Why “Catacombs”?

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

The term "catacombs" used to name a network of subterranean burial grounds has been widely accepted as being derived from the Greek "kata kumbas" ( = Latin, "ad catacumbas," or "near the hollows"). The expression originally may have been a topographical reference to a necropolis between the second and third milestones of the Appian Way in Rome. This burying ground that dates from at least the first century CE lay in a deep hollow, marked by the cliffs of a quarry for pozzolana that had been left partly open to the sky and partly dug as a tunnel underground, providing space for various types of burials.[i] In the second half of the third century CE when, according to Pasquale Testini, the site could have been "penetrated" by Christianity, it became a center of veneration of the apostles Peter and Paul, believed to have been translated to that location from the Vatican and Ostia burying grounds during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Valerian.[ii]

In the fourth century, a church was built over this cemetery as a memorial or sanctuary for the cult of the two saints, and known in contemporary sources as the Basilica Apostolorum.[iii] When the remains of St. Sebastian were buried in the crypt below this church, it was renamed for him, and the cemetery itself continued to be visited by pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. The site's continued accessibility over the centuries, and special sanctity as a memory to Saints Peter and Paul, is likely what led to the term catacomb's being applied to all such subterranean cemeteries, private or communal.

The names of the Jewish catacombs in Rome and a number of the Christian sites are, in the manner of the word catacomb, derive from modern toponyms, like streets or property owners. Their original owners have not yet been identified in literary or archaeological sources. Other catacombs, however, like those of Priscilla, Domitilla, and Praetextatus, are traditionally thought to have been named after affluent Roman individuals who had made their estates available to Christians for burial places from which the catacombs were later developed. After the onset of the fourth century, many burial grounds popular with Christians received the names of martyrs entombed within them.[iv] Martyr cults were popular from the fourth century on, reminiscent of the hero cults of more ancient times. The building of martyrial shrines and cemetery basilicas led to an increase in the density of burials in some areas of the Christian catacombs at that time because of the desire of the faithful to be buried in protected places, ad corpus, near martyrs' tombs.

The devotion to the memory of the Christian martyrs, as well as the impression made by the catacombs on the sensibilities of the Christians of the late fourth-century Rome, were expressed in the words of the scholar (and later saint) Jerome (ca. 350-420):

"When I was a youth at Rome, studying liberal arts, it was my custom on Sundays… to visit the sepulchers of the apostles and martyrs. And often did I enter the crypts, dug in the depths of the earth, with their walls on either side lined with the bodies of the dead, where the darkness was such the psalmist's words were fulfilled: 'Let them go down quick (alive) into hell'. Here and there a ray of light... filtering down as in a funnel relieves the horror of the darkness. But again, cautiously moving forward, the impenetrable night engulfed me, and I was reminded of the words of Virgil: 'Everywhere dread fills the soul; the very silence dismays."[v]

[i] P. Pergola, Le catacombe romane, Rome: Carocci, 1998, pp. 22; 181-185. A theory of Fr. Ferrua was that the site may have received its name from a signboard of a nearby in called "Ad Cumbas" ("near the small boats") or a relief depicting two or more little boats: A. Ferrua, The Basilica and Catacombs of Saint Sebastian, Vatican City: Catacombe di Roma e d'Italia, 1978, p. 7.
[ii] P. Testini, Le catacombe e gli antichi cimiteri cristiani in Roma, Bologna: Cappelli, 1966, pp. 216-218; 221.
[iii] It is believed that the site "ad catacumbas" was associated with the apostles because during the persecutions of Valerian in 257 CE, their bodily remains were removed from the necropoleis on the Vatican Hill and via Ostiense, where they had been buried, and reburied at the via Appia site for safety. There are records of a celebration of their cult there on June 29, 258. In the fourth century, their bones were returned to their original graves: M. Guarducci, The tomb of St. Peter: the new discoveries in the sacred grottoes of the Vatican, Vatican City: Reverenda Fabbrica di San Pietro, 1960, pp. 25-26; Pergola, Le catacombe romane, pp. 184-185; J. Stevenson, The Catacombs: Life and Death in Early Christianity, Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1985, p. 32.
[iv] One notable exception to the above-described origins of catacomb names is that given to the cemetery of Callixtus, named for the site overseers, later pope: Stevenson, p. 25.
[v] J. N. D. Kelly, Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies, New. York: Harper & Row, 1975, p. 22; Ps. 55:15; Aeneid 2, 755.