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The Catacombs of Rome
By Grace Lancieri-Olivo
The ancient Romans either cremated their dead or buried them in underground cemeteries we call catacombs today. The catacombs were subterranean tufa quarries where Christians originally celebrated their religion away from their persecutors. They are a system of various size galleries, with as many as five tiers. Niches called loculi were carved into the walls to bury the adorned dead, and inscribed slabs of marble or terracotta were used to close them. Some cut out large areas to serve as family graves. The catacombs were all located outside the city gates because only the emperors were allowed to be buried in the city. The oldest catacombs date from the 1st century and the most recent from the 4th century. Since many Christian martyrs were buried in the catacombs, pilgrims flocked there and underground churches flourished. When the barbarians threatened the city around the 3rd century AD, the popes had martyrs' bodies relocated to churches inside the safety of Rome's walls. The Goths and the Lombards pillaged the catacombs searching for valuables. Eventually the catacombs were used less and less, and were all forgotten except San Sebastiano on the Appian Way. The contrast between the catacombs along the Appian Way and the elaborate tombs that lined the road is indescribable. The entrance to the Catacomb of St. Calixtus is at #110 on the Appian Way. First explored in 1850, they are among the most important catacombs - they became the official burial place of Rome's bishops. St. Cecilia was also buried there in 230 after being martyred in her house in Trastevere. Nearby is the Catacomb of the Holy Cross, discovered in 1953, where Saints Marcus and Marcellianus were buried. The Catacomb of Praetexatus is near the start of the Via Appia Pignatelli. One of the seven pilgrimage churches of Rome was the Basilica of San Sebastiano, originally called the Basilica Apostolorum when it was built in the 4th century to honor Saints Peter and Paul, who had been buried in the cemetery under the basilica; they were moved there in 258 during the persecution of Valerian. St. Sebastian was later buried there, and it took his name in the 9th century. These catacombs have the distinction of always being known, frequented and despoiled by raiders. The Catacombs of St. Domitilla (also called the Catacombs of Saints Nereus and Achilleus) may be the most ancient Christian cemetery anywhere. Smaller Catacombs of Priscilla and Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura are less spectacular but more pleasant to visit. The Church of Sant'Agnese was built in 324 by Constantine above the catacombs where the martyred St. Agnes was buried in 304 alongside her family. These catacombs, dating from before 258, are said to be the best preserved and typical of Rome, with no paintings but many inscriptions. The Catacombs of Priscilla are the most ancient and interesting. Its chapel contains the oldest known painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, dating from the 2nd century. The Catacombs of Sant'Ermete and its large underground basilica containing the oldest known painting of St. Benedict were discovered in 1844. The Catacombs of Trasone are the deepest in Rome. There is a small underground basilica in the Catacombs of Santa Felicita. Christians weren't the only ones utilizing catacombs. At #119A along the Appian Way is the entrance to the Jewish Catacombs, first excavated in 1857. The tombs date from the 3rd to the 6th century, have symbols including the 7-branched candlestick and the Horn of Plenty, with most inscriptions in Greek.
"Tis the center to which all gravitates.
One finds no rest elsewhere than here.
There may be other cities that please us for a while,
But Rome alone completely satisfies"
About the author:
Grace is the editor of the Comunes of Italy magazine. The magazine's goal is to promote Italian genealogy and culture through awareness, research, writing, lecturing, instruction and the preservation and understanding of genealogical and historical material. Comunes of Italy is published six times per year. For subscription information please visit the Comunes of Italy web site.
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