There were Christians in Rome soon after Christ’s death, and they were led especially by Saints Paul and Peter, though the historical evidence regarding the latter is not entirely clear. Both saints are held by tradition to have died for their faith, and Christians as a group were persecuted intermittently, especially under Nero, Marcus Aurelius, Decius, and Diocletian. Then, under the Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, the so-called Edict of Milan legalized Christianity and other suspect religions. Soon thereafter, Constantine began to favor and support the Christian Church. By the end of the century Christianity had become the official religion of the entire Roman Empire and had even spread among the barbarians of Armenia and Germany.
The most important physical evidence of Christianity in the three centuries during which it was subject to persecution is underground. This not because Christians generally had to hide underground but because they practiced inhumation, the burial of the entire body, rather than cremation. Thanks to deposits of volcanic tufa in Rome’s soil, it was possible and economical to dig deep, multi-layered tunnels of burial shelves (loculi) rather than cover the surface of a large area with graves.
Subsequent pods will tour one or more of the main catacombs around Rome, and a separate podcast will take up the Vatican Necropolis. Although it is not technically a catacomb but an open air cemetery that got buried under Saint Peter’s Basilica, it raises some of the same questions as the catacombs.
The extent of the catacombs testifies to the extent of the Christian community in Rome. They often have three, four, or even five levels of tunnels, called “galleries,” that may be as far as sixty feet underground; the total length of these maze-like galleries of all Roman catacombs is reportedly in the range of 400 miles. Skilled “tunnel men” planned, dug, and decorated them. Their first task was to locate the large deposits of Rome’s remarkable “tufa,” which was soft enough to excavate but became firm enough not to collapse. Six or seven of the forty or fifty known catacombs around Rome are now open to visitors.
One of the many galleries of the Catacombs of Priscilla. Shelf-like loculi are visible on the left, a larger arcosolus on the right. (Photo Wikimedia)
Visiting the Catacombs also helps to demonstrate the importance of saints and martyrs to the early Christians. Their mortal remains were part of the attraction of these burial places, which were generally named after a martyr. As Rome became increasingly insecure, and after it was thoroughly Christian, popes had the bones of the saints and martyrs brought in from the vulnerable catacombs to the crypts of churches inside the city. After having been consecrated as a Christian church, the Pantheon, for example, reportedly received twenty-eight cartloads of martyrs’ bones; later, Pope Pascal I moved relics from the Catacombs of Priscilla to Santa Prassede, where an inscription on the first pilaster of the right nave declares, “The bodies of 2,300 martyrs repose in this church of Santa Prassede, placed here by Pope Pasquale I.”
This devotion to the martyrs was revived during the Counter-Reformation, and the catacombs played a role in this development. After having been forgotten for centuries, they were rediscovered during the Counter-Reformation, in 1578. They, and especially their rediscovered artwork, then provided evidence that the early Christians were devoted to the saints and martyrs, a point which Catholics could use against the Protestants who stressed “Solus Christus.”