Early Burial Arrangements in Ancient Rome

Above or near the site of the cemetery of Domitilla on the via Ardeatina, pagan, Christian and possibly Jewish burials were in close proximity to each other (1).  The pagan burial places included columbaria and a number of sumptuous mausolea.  Father Ferrua believed that the pagan sepulchers existed here from the first to at least the third century CE, and commented that the occasional Christian tomb is found in pagan sepulchers everywhere.  Ferrua saw no difficulty for the peaceful coexistence of pagan and Christian burials before "the Christians became the actual proprietors of all the terrain above the catacomb... perhaps at a much later time" (2).  The attitude of this 20th century archaeologist and epigrapher is far different from that of Antonio Bosio, more than 350 years years earlier, when he reported on his startling discovery of the Jewish catacomb of Monteverde.  Bosio assured his readers that it was necessary to include a description of this cemetery in the same publication with Christian catacombs, but so as not to mix profane things with the sacred, he would relegate the account of the Jewish catacomb to a separate chapter, wanting to make clear that "... our (Christian) cemeteries have never been profaned or contaminated by the bodies of either Hebrews or Gentiles (pagans)" (2).  Yet, as Rutgers has observed, in the light of the prevailing religious climate of his time, Bosio's attitude toward the Jewish antiquities was singularly objective and non-pejorative (3).

Pagan and Christian burials in the same area also occurred above other catacombs until the sites became Church domain, particularly the catacombs of Callisto and S. Sebastiano.  Above the S. Sebastiano catacomb, Father Ferrua found "the most magnificent Christian mausolea" of the fourth century built among and above second to fourth century pagan mausolea, even destroying some of them in the building process.  In the construction of the access stairway to the catacomb, parts of a late first-century mausoleum and a columbaria were disturbed and utilized (5).  A situation comparable to that of many Christian catacombs was found in the Vigna Randanini area, where pagan sepulchers, including columbaria, were situated near the Jewish underground cemetery (6).

Mixed burials must have been true also of the catacomb of Pretestato, to judge from its monumental ruins and lavish late second to third century sarcophagi.  Located near the Vigna Randanini catacomb, the Pretestato cemetery was thought to have been connected to the sumptuous estate of Herodes Atticus (7).

  1. An inscription (JIWE 2, n. 536) was uncovered in 1820 during excavations above the Domitilla catacomb: Frey identified it as Jewish (CIJ 1, pp. 201-202) because of the closing phrase, "in peace your sleep," but Ferrua believed it to be Christian.  Noy's opinion is that the wording is appropriate for either sect (JIWE 2, p. 420).  On the other hand, in what Ferrua has determined a Christian region of the same sub divo cemetery, a sizable tombstone was found to a certain Bonifatia, inscribed with a dove and a large leaf and the expression "sleep among the good," which, Ferrua said, has a "distinctly Jewish flavor": "Il cimitero sopra la catacomba di Domitilla," Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 36 (1960), pp. 189-190, fig. 10.
  2. Ferrua,"Il cimitero sopra la catacomba di Domitilla," pp. 181, 185-186.
  3. A. Bosio, Roma Sotterranea (1632-34), p. 14.
  4. Rutgers, Cultural Interaction, pp. 9-10.
  5. A. Ferrua, "Due mausolei di pagani e cristiani presso San Sebastiano," in Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 28 (1952), pp. 40-41.  This entire area must have become Christian property during the first half of the fourth century (op. cit., pp. 17, 22-26).
  6. C. L. Visconti, "Scavi di Vigna Randanini," in Bullettino dell'Istituto di Corrispondenza Archeologica (1861), pp. 16-22; E. Herzog, "Le catacombe degli ebrei in Vigna Rondanini (sic)" in Bullettino dell'Istituto di Corrispondenza Archeologica (1861), p. 91; R. Garrucci, Cimitero degli antichi ebrei scoperto recentemente in Vigna Randanini, Rome, 1862, p. 4.
  7. P. Testini, Le catacombe e gli antichi cimiteri cristiani in Roma, 1966, p. 60.