With the wishes to stay closer even after death because of the tortures and the hatred that they were facing, the Christians in Rome constructed the Catacombs of Rome. They believed in resurrection because Christ came back to life after he was buried thus they believed in their faith to get buried after death. Hundreds of Christians were buried in this underground cemetery that looked like a dormitory.

What lead to the construction of Catacombs of Rome?

When it was the middle of 3rd century, in Rome, Christian communities were considered as enemies of the Romans. Their growing popularity and numbers worried the Emperor Decius, thus he proclaimed all Christians to sacrifice themselves to the Roman god. The bishops were forced to change their beliefs and later the common people. In case anyone refused to follow, they would be martyred. Such enforcements united and strengthened the churches to stand against the Roman government. It was also in the same time that the Christians decided to bury the deceased bodies rather than cremating it like the pagan Romans, but the lands were expensive and most of the Christians were poor. It was only few of the Christians who managed to bury the corpse of their relatives in their land. Then, because of the persecution of Decius, the dead bodies of martyrs increased but they had no land to bury them. Thus they started digging up for cemeteries underground and buried the martyrs. Thus the Catacombs of Rome were built.

What are the features of catacombs?

Catacombs are like colonies of ants. There are numerous cavities, underground, in the catacombs. As you get down the cemeteries with the help of a ladder, there are walking paths just like aisles and are known as ‘galleries’ (as in mines). On either side of the galleries are the ‘loculi’- the cavities. It is in these cavities that the dead bodies were buried. The Christians had dug for very long catacombs which have miles of length with galleries that have five layers of cavities. There were two reasons for having more number of layers inside the catacombs; one was to utilise the available area optimally and other was to have their bodies closer to their saints and martyrs buried in the catacombs.

What kind of locations were chosen for the construction of catacombs?

Since, during the ancient times in Rome, it was not allowed to bury anybody inside the walls of Roman Empire, these catacombs were constructed outside the city. The locations for the catacombs were chosen from the central and southern part of Italy. These locations had a peculiar geology. They were soft volcanic rocks which remained soft till it was not disturbed and covered with dirt and earth. As soon as the rocks were dug up and it got exposed to air, it hardened. This characteristic made the rocks remain stable even after digging in and kept the catacomb stable.

What kinds of artistic work do the catacombs consist of?

The catacombs have various symbols carved on the walls depicting the Christians’ faith which they could not openly express during the times when they were built. It was so, because they were persecuted or imprisonment for following Christianity because it was considered to be an illegal belief to be followed. Thus, the symbols were carved on the marble slabs of the walls. Some of the major symbols are as follows:

  • The Good Shepherd: It was the image of a shepherd with a lamb, who he saved, around his shoulder. The shepherd represented Christ and the lamb is the soul he saved.

  • The Orante: It is a figure with open arms that displayed prayer.

  • The monogram of Christ: This is a symbol made by connecting the first two letters of Greek word, ‘Christos’ which meant ‘Christ’, ‘chi’ and ‘ro’. It was believed that if any tomb had this symbol then it meant the burial of a Christian.

  • The fish, dove and anchor: These symbols had their own significance; fish indicated Christ, dove signified peace and anchor denoted the firmness of their faith.

  • The Alpha and the Omega: These are the first and last letters of Greek alphabet and it signified that Christ is the beginning and end of all things.

  • The phoenix: This Arabian bird was believed to arise from its ashes after thousand years and its symbol on the walls represented their faith upon resurrection of the dead bodies.

What are the different Catacombs of Rome?

There had been a number of catacombs around the city of Rome. Some of the major ones are:

  • The Catacombs of San Callisto

  • The Catacombs of San Sebastian

  • The Catacombs of Praetextatus

  • The Jewish Catacombs of the Villa of Torlonia

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