Excerpt from: Estelle Shohet Brettman, Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs in Context within the Ancient Mediterranean World, ed. Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, & Jessica Dello Russo. Boston: International Catacomb Society, 1991-2017.
Most present-day scholars concur with de Rossi that the Jewish and Christian catacombs developed synchronously, as part of a Late Antique burial trend "not confined to the adherence of one religion only" (1). This would place the creation of catacombs in Rome within the overall chronological framework of the third to early fifth centuries CE (2).
In a general shift from cremation to inhumation in Rome in late first century CE, masonry tombs built aboveground began to replace columbaria. The Jewish and Christian communities were both growing in size, with the 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 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 buying 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 (4).
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 the nearby tombs of members of a different group, which is one possible explanation for artifacts with polytheistic motifs in some Jewish and Christian catacombs (5). As a rule, the Roman pagans did not build large catacombs, since they, as well as some of the 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 rich deposits of volcanic pozzolana had long been quarried for making concrete, and the resulting cavities of abandoned quarries of long-disused underground waterways could be incorporated into the subterranean networks (6).
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. By the mid-third century, Christians who had previously buried their dead in mixed burial grounds, began to organize their own cemeteries, particularly evident in the catacombs of Rome, which best survive as material testimonies of this trend (7). In their final stages of development, several catacombs were vast. The catacomb of Domitilla, for example, is believed to extend underground for approximately fifteen kilometers, about nine miles (8). So overwhelming in size is this cemetery that even that intrepid explorer, Antonio Bosio, lost his way in its uncharted, labyrinthine passages. It is a notable illustration of the type of underground cemetery that was developed through the incorporation of pre-existing hypogea. Yet 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 grave diggers had also created a burial space somewhat protected from vandalism.
Tombstones found above or near the catacomb of Domitilla inform us that the area 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 (9).
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 (10).
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 from the time it was enlarged in the second half of the third century, when the entrance to the catacomb was modified with the construction of a room with a well to which water was supplied by a pipe from a small cistern, and, on the opposite side, an enclosure with two benches, providing mourners with all the elements needed to perform the ritual of the funerary meal or refrigerium.
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 third century, to which period are also dated two epitaphs that give the site its modern name (11).
Testini suggested that the Ampliatus hypogaeum began as a large space belonging to a wealthy family of imperial freedmen which was subdivided at a later time to accommodate more family members. The decoration is noteworthy for the use of trompe l'oeil architectonic ornamentation - false doors flanked by insubstantial pilasters, panels, and framed scenes evocative of the illusionistic Pompeian Second Style of wall painting (12). This burial crypt 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 (13).
The hypogeaum of the "Flavii Aurelii," dating to the late second century, differs from other early units in the Domitilla catacomb in that 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 sees "exploited in an intense fashion" to accommodate as many burials as possible. Both the epigraphic evidence and heavy usage, as well as the absence of such features as arcosolia and painted surfaces, raises the possibility that this region of limited extent 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 factor in the expansion of the burial grounds in the fourth century CE (14). At the end of the fourth century, the Basilica of Saints Nereus and Achilleus was erected over their graves (15).
"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 the 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, sumptuously decorated chambers and side galleries (16).
The paintings in the upper part of the "Chamber of the Good Shepherd" were executed at the beginning of the third century, and those in the lower section at the beginning of the fourth. Still preserved in the passages of this region (and in a stairwell) are images painted on the closures of loculi. On a chamber vault is a rare example in Late Roman painting of David holding his slingshot (17). This image, dating to the later part of the fourth century, testifies to the use of Hebrew Bible themes by Christians well after the Constantinian era.
The "Hypogeum of the Sarcophagi" in the Domitilla complex may have originated as the underground chamber of a mid-third century mausoleum. Sarcophagi of "exclusively pagan character" were found there in situ and dated to that time. Located at the level of the semi-hypogean basilica to Saints Nereus and Achilleus, the chamber had been almost totally destroyed when the basilica was built (18).
At the beginning of the third century, one of the Christian communities in Rome, using 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 (19). Pope Zephyrinus delegated the administration of the burial grounds to the deacon Callixtus.
A strong adversary of this deacon, the theologian Hippolytus, held that Callixtus was a former slave, a failed banker who had run away from his creditors, a reputed disturber of the peace during services in a synagogue, and an escaped convict (20). Nevertheless, Callixtus succeeded Zephyrinus as pope. During his papacy (217-222), he is said to have enlarged the cemetery which his predecessor had entrusted to his care, 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 the catacomb was buried in it. A seventh century record locates the tomb of Zephyrinus in a site above the catacomb, possibly a mausoleum or other type of sepulcher near the entrance to the underground Crypt of the Popes (21). 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 (22), 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.
The catacomb of Monteverde, the first Jewish cemetery to be identified in modern times, has been considered to be the oldest of the Jewish catacombs in Rome. So much of it has been destroyed, however, that its true extent and chronological development may never be certain. The conclusions about its age were based on some structural features, like types of tombs and lack of painted chambers. A large number of artifacts survive, such as inscriptions, stamped tiles, and other small goods, as well as drawings and descriptions, but this material cannot create a full chronology of the site (23).
In the course of Fr. Frey's research in ancient Jewish inscriptions, he made the first detailed study of the brick stamps and epigraphy from the Jewish catacombs of Rome (24). From his analysis of 231 brick stamps, Frey concluded there had been activity in the Jewish catacombs from the late first or early second century CE to the fourth century (25). The Monteverde catacomb offered the greatest number of stamps and seemed to encompass the broadest time-span. A number of the stamps were identified as from the first century CE with a few, apparently, even earlier (26). This evidence led Frey to suggest that the Monteverde cemetery antedated the other Jewish catacombs in Rome, with an intense use in the second and third centuries.
The origins of the Monteverde catacomb may, indeed, antedate the documentation found in the areas possible to be explored through the early twentieth century, but in David Noy's compilation of the Jewish Inscriptions of Rome, the Monteverde epitaphs are dated almost without exception to the third and fourth centuries CE. Noy's conclusion corroborates with the opinions of other catacomb scholars, including Leonard Rutgers and Fr. Umberto M. Fasola (both cited by Noy), that the Monteverde brick stamps are mainly from the third century, with some from the fourt (26). This information has been newly reiterated in a comprehensive report on the Monteverde catacomb in 2013 (27).
In the catacomb of the Vigna Randanini, two connected chambers, a cubiculum duplex, were ascribed by Frey to the late second or early third century CE. Testini pointed out, however, that they might not have originally been used by Jews and thus incorrectly date the time of Jewish occupancy of the site (28). He saw the decorative motifs used in these chambers as belonging to a common Hellenistic tradition, with purely Jewish symbols, like the seven-branched candelabrum, the lulab, shofar, and "palms which allude to Palestine", could not have been painted there before the third century (29).
In Rutgers' opinion, only the painted decoration of the so-called "Room IV", or "Menorah Chamber," can be considered "explicitly Jewish". Here there is a menorah in red above an arcosolium niche opposite the entrance, and on the ceiling are oval shapes that Rutgers' sees as ethrogim. The painting is far simpler and less accomplished than the decoration in the other three rooms; those are painted in a style widely used in the late second and early third centuries (30). The central motif on the ceiling of the outermost chamber of the cubiculum duplex shows Victory crowning a youth, and in the center of the ceiling of the inner chamber is the figure of Fortuna, possibly as a Tyche, with a horn of plenty (31). Despite their polytheistic attributes, these images did not prevent the chambers from being reused in a later period, probably by Jews, once this area was joined to the communal cemetery (32).
In 1919, archaeologist Roberto Paribeni supervised the earliest known excavations of two Jewish catacombs below the Villa Torlonia. He though they dated at the earliest to the second or early third century (33). Fr. Umberto Fasola, who excavated in the site in 1973-1974, stated that the tombs of the two cemeteries, particularly those in the upper catacomb, were hewn through the fourth century, allowing for at least two centuries of use. Recognizing the difficulty of fixing a precise chronology, he used a "relative chronology" based on masonry techniques, and concluded that the entrance to the lower Torlonia catacomb was part of the original structure of the cemetery and that the entrance passageway went back "at least to the end of the second century CE" based on similar examples of the masonry style that date from that period, including the Vatican necropolis. Known as opus vittatum, it is a building technique where the bricks are laid in horizontal bands in which two strips of tuff blocks alternate with one of bricks. The whole surface is then covered in plaster. In the Villa Torlonia site, the opus vittatum begins at the external ramp and continues without interruption to the interior catacomb to the area of the light well over the descending passage into the galleries. Because of the continuity of the masonry and plaster work, Fasola asserted that this area had not been a previously-constructed monument that was then readapted, as found in other catacombs, but had been planned from the start as part of the communal cemetery complex (34).
Fasola found the upper areas of the Villa Torlonia catacomb to be later, dating to the third century, not only because the brick stamps in this area established a terminus post quem, but also because he saw the style of painting in the upper catacomb, especially that in the vault of the only decorated chamber in the site, supporting a mid-third century date, which Testini also favors (35). A more recent analysis of the paintings by Leonard Rutgers, however, has suggested a fourth century date (36).
Father Antonio Ferrua, SJ, a specialist in early Christian epigraphy, observed that while some inscriptions from the Villa Torlonia catacombs could date to the third century, a "greater part (came from) the fourth century or even later". Testini supports this view that the epigraphy in the Jewish catacombs contains "characters prevalent in the fourth and fifth centuries" (37).
As may be concluded from this sampling of the diversity of scholarly opinion, fixing precise dates for the catacombs is not easy, and so far, it seems, the chronology of the Jewish catacombs of Rome can only be established in general terms (38).
In an effort to estimate the number of Christian and Jewish burials in Rome during the Late Imperial Period, scholars have counted and studied inscriptions. This approach, however, is conditioned by the lack of documentation for many pieces and disappearance of many others. Testini estimated that more than 20,000 Christian epitaphs had been recovered by 1966, the year he published a survey on the catacombs of Rome. Silvagni and Ferrua, the compilers of the ICUR, published nine volumes of the series by 1985, and the number still continued to grow as a result of subsequent finds (39). In the six known Jewish catacombs, about 537 inscriptions have been recovered to date. Noy's 1995 corpus of Jewish Inscriptions from Rome indexes 529 from the Monteverde, Vigna Randanini, Villa Torlonia, Vigna Cimarra, and Via Labicana/Vigna Apolloni sites. He included seven other inscriptions from Monteverde and Randanini as possibly Jewish, though they began with the Latin formula D.M. or Dis Manibus, a phrase common on pagan tombstones as a protective invocation to the gods or spirits of the underworld. Noy noted that the formula was also found in the Christian catacombs, but its appearance in that context probably indicated that the phrase had been inscribed on a tomb slab in the Roman workshop before the stone was bought by a client (40).
Rutgers thought that in a Jewish context, a stone carrying that formula might be intrusive, recycled for a new inscription, or simply reused as scrap material for a tomb closure or repair work within the site. He pointed out that D. M. never appears in the graffiti or painted epitaphs and that "typically Jewish information" had not been found in the D. M. inscriptions (41).
In addition to the problems in estimating the physical extent of the catacombs, it is also difficult to determine the ownership of small catacombs of hypogea and whether or not all their occupants subscribed to the same religious belief system (42). A number of funerary hypogea seem to have been commissioned and used on an intimate scale by affluent families or groups whose members might not have all converted to Christianity. Isolated Jewish tombs have been identified in the Monteverde area at some distance from the known catacomb site, and in the vicinity of the San Sebastiano catacomb. No doubt Jews also buried sub divo in many sites (43). The fifty or so Christian and Jewish catacombs now known are generally thought to have served certain religious communities. Only four Jewish catacombs, however, survive today: two in the area of the via Appia (Vigna Randanini and Vigna Cimarra) and the two below the Villa Torlonia.
- L. V. Rutgers, Jews of Late Ancient Rome, p. 67.
- 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 an occasional 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, Jews of Late Ancient Rome, p. 67.
- According to Noy (citing H. Solin, in ANRW II.29.2, pp. 698-701), by the early first century CE, the population of Jews in Rome might have reached 30,000; Diaspora Jews, p. 79 and note 25.
- Rutgers, Jews of Late Ancient Rome, p. 96.
- Rutgers, Jews of Late Ancient Rome, p. 52.
- Other Italian regions had suitable geology for underground burial as well, such as Apulia, Etruria, Latium, Umbria, Sardinia, and Sicily.
- According to Eusebius, cemeteries seized by the Emperor Valerian during his persecutions were returned to the bishops by the Emperor Gallienus (253-268), indicating that Christian cemeteries were already in existence at this time.
- U. M. Fasola, The Catacomb of Domitilla, Rome, 1974.
- P. Pergola, Le catacombe romane: storia e topografia. Rome: Carocci: 1998, pp. 211-216.
- 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.
- Pergola, Catacombe romane, p. 212.
- Testini, Archeologia cristiana, pp. 202-203.
- P. Pergola, "Coemeterium Domitillae: le labyrinthe de la via Ardeatina," in Les dossiers de l'archeologie 18 (1976), p. 90.
- Pergola, Coemeterium, p. 94.
- 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.
- In the side galleries, approximately ten slaves of freedmen were buried: Pergola: Coemeterium, pp. 92-93.
- Pergola, Coemeterium, pp. 92-93.
- Pergola, Coemeterium, pp. 93-94.
- 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.
- The catacomb of S. Ippolito might be named for this Hippolytus. The synagogue episode, documented in the ninth book of the Philosophumena, 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.
- 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.
- Testini, Catacombe cristiane, pp. 67-69.
- Noy, JIWE 2, p. 4.
- CIJ 1, pp. 9-11 (Torlonia); p. 55 (Randanini); pp. 212-227 (Monteverde).
- H. J. Leon assigned a possible date of the first century BCE to the beginnings of the Monteverde cemetery, the earliest date proposed for any Jewish cemetery in Rome: Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 66.
- JIWE 2, pp. 3-5.
- D. Rossi and M. Di Mento, eds., La catacomba ebraica di Monteverde: vecchie dati e nuove ricerche, Rome, 2013.
- E. R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (New York: Pantheon Books, 1953-1968), vol 2, pp. 14-33; vol. 3, figs. 737-762.
- Testini, Archeologia cristiana, p. 325.
- Rutgers, Jews of Late Ancient Rome, pp. 73-74; he noted that the ceiling in Room III ("Chamber of the Palms") was removed in antiquity to made additional tombs higher up on the walls.
- H. J. Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pl. 10, figs. 14-15; pl. 11, fig. 16.
- The small catacombs of via Labicana (or Vigna Apolloni) and Vigna Cimarra were identified as Jewish because of the motifs inscribed or painted on some artifacts recovered from these sites before they became inaccessible. Rutgers and Noy believe they date to more or less the same period as the other Jewish sites: Rutgers, Jews of Late Ancient Rome, pp. 92-93; 97-98; JIWE 2, pp. 332, 338.
- R. Paribeni, "Catacomba giudaica sulla via Nomentana", Notizie degli Scavi d'Antichita' (1920), p. 154.
- Fasola, Due Catacombe di Villa Torlonia, pp. 41, 62, n. 42. For somewhat similar chronological information on the Vatican necropolis, see Testini, Catacombe cristiane, p. 72. According to A. G. McKay, Houses, Villas, and Palaces in the Roman World (1975), p. 90, opus vittatum appears to have been used primarily between 150 and 450 CE, a time span which leaves much latitude for the dating of this region. A more recent report that the use of the technique extended through a later date keeps this chronological indicator from being considered a definitive determinant: R. Marta, Tecnica costruttiva romana (1986) pp. 34-35.
- Fasola, Le due catacombe p. 62; Testini, Archeologia cristiana, p. 325.
- Rutgers, "Archeological Evidence for the Interaction of Jews and Non-Jews in Late Antiquity," American Journal of Archaeology 96 (1992), p. 107 and see JIWE 2, p. 343.
- Ferrua, Tombe dei cristiani, pp. 309-310; Testini, Archeologia cristiana, p 325, note 4. Noy (JIWE 2, pp. 347-414) also places the Torlonia inscriptions in the third and fourth centuries.
- In a recent publication on the internet, "The Jewish Catacombs of Rome: A Study of the Differences Between the Monteverde and Vigna Randanini Catacombs," David Noy has stated that after analyzing the inscriptions in the two catacombs, he would date the Vigna Randanini inscriptions "primarily to the late second and third centuries and the Monteverde inscriptions primarily to the fourth".
- Testini, Cimiteri cristiani, pp. 193-194; A Silvagni, A. Ferrua, D. Mazzoleni, and C. Carletti, eds., Inscriptiones Christianae Urbis Romae septimo saeculo antiquiores (1922-), vols 1-11.
- For the questionable inscriptions, JIWE 2, Appendix 2, pp. 489-494.
- Rutgers, Jews of Late Ancient Rome, Appendix, pp. 269-272.
- De Rossi, Roma Sotterranea, pp. 87 ff., noted the similarities between Christian hypogea and those of polytheists and Jews; Morpurgo, p. 165, commented on the non-Christian origins of cemeteries like that of S. Gennaro at Naples, S. Giovanni in Syracuse (Sicily), and S. Antioco in Sulcis (Sardinia), where four Punic hypogea were reutilized; cf. M. Marinone, L. Pani Ermini, and R. Giordani, Dossiers de l'archeologie 19 (1976), p. 80, and see map in op. cit. 18 (1976), pp. 10-11.
- Frey, CIJ, pp. lxi-lxii.