Rome is rightly famous for its catacombs—underground cemeteries of enormous size and filled with archaeological, artistic, and religious remains. The catacombs contain an estimated 500,000 tombs in an intricate network of narrow and dark galleries. They are a vivid reminder of the transitory nature of human life, of the suffering that shaped people’s lives in a society where medical care was minimal, and of the ways in which the ancients sought to come to grips with the reality of death.
All of this explains why the catacombs have fascinated those who dare to descend into them. In these gloomy galleries, you can still experience ancient Rome as it once was. The large catacombs of St. Callixtus and St. Sebastian on the Appian Way or those in Domitilla, located on the nearby Via Ardeatina, are open to the general public, as is Priscilla catacomb on the Via Salaria, situated in the northern part of town. If you can’t make it to Rome, check out the amazing results of the University of Vienna’s 3-D mapping project for a virtual tour.
Even though the catacombs of ancient Rome were first rediscovered in the late sixteenth century, archaeological research into these sites continues, as they contain the largest coherent body of archaeological evidence on the early Christian and Jewish communities of ancient Rome. To understand the genesis of early Christian art, for example, the catacombs are the place to be, simply because there is no other archaeological site in the entire Mediterranean where so much artwork survives in the form of colorful wall paintings, delicate sarcophagi, decorated pottery lamps, and other artifacts. Early Christian art tended to focus on biblical scenes, particularly those relating to bodily and spiritual salvation.
The fact that there are also two Jewish catacombs in Rome (in addition to the forty or so early Christian ones) is fascinating in its own right. In their layout, the Jewish catacombs of Rome are similar to the early Christian ones. The artwork and the inscriptions, however, are characteristically Jewish. They show, for example, representations of the menorah in prominent positions. Like most of the early Christian catacombs, the Jewish catacombs are not open to the general public. But they reveal to archaeologists and scholars that the Jewish community of ancient Rome was thriving.
Researchers have long debunked the myth that Christians used the catacombs as hiding places in times of persecution: in the past, too, their precise location was common knowledge. While we currently know a fair bit about the catacombs and the people buried in them, they still contain many secrets, and new research technologies are helping us to decipher them. For example, radiocarbon dating in the Jewish catacombs suggests that Roman catacombs may have been a Jewish invention. Jewish immigrants from the Middle East brought to Rome a traditional burial practice rather different from the cremation that was customary for Romans. Later, Christians adopted Jewish burial practices rather than cremation.
The catacombs also reveal details about the everyday life and habits of Roman Christians. For instance, stable isotope analysis at the catacombs of Callixtus reveals vital information on Roman Christians’ diet, which included significant amounts of freshwater fish. We can measure data about factors like life expectancy or disease. Such results show us how crucial the Roman catacombs are to both Christianity’s and Judaism’s cultural heritage. They also provide a precious window onto the life of ordinary Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire’s most important and largest city.