
character was varied, there were often personal marks of affection
and remembrance affixed to the narrow excavations, which give to the
catacombs their most peculiar and touching interest. The marble facing
of the tomb is engraved with a simple name or date; or where tiles take
the place of marble, the few words needed are scratched upon their hard
surface. It is not too much to say that we know more of the common faith
and feeling, of the sufferings and rejoicings of the Christians of the
first two centuries from these inscriptions than from all other sources
put together. In another paper we propose to treat more fully of them.
As we walk along the dark passage, the eye is caught by the gleam of a
little flake of glass fastened in the cement which once held the closing
slab before the long since rifled grave. We stop to look at it. It is a
broken bit from the bottom of a little jar (_ampulla_); but that little
glass jar once held the drops of a martyr's blood, which had been
carefully gathered up by those who learned from him how to die, and
placed here as a precious memorial of his faith. The name of the martyr


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Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 01, No. 05, March, 1858 → online text (page 1 of 20)