Antecedents for the Catacombs of Rome

Excerpt from: Estelle Shohet Brettman, Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World, ed. Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, & Jessica Dello Russo. Boston: International Catacomb Society, 1991-2017.

Explorers over the centuries have earnestly sought answers to their questions about the catacombs. The most pressing still to resolve is that of the origin of the phenomenon of catacomb excavation in Late Ancient Rome. From the first, it was seen as important to the very nature of the catacombs' excavation and connection to religious communities. We see this clearly in the work of Antonio Bosio, who wrote that the Christians deposited their deceased in subterranean chambers in imitation of the ancient Hebrew patriarchs, who hewed their tombs out of rock in caves and caverns.(1) But, as Leonard V. Rutgers has noted, Bosio did not discuss any parallel between Christian catacombs and the Jewish catacomb he had discovered in Rome, saying merely that "the Christians constructed catacombs because they could not fabricate monuments and conspicuous sepulchers in public places".(2)

In 1844, the Jesuit archaeologist Giuseppe Marchi referred to the Monteverde catacomb, the only Jewish cemetery documented up to his time, as the model to which the Christians of Rome conformed in creating their subterranean cemeteries.(3) His own disciple, Giovanni Battista de Rossi, drawing mainly on early Christian sources, affirmed this "probable genesis of the Christian cemetery," stating further that "the Church issuing from the breast of the synagogue, carried with it many rites and customs of Judaism." Though de Rossi saw a common prototype for the burial grounds of both religions in the "sepulchral crypts of Palestine," he attributed the development of the twisting, grave-lined underground "streets" to the close ties among the Jews and Christians of Rome, who were living in the heart of metropolitan Rome, where the underlying volcanic rock was "most opportune for the excavation of such subterranean cemeteries".(4)

One of de Rossi's own students, in turn, Orazio Marucchi, also believed that the Jewish and Christian catacombs "derive from a common prototype... the very ancient tombs of the Jews carved into the rocks where the patriarchs, kings, and prophets had burials, and where in accordance with Jewish ritual was deposited the very holy body of the Redeemer (Jesus Christ)."(5)

Yet the antecedents for subterranean burial chambers may not have been so specific to one place and people, since interment in caves and hypogea had been common throughout the Mediterranean world from prehistoric times, with variations because of the nature of the local soil or stone and for expediency. Caves or "artificial grottoes" with benches and ossuaries for the deposits of bones of a single family as well as those of larger groups have ben dated to 3400-3100 BCE at Azor and B'nai Brak in Israel.(6)

In Jerusalem, during the First Temple Period (eighth and seventh centuries BCE), oblong burial chambers were hewn with stone benches along three walls. Individual tombs eventually evolved into multi-chambered sepulchers branching off of an anteroom that was entered by way of a portico or a stairway descending from an open court at ground-level. During the Second Temple Period (first century BCE-first century CE), more burial space was created when arched niches (arcosolia), rectangular, shelf-like niches (loculi), and niches perpendicular to the wall (kokhim) were carved into the walls, becoming typical of burial chambers of that period.(7)

There are models and counterparts for the catacombs of Rome in other ancient Mediterranean sites. The house-like plan of Alexandrian underground tombs in Egypt presaged the basic general features of catacombs, with stairways, courts, and light wells. Often disposed axially in the underground cemeteries were the ritual rooms and the chambers furnished with klinai (couches like those arranged for Greek and Roman dining or symposia), sarcophagi, and kokhim.(8) Unlike the Alexandrian tombs and their clusters of chambers, however, the catacombs of Rome were usually laid out in long galleries containing many rectangular loculi that generally extended horizontally along the walls. Of the Jewish catacombs in Rome, only the Vigna Randaninii site contained kokhim.

In Syria, underground chambers and galleries of the first to third centuries CE have been found at Palmyra. The hypogea there were complex and extravagant like those at Alexandria. Along with sarcophagai, also arranged in a U-shape series of couches like those in the dining hall or triclinium, some chambers contained loculi sealed with slabs decorated with portrait busts.

The epigraphy in the Palmyrene chambers was in Greek or Palmyrene Aramaic, recoding names and dates and documenting the original ownership of the burial spaces as well as the transferral of ownership either to members of the same family or by commercial sale. A sepulcher apparently built for speculation and called by the name of the "Three Brothers" resembled a large-scale modern real estate operation. The monumental hypogeum held as many as three hundred and ninety graves accommodated by the superimposition of six sarcophagi in each of its sixty-five burial niches.(9) Were it not for the prevalence of the kokh, the structure of such tombs would appear to resemble that of the catacombs of Rome. The Palmyrene hypogea were embellished with painted themes that also appear in the decorative programs of the catacombs, including the Rape of Ganymede and personification of Victory, shown in the Palmyrene sites as perched on a globe and holding a medallion (clipeus) in which is a portrait, probably of the deceased.

Kokh graves begin to appear in family burial chambers in ancient Palestinian territories in the late third to early second century BCE. It became the conventional type of Jewish burial in the Hasmonean and Herodian periods (152 BCE-70 CE). The kokh graves are the oldest type in the Beth She'arim necropolis, which was more or less contemporaneous with the catacombs of Rome.(10). A number of Jews from the Palmyrene kingdom were buried in Beth She'arim in catacombs 1, 3, and 4. Many had been brought there in coffins and appear to have been of higher social standing with greater means at their disposal than the Jews buried in the communal cemeteries of Rome. Often, along with traditional Jewish motifs, unexpected images were found on the Palmyrene graves. Among them was the only representation of Daniel in the Lion's Den found in a funerary context of this period outside of the Christian catacombs.(11) In general, the use of the kokh in Jewish burials in Palestine appears to relate to the rite of gathering bones (ossilegium) for secondary burial. Adding connecting kokh chambers fostered the early development of multi-generational and also multi-familial burial sites.

There were also precedents to the catacombs of Rome far closer to the city itself. At some Etruscan sites, like Cerveteri, commodious chambers were hollowed out to resemble house rooms containing furniture. The Tomb of the Reliefs (late fourth to early third century BCE) was fitted out with carved beds in the niches, complete with plump pillows of stone. Painted stucco reliefs simulating architectural elements and the many and varied accoutrements of daily life were set on the walls and pillars of the tomb.(12)

Close to the heart of Rome on the via di Porta di S. Sebastiano are rock-cut tombs like those of the Cornelii Scipiones, containing niches or loculi large enough to hold the sarcophagi of such a family. Nikolaus Muller was reminded of the Tomb of the Scipios and other hypogea of that type when he saw the Monteverde "grotto" with its "recessed annexes".(13)

  1. A. Bosio, Roma Sotterranea, Rome, 1632-34, p. 2; L. V. Rutgers, The Jews in Late Ancient Rome: Evidence of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Diaspora, Leiden-NYC: Brill, 1995, pp. 11-12.
  2. G. Marchi, Monumenti delle arti cristiane primitive nella metropoli del cristianesimo, Rome, 1844, pp. 20-21 (paraphrased by de Rossi in Roma sotterranea cristiana 1, Rome, 1864 p. 90.
  3. De Rossi stated that in addition to the precursive tombs of Palestine, burial chambers in Phoenicia, Asia Minor, Chersonese (Thrace), Carthage, Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, and Etruria, as well as the Faliscan tombs, are of the "type [that] is exactly that of the chambers (cubicula) of the Roman catacombs": Roma sotteranea cristiana 1, pp. 87, 90. In the early 20th century, after de Rossi's death, a unique hypogeum was found at Anzio, southwest of Rome, and dated on the basis of ceramic finds to the fourth to second century BCE. It consisted of three corridors branching off of a vestibule, and contained forty-three loculi in vertical rows of two or three, most of which were in the galleries. Like loculi in many catacombs of Rome, these burial niches were sealed mainly with tiles: L. Morpurgo, Anzio, sepolcreto sotterraneo pagano, in Notizie degli scavi d'antichita', V-VI (1944-45), pp. 155-166.
  4. O. Marucchi, "Di un nuovo cimitero giudaico scoperto sulla Via Labicana," Dissertazioni della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia 2 (1884), 511-512.
  5. J. Perrot, "Une tombe à ossuaires du IVe millenaire à Azor, près de Tel-Aviv," 'Atiqot: Journal of the Israel Department of Antiquities 3 (1961), pp. 3-7; 24-28.
  6. Cf. L. Ritmeyer and K. Ritmeryer, "Akeldama: Potter's Field or High Priest's Tomb?" Biblical Archaeology Review 20:6 (November/December 1994) pp. 27, 29, 31 (illustr.). 
  7. D. Kurtz and J. Boardman, Greek Burial Customs, London: Thames & Hudson, 1971, pp. 274-285, 303-304, pls. 80-82.
  8. J. M. C. Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World, London: Thames and Hudson, 1971, pp. 223-227; Annales archeologiques de Syrie, 11-12 (1961-1962), pp. 13-18, pls. 1-16; H. Leclerq, Manuel d'archeologie chretienne depuis les origines jusqu'au VIII siecle 1 (1907), pp. 516-518, fig. 145. Leclerq claimed that the "Three Brothers" hypogeum was Jewish, using as supporting evidence that one of the portraits there bore the name of Abraham. The hypogea at Dura Europos in Syria, from the third century BCE to the third century CE, had benches along the walls supporting two or three burials, as well as loculi and kokhim, some carved out high enough to accommodate two burials in coffins or sarcophagi, or possibly for some other reason, such as to enable access to the deceased after burial. 
  9. Beth She'arim 1, p. 77, pl. 9.3. 
  10. Kokh graves were often present in Hellenized Palestinian sites, such as Marissa and Beit Jibrin, near Jerusalem. M. Sprenger, G. Bartoloni, The Etruscans (English transl. by R. E. Wolf): New York: Abrams, 1983, pp. 50-51, 53, figs. 19, 21, pl. 225 (lower); M. Pallottino, The Etruscans (English transl. by J. Cremona), London: Penguin, 1975, p. 17, pl. 82, pp. 289-290, note 82.
  11. N. Muller, “Il cimitero degli ebrei posto sulla via Portuense,” in Rendiconti della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia 2.12 (1915), pp. 221, 223-224, 302. Muller found a resemblance also to sepulchers of this type in the hypogea used by Jews near Syracuse in Sicily and Sant'Antioco in Sardinia.