Jewish Catacombs of Rome

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.

The Monteverde catacomb, the first Jewish catacomb to be rediscovered, has been considered by some the oldest, and perhaps the largest, of the Jewish catacombs of Rome.  The layout of this catacomb that its explorers were able to observe, and the numerous blocked corridors encountered, suggested that it extended far beyond the areas they could enter.  With so much of the cemetery left unexplored, the true extent and history of the Monteverde site can never be known and its dating will probably never be certain.  The conclusions about its age were based in part on some structural features, including tomb types and a lack of paintings.  Many inscriptions, brick-stamps, and other artifacts survive from the site, as well as the drawings and descriptions of its early explorers and those who were able to dig in the site in the early twentieth century.  Despite all the finds, however, there is little indisputable evidence on which to form a chronology of its beginnings and development (1).  

In the course of 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 (2).  The Monteverde catacomb offered the greatest number of stamps and seemed to encompass the broadest time-span.  A number of the stamps were thought to belong to the first century CE, with a few, apparently, even earlier (3), so it was presumed that the earliest burials in the Monteverde catacomb antedated those of the other Jewish catacombs in Rome.  But since the largest number of brick stamps belonged to the second century and the beginning of the third, those years were thought to have been the period of the most intense use of the site.

The earliest use of the Monteverde cemetery may, indeed, have antedated the documentation found in the areas where exploration was possible, but in David Noy's compilation of the Jewish inscriptions of Rome, he concluded that the Monteverde inscriptions of secure provenance are mainly from the third and fourth centuries, although he conceded that a few might be earlier.  His conclusion corrobates the opinions of Leonard Rutgers and Fr. Ferrua (whom Noy cited), that the Monteverde brick stamps are mainly from the third century, with some from the fourth (4).

In the Vigna Randanini catacomb, two connected painted chambers, were ascribed by Frey to the second or third century (5).  But Testini has noted that these rooms may not have been part of the original catacomb, and their construction, decoration, and use would therefore not indicate the period of Jewish occupancy.  Testini identified some motifs from the cemetery as belonging to the common Hellenistic tradition, but he observed that the purely Jewish motifs, such as the seven-branched candlestick, the lulab, shofar, and "palms which allude to Palestine," could not have been painted there before the third century (7).

In Rutger's opinion, only the decoration of one of the rooms in the Vigna Randanini catacomb can be considered "explicitly Jewish."  In the chamber Goodenough called "Room IV", there is a menorah painted above an arcosolium opposite the entrance, and on the ceiling are leaf-like shapes that to Rutgers seemed like ethrogim (8).  The painting in this room is far simpler and less accomplished than the decoration in the other three painted rooms in what is accessible of the Vigna Randanini complex today, which are painted in a style widely used by Romans in the late Imperial period (9).  

In 1919, Roberto Paribeni, then Director of the National Archaeological Museum of Rome, studied the earliest excavations of the two Jewish catacombs beneath the grounds of the Villa Torlonia.  He assigned them a chronology beginning in the second or third century (10).  But Fr. Umberto M. Fasola, B., who conducted further excavations in the site in 1973-1974, stated that the tombs in these two cemeteries, particularly those in the upper catacomb, were hewn well into the fourth century, allowing for a development period of at least two centuries.  Recognizing the difficulty of fixing a precise chronology, Fasola used a "relative chronology" based on masonry styles.  He determined 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," based on similar examples of the style of masonry used in this passageway are found in second century structures such as those in the Vatican necropolis.  Known as opus vittatum, the masonry is laid in horizontal bands in which two strips of tuff alternate with one strip of bricks.  The whole surface is then covered in plaster.  In the Torlonia cemetery, the opus vittatum began at the external ramp and continued without interruption to the interior catacomb and into the area of the light well over the descending passage to the galleries.  Because of the continuity of the masonry and plaster, Fasola asserted that this area was not a previously-constructed small monument that was readapted, but planned form the start as the entry-way to these galleries (11).

Fasola found the upper Torlonia catacomb to be the later of the two, and dated it to at least the third century, not only because of brick stamps establishing a terminus post quem, but also because he believed the painting style in the upper catacomb, especially that in the vault of the only decorated chamber in the two catacombs, supported a date of about the mid-third century CE, a date to which Testini concurred (12).  After a 1997 study of the paintings, however, Rutgers has proposed a later date to about the middle of the fourth century (13).

Fr. Antonio Ferrua, SJ, a specialist in early Christian epigraphy, found that while a good number of the inscriptions in Torlonia indicated a date of the third century, a "greater part (came from) the fourth century or even later."  Testini declared that he saw in the epigraphy of the Jewish catacombs "characteristics prevalent in the fourth and fifth centuries" (14).

In an effort to estimate the number of Jewish and Christian burials, scholars have counted and studied inscriptions.  But the number of inscriptions known to us is affected not only by the chanciness of excavation, but also by vandalism.  In the six documented Jewish catacombs, about 537 inscriptions have been uncovered up to this time.  In his corpus of Jewish inscriptions from the city of Rome, David Noy has included 529 from the Monteverde, Randanini, Torlonia, Vigna Cimarra, and Via Labicana catacombs as Jewish.  He included seven other inscriptions from Monteverde and Randanini as possibly Jewish but questionable, because each begins with the Latin formula "D M" (Dis Manibus), a formula common on pagan tombstones as a protective invocation to the spirits of the underworld.  Noy noted that the formula had been found in epitaphs in the Christian catacombs, but its appearance in that context probably indicates that the formula had been inscribed in a Roman workshop before the stone was bought by a specific client (15).

Rutgers stated that in the Jewish catacombs, a stone carrying the formula might be intrusive, reused to carry a Jewish inscription on the other side, or, often, to serve as a grave closure without being reworked with a new text. He pointed out that D.M. never appears in the graffiti or dipinti inscribed on tombs by the Jews themselves and that "typically Jewish information" has not been found in the D. M. inscriptions (16).

In addition to the problem of of estimating the physical extent of the catacombs and their dating, it is also difficult to determine the ownership of small catacombs or hypogea or the religious beliefs of their occupants, because of the mingling of religious expressions and the blurring of religious boundaries even within one catacomb or hypogeum (17).  Isolated Jewish hypogea have been reported in the Monteverde area and close to the San Sebastiano catacomb (18).  As matters stand, only four Jewish catacomb sites are accessible at present: under the Vigna Randanini and Vigna Cimarra on the via Appia, and the two under the Villa Torlonia.  

  1. Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum 1, pp. 9-11 (Torlonia); p. 55 (Randanini); pp. 212-227 (Monteverde).
  2. H. J. Leon assigned a possible date of the first century BCE to the original use of the Monteverde cemetery by Jews, the earliest date proposed for any Jewish cataocmb in Rome: Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 66.  But, as Rutgers has noted, the use of brick stamps did not begin until the reign of Augustus: Rutgers, p.  
  3. Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe 2, pp. 3-5.
  4. E. R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, New York: Pantheon Books, 1953-68, vol. 2, pp. 14-33; vol, 3, figs. 737-762.
  5. Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum, p. 
  6. Testini, Archeologia cristiana, p. 325.
  7. Rutgers, Cultural Interaction, pp. 73-74; he noted that the ceiling in the chamber with painted palm trees at the corners had been removed in antiquity to make room for additional loculi higher up on the walls.
  8. The small catacombs on the via Labicana (now via Casilina) and Vigna Cimarra are considered to be Jewish because of motifs recorded in the via Labicana site and inscriptios found in that of Vigna Cimarrra.  Rutgers and Noy believe them to be more or less of the same date as the larger Jewish cemeteries: Rutgers, Cultural Interaction, pp. 97-98; Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe 2, pp. 332, 338.
  9. R. Paribeni, "Catacomba giudaica sulla via Nomentana," Notizie degli Scavi d' Antichita' (1920), p. 154.
  10. Fasola, "Torlonia," pp. 41, 62, note 42.  For somewhat similar chronological information on the Vatican necroopolis, 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 more 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.
  11. Fasola, Torlonia, p. 62; Testini, Archeologia cristiana, p. 325.
  12. L. V. Rugters, "Archaeological Evidence for the Interaction of Jews and Non-Jews in Late Antiquity," American Journal of Archaeology 96 (1992), p. 107; see also Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe 2, p. 343
  13. A. Ferrua, Tomba dei cristiani, pp. 309-310; Testini, Archeologia cristiana, p. 325, note 4.  Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe 2 also places the Torlonia inscriptions in the third and fourth centuries.
  14. For the questionable inscriptions, see Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe 2, Appendix 2, pp. 489-494.
  15. Rutgers, Cultural Interaction, Appendix, pp. 269-272.
  16. Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum 1, pp. lxi-lxii.