Development of the Catacombs

Present-day scholars have concluded that the Jewish and Christian catacombs developed synchronously, with neither an example for the other, but both part of a Late Antique development "not confined to the adherence of one religion only" (1).  The catacombs developed most intensely in the third and fourth centuries CE, then gradually fell into disuse in the fifth (2).

In the late first century CE, masonry tombs built aboveground began to replace columbaria.  The Jewish and Christian communities had grown larger by the second century, perhaps with a consequent necessity to find more burial space (3).  The pagan population also felt the pressure for space as the compact columbaria containing multiple burials were succeeded by the spread of the larger sub-surface graves and masonry tombs.

The Jewish and Christian communities had by now formed congregations, parishes, collegia funeraticia, and other cooperative groups, no doubt with prosperous members among them.  They set about to buy properties outside the city walls where they could establish cemeteries for co-religionists in areas indisputably their own.  As Rutgers observed, "in death, both Jews and Christians wished to preserve their respective communal identities."  They felt an obligation also to insure that even the poorest among them would be provided with a proper burial among their brethren (3).

Toward the end of the second century, many of the tombs could not accommodate any more burials.  A practical way to create more space was by digging down into the earth beneath the aboveground tombs, or by carving out additional chambers from the existing hypogaea to develop and enlarge the underground burial area.  As subterranean excavations continued, diggers began to encounter other burial chambers, sometimes breaking through their walls.  Neighboring burial sites might then be combined with or absorbed by the expanding cemeteries, to evolve eventually into catacombs.  In the course of expansion of some of the private hypogaea, the break-throughs might connect them to nearby tombs of members of a different religious group; clusters of these hypogaea became part of the underground chambers as well, which explains why pagan materials can be found within some Jewish and Christian catacombs (4).  As a rule, the Roman pagans did not build large catacombs, since they, as well as some Christians, preferred to be buried in more intimate tombs.

A serendipitous means of enlarging the underground burial complexes resulted from the nature of the soil around Rome, where the rich deposits of volcanic pozzolana had long been quarried for making cement, and the resulting cavities of abandoned quarries of long-disused underground waterways could be incorporated into the subterranean networks (5).

Certain catacombs, however, such as those below the Villa Torlonia and a number of the Christian burial grounds, reveal by their regularity and signs of purposeful construction, that they were designed for the most part from the very beginning to be large, organized burial complexes.

In their final stages of development, several catacombs were vast.  The catacomb of Domitilla, for example, extends underground for approximately fifteen kilometers (about nine miles).  It is a notable illustration of the type of underground cemetery that was developed through the incorporation of pre-existing hypogea.

The joining of hypogea by digging tunnels between them formed networks of underground passages which themselves were filled with burials.  By tunneling as deeply as three to twenty-three meters (about nine and a half to seventy-one and a half feet) into the relatively soft, volcanic rock, called tuff, sometimes entering through a hillside, the labyrinthine network of burial space the grave diggers created would also be somewhat protected from vandalism.

Tombstones found above or near the catacomb of Domitilla inform us that the cemetery possibly had a connection to a Flavia Domitilla, whom Philippe Pergola, among others, has identified as the niece of Domitian.  According to epigraphic evidence, this Roman lady, like many affluent members of her social class, had ceded a part of her praedium (country estate), to her freedmen, their families, and members perhaps of certain religious sects, for use as a burial grounds. 

Aboveground were discovered the remains of a funerary enclosure.  The oldest part, dating to the first half of the first century CE, included columbaria, a cistern, and stairs down to a few of the hypogea that were the oldest nuclei of the catacomb (6).

Pergola dated seven of the nuclei to pre-Constantinian times, but he considered that in only two cases were the original owners certainly Christian.  Two of the sites, the Hypogeum of the Flavii and that of Ampliatus, were built as private burial networks.  Nothing in their earliest form and decoration suggested a Christian clientele (7).

The hypogaea of the Flavii, its walls richly frescoed with rural themes, was begun between the end of the second century and the beginning of the third.  It seems to have been used by Christians when it was enlarged in the second half of the third century.  Probably it was at this time that the early entrance to the catacomb was modified: on one side was added room for a well to which a small cistern supplied water through a pipe, and on the other side, an enclosure with two benches, providing the mourners with all the elements needed to perform the rite of the funerary meal.

The Ampliatus hypogaeum dated from a period of about the late second or early third century.  It had a simple plan: a stairway leading down to two double chambers on either side of a landing.  Pergola judged that the decoration of the chambers was carried out in four phases, with the first two phases dated to the beginning and second half of the thrid century, the same period as of the two epitaphs found there from which the name of the burial site was derived (8).

Testini suggested that the Ampliatus hypogaeum began as a large space belonging to a wealthy family of imperial freedmen and was subdivided in a later period to accommodate the family's many members.  The decoration is noteworthy for the use of tompe l'oeil architectonic ornamentation - false doors flanked by insubstantial pilasters, panels, and framed scenes evocative of the illusionistic Pompeian Second Style of wall painting (9).  The burial area was probably incorporated into the catacomb during the second half of the third century in the course of the expansion of the Domitilla gallery network (10).

The hypogeaum of the "Flavii Aurelii," dating from the late second century, differs from other early units in the Domitilla catacomb because it may have been of Christian origin from its very beginning.  Philippe Pergola has recognized it as a fusion of two nuclei, region 5 slightly earlier than region 6.  The former, he said, was "exploited in an intense fashion" to accommodate as many burials as possible.  The epigraphy and heavy usage, as well as the absence of such features as arcosolia and painted surfaces, raises the possibility that this limited region was a communal place of interment for individuals from different families.  The early Christian martyrs commemorated in the Domitilla cemetery, the Roman soldiers Nereus and Achilleus, likely were buried in this type of environment, and the veneration of their tombs was a key factor in the rapid expansion of these burial grounds (11).  At the end of the fourth century, the Basilica of Saints Nereus and Achilleus was erected over their graves (12).

"The Good Shepherd" hypogean complex, named after the "Chamber of the Good Shepherd" at the foot of the second ramp of the great staircase, dates from the early third century on, and is the most extensive in this catacomb.  Originally private, the Good Shepherd complex lost its exclusive aspect when all of the early zones were absorbed into the greater communal cemetery in the early part of the fourth century.  It was developed on two different levels, and was comprised of large, sumptuous decorated chambers and side galleries.

The paintings in the upper part of the "Chamber of the Good Shepherd" were executed at the beginning of the third century; those in the lower section at the beginning of the fourth.  Still preserved in the passages of this region are images painted on the closures of loculi.  On a chamber vault is a representation rare in catacomb art: that of David holding his slingshot (13).  The painting from the later part of the fourth century testifies that the Hebrew Bible themes were still being used by Christians well after the Constantinian era.

The "Hypogeum of the Sarcophagi" in the Domitilla complex, may have begin as the underground chamber of a mid-third century mausoleum.  Sarcophagi of "exclusively pagan character" were found there in situ.  Located at the level of the Domitilla basilica, the chamber had been almost totally destroyed when the basilica was built (14).

At the beginning of the third century, the administration of one Christian community in Rome, using their collective assets, established the first documented communal cemetery under church title in an area between the via Appia and via Ardeatina that had been used for burial since the period of the Republic (15).  Pope Zephyrinus delegated the administration of the burial grounds to the deacon Callixtus. 

The theologian Hippolytus, a strong adversary of the deacon, held that Callixtus was a former slave, a former failed banker who had run away from creditors, a reputed disturber of services in a synagogue, and an escaped convict (16).  Nevertheless, Callixtus succeeded Zephyrinus as pope.  During Callixtus' papacy (217-222), he is said to have enlarged the cemetery, in which the Crypt of the Popes, the most revered site in all of the Roman catacombs, became the burial place for nine of the bishops of Rome of the third and fourth centuries.  Although the cemetery would carry the name of Callixtus, neither of the two popes who established and developed this catacomb was buried in it.  A seventh century record tells that Zephyrinus was buried in a site above ground, possibly a mausoleum or other type of sepulcher near the entrance to the underground Crypt of the Popes (17).  Callixtus himself was buried in the Cemetery of Calepodio on the via Aurelia.  This cemetery, containing a large circular mausoleum from about 80-40 BCE (18), was exploited from Roman Republican times to the fourth century.  The presence in this site of hypogea and monumental mausolea, some pagan and some Christian, indicates that this was a necropolis where the acquisition of burial plots was unrestricted for much or all of the time it was in use.

  1. Rutgers, Cultural Interaction, p. 67.
  2. D. Noy dates most of the inscriptions from the Roman Jewish catacombs to the third and fourth centuries CE (Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe 2: The City of Rome, passim), but he commented that n. 401, seen by Marucchi at the entrance to the Vigna Randanini catacomb, may indicate the reuse of a site: op. cit. pp. 330-331; see also D. Noy, "Where Were the Diaspora Jews Buried?" in M. Goodman, Jews in a Greco-Roman World, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998, p. 79, note 24.  Rutgers, Cultural Interaction, p. 67.
  3. Rutgers, Cultural Interaction, p. 96.
  4. Rutgers, Cultural Interaction, p. 52.
  5. Other Italian regions had suitable geology for underground burial as well, such as Apulia, Etruria, Latium, Umbria, Sardinia, and Sicily.  
  6. P. Pergola, Le catacombe romane: storia e topografia.  Rome: Carocci: 1998, pp. 211-216.
  7. De Rossi mistakenly believed that the hypogeum of the Flavii had been the tomb of Christian members of the family of Flavia Domitilla: Pergola, Catacombe romane, p. 211.
  8. Pergola, Catacombe romane, p. 212.
  9. Testini, Archeologia cristiana, pp. 202-203.
  10. P. Pergola, "Coemeterium Domitillae: le labyrinthe de la via Ardeatina," in Les dossiers de l'archeologie 18 (1976), p. 90.
  11. Pergola, Coemeterium, p. 94.
  12. U. M. Fasola, La Basilique des SS. Neree et Achilee et la Catacombe de Domitilla, 1963, pp. 12-30; Testini, Cimiteri Cristiani, pp. 202-220; Pergola, Coemeterium, pp. 86-99.
  13. In the side galleries, approximately ten slaves of freedmen were buried: Pergola: Coemeterium, pp. 92-93.
  14. Pergola, Coemeterium, pp. 93-94.
  15. Pergola, Catacombe romane, pp. 195-202.  De Rossi suggested that the site might have accommodated burials of the noble Cecilii family; Roma Sotterranea 1, p. 309.
  16. The catacomb of S. Ippolito might be named for this Hippolytus.  The synagogue episode, documented in the ninth book of the Philosophomeana, possibly authored by Hippolytus, could have been distorted because of Hippolytus' ill feeling toward Callixtus.  For more details, see de Rossi, Bullettino di Archeologia Cristiana 4:1, pp, 1-13, and 4:2, pp, 17-33; Northcote and Brownlow, pp. 497-505.
  17. Testini, Archeologia cristiana, pp. 209-210.  Zephyrinus' burial was recorded in the Notitia ecclesiarum urbis Rmae, written about the time of Pope Honorius Testini, Catacombe cristiane, p. 65.
  18. Testini, Catacombe cristiane, pp. 67-69.