Possible Antecedents for the Roman Catacombs

Early catacomb explorers earnestly sought answers to the questions about the catacombs' origins. Antonio Bosio wrote that the Christians deposited their deceased in subterranean chambers  in imitation of the ancient Jewish patriarchs, who hewed their tombs out of rock in caves and caverns.  But, as Rutgers noted, Bosio did not discuss any parallel between the Christian catacombs and the Jewish catacombs he had discovered, he said merely that "the Christians constructed catacombs because they could not fabricate monuments and conspicuous sepulchers in public places" (1).

In 1844, Father Giuseppe Marchi, SJ, referred to the Monteverde catacomb, the only Jewish cemetery documented up to his time, as the model to which the Christians of Rome conformed in creating their subterranean cemeteries (2).  G. B. de Rossi, drawing mainly on early Christian sources, affirmed this "probable genesis of the Christian cemetery," stating further that "the Church, issuing from the breast of the synagogue, carried with it many rites and customs of Judaism."  Though de Rossi saw a common prototype for the burial grounds of both religions in the "sepulchral crypts of Palestine," he attributed the development of the twisting, grave-lined underground "streets" to the close ties among the Jews and Christians of Rome, who were both living in the heart of metropolitan paganism where they underlying volcanic rock was "most opportune for the excavation of such subterranean cemeteries" (3).

The archaeologist Orazio Marucchi, a disciple of de Rossi, also believed that the Jewish and Christian catacombs "derive from a common prototype... the very ancient tombs of the Jews carved in the rocks where the patriarchs, kings and prophets had burials, and where in accordance with Jewish ritual was deposited the very holy body of the Redeemer" (4).

The antecedents for subterranean burial chambers, however, may not have been so geographically specific, since interment in caves and other underground burial sites had been common throughout the Mediterranean world from prehistoric times, with variations because of the nature of the local soil or stone, and for expediency.  Caves or "artificial grottoes" with benches and ossuaries for the deposit of bones of a single family as well as for those of larger groups have been dated to 3400-3100 BCE at Azor and B'nai Brak in Israel (5).

During the First Temple period in Jerusalem (eighth and seventh centuries BCE), oblong burial chambers were hewn with stone benches along three walls.  Individual tombs evolved eventually into multi-chambered sepulchers off an anteroom that was entered by way of a portico or a stairway descending from an open court at ground level.  During the Second Temple period (first century BCE to first century CE), more burial space was created when arched niches (arcosolia), rectangular, shelf-like niches (loculi), and niches perpendicular to the wall surface (kokhim), were carved into the walls, becoming typical of burial chambers of that period (6).

There are models and counterparts for the Roman catacombs in other ancient Mediterranean sites.  The house-like plan of Alexandrian underground tombs in Egypt presaged the basic general features of catacombs, with stairways, courts, and light wells.  Often disposed axially in the underground cemeteries were the ritual rooms and chambers furnished with klinai (couches like those arranged for Greek and Roman dining or symposia, sarcophagi, and kokhim (7).  

Unlike the Alexandrian tombs and their chambers with burial niches hewn perpendicularly into the walls.  the Roman catacombs were usually laid out in long galleries containing many rectangular grave niches (loculi) that generally extend horizontally along the walls.  Of the Roman Jewish catacombs, only the Randanini catacomb contained kokhim.

In Syria, underground chambers and galleries of the first to third centuries CE have been found at Palmyra.  The hypogaea there were complex and extravagant like those at Alexandria.  Along with sarcophagi, also arranged in a U-shape like the couches in a triclinium, some chambers contained loculi sealed with slabs decorated with portrait busts.

The epigraphy in the Palmyrene chambers was in Greek or Palmyrene Aramaic, recording names and documenting the original ownership of the burial spaces as well as the transferences of ownership either to members of the family or by commercial scale.  A sepulcher apparently built for speculation and called by the name of the "Three Brothers" resembled a large-scale modern real estate operation.  This monumental hypogaeum held as many as three hundred and ninety graves accommodated by the superimposition of six sarcophagi in each of the sixty-five burial niches (8).  Were it not for the prevalence of the kokh, the architecture of such tombs would appear to resemble  that of the catacombs of Rome.  The Palmyrene hypogaea were embellished with painted themes which also appear in the iconography of the Roman catacombs, such as the Rape of Ganymede, or Victories perched on globes and holding medallions (clipaea), which enclosed, portraits, likely those of the departed.

Kokh graves began to appear in family burial chambers in Palestine in the late third to early second century BCE, and became the conventional type of monumental Jewish burial in the Hasmonean and Herodian periods (152 BCE - 70 CE).  They were the oldest type of grave in the Beth She'arim necropolis, which was more or less contemporaneous with the Roman catacombs (9).

A number of Palmyrene Jews were buried in Beth She'arim in catacombs 1, 3 and 4.  Many had been brought there in coffins and appear to have been of higher social standing and greater means than the Jews buried in the catacombs in Rome.  Often, along with traditional Jewish motifs, unexpected images were found at the Palmyrene graves.  Among them was the only representation of Daniel in the Lion's Den found in a funerary context of this period outside of the Christian catacombs.

The use of the kokh in Jewish burials in Palestine was often related to the rite of gathering bone for secondary burial, known as ossilegium.  Adding connecting chambers to an already existing kokh fostered the early development of more extended burial network, though not, properly speaking, a catacomb in the Roman sense.

Precedents for the Roman catacombs lay closer to Rome.  At some Etruscan sites, such as Cerveteri, ample chambers were hollowed out to resemble the funished rooms of a house.  The Tomb of the Reliefs (late fourth to early third century BCE), was fitted with carved beds in the niches, arranged with thick pillows of stone.  Painted stucco reliefs simulating architectural elements and the many and varied accoutrements of daily life were set on the walls and pillars of the tomb (10).

Close to the heart of Rome on the via di Porta di San Sebastiano are rock-cut tombs like that of the Cornelii Scipiones, containing niches or loculi large enough to hold sarcophagi.  Nikolaus Muller was reminded of the Cornelii Scipiones tomb and other hypogea of that type when he saw the Monteverde catacomb's "grotto" with its "recessed annexes" (11).

  1. A. Bosio, Roma Sotterranea, p. 2; Rutgers, Cultural Interaction, pp. 11-12.
  2. G. Marchi, Monumenti delle arti cristiane primitive nella metropoli del cristianesimo, Rome, 1844, pp. 20-21; paraphrased by de Rossi in the Roma Sotterranea Cristiana 1, p. 90.
  3. De Rossi stated that in addition to the precursive tombs of Palestine, burial chambers in Phoenicia, Asia Minor, Charsonese (Thrace), Carthage, Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, and Etruria, as well as the Faliscian tombs, are of the "type (that) is exactly that of the cubicula of the Roman catacombs": Roma Sotterranea Cristiana 1, pp. 87, 90.
  4. O. Marucchi, via Labicana, pp. 511-512.
  5. J. Perrot, "Une Tombe a ossuaires du Ive mille'naire a Azor pres de Tel Aviv," 'Atiqot, English series 3 (1961), pp. 3-7; 24-28.
  6. Cf. L. Ritmeyer and K. Ritmeyer, "Akeldama: Potter's Field or High Priest's Tomb?" in Biblical Archaeology Review 20:6 (November/December 1994), pp. 27, 29, 30 (illustr.).  For further description of tomb types, see section 4, below.
  7. Kurtz and Boardman, pp. 274-285, 303-304, pls. 80-82.
  8. Toynbee, pp. 223-227; Les Annales archéologiques de Syrie 11-12 (1961-1962), pp. 13-18, pls. 1-16; H. Leclerq, Manuel d'archéologie chrétienne depuis les origines jusqu'au VIIIe siècle 1 (1907), pp. 516-518, fig. 145.  Leclerq claimed the Three Brothers hypogaeum was Jewish, using as supporting evidence that one of the portraits there bore the name of Abraham.
  9. Beth She'arim 1, p. 77, pl. 9.3.  
  10. M. Spenger, G. Bartolini, The Etruscans (English translation by R. E. Wolf), New York: Abrams, 1983, pp. 50, 51, 53, figs. 19, 21, pl. 225 (lower); M. Pallottino, The Etruscans (English translation by J. Remona), London: Penguin, 1975, p. 17, pl. 82; pp. 289-290, note 82.
  11. N. Muller, Il Cimitero, pp. 221, 223-224, 302.  He saw a resemblance also to sepulchers of this type in the Jewish hypogea near Syracuse in Sicily and at Sant'Antioco in Sardinia.