The Catacombs of Rome
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• Did you know that the catacombs were not hiding places from the persecutions?
This general misconception began with 18th century romantic literature, most notably Quo Vadis. Many motion pictures helped to popularize this myth. The fact is that Roman law protected all underground cemeteries, and declared individual burial rights inviolable. The catacombs were places of burial and religious ceremonial commemoration of the dead, and not liveable hiding places from the persecutions.

History of the Catacombs

The Catacombs of Rome film documents the history of the ancient Christian Roman cemeteries. The history of the catacombs tells us much of the origins of Christianity in Rome, the city where Peter and Paul came to announce the Gospel of Jesus. The story of the catacombs is a fascinating journey from the its beginnings to the moments of splendor, from the periods of destruction and abandonement to those of rediscovery.

Study Guide

When were the catacombs built?

Underground burial was common practice among ancient Mediterranean cultures, and therefore we find underground burial tunnels in Egypt, Greece and many other Mediterranean lands. In Rome for example, a pagan ipogea was discovered dating back to the Etruscan period. When christianity was being preached in Rome by Peter and Paul, there already existed pagan and Jewish catacombs. They were all considered sacred and protected by Roman law.

Many of the christian cataombs were built upon the already existing complexes. As the christian community grew, new christian catacombs were founded, while the older ones were greatly expanded. Over 60 catacombs have been discovered beneath Rome, with approximately one million christian tombs. And this accounts only for the excavations completed to date.

The christians did not live in the catacombs. While it can not be exluded that some christians could have sought temporary refuge during a fierce persecution, scholars agree that the catacombs were not hiding places. The Romans knew were the catacombs were, and these burial sites were actually protected by Roman law. The right to burial was sacred and invioable. Even slaves, who never enjoyed any rights during their lifetime, were guaranteed the right to a dignified burial.

The catacombs continued to be burial places up to the 5th century. The early christians would also pray in the catacombs and have religious ceremonies for their departed loved ones. Prior to the Edict of Milan (313 AD), which the emperor Constantine promulgated in order to promote the recognition of christianity, many of the religious ceremonies were held in homes, and some in the catacombs. Crypts and tombs of martyrs were spread throughout the catacombs, and there was great veneration for these holy places on the part of the christian community.

Under the emperor Constantine, christian churches and basilicas began to be built throughout the city of Rome. The persecutions, which had begun under Nero, and continued at intermittent periods, came to and end with the Edict of Milan. The blood of the countless christian martyrs was the foundation upon which the faith had survived.

The Crypt of the Popes, in the catacombs of Saint Callixtus, is one of the most important historical monuments discovered in the catacombs. The story of the crypt illustrates the complete history of the catacombs in general.



Last Update:   19/VIII/2000       Web Site Design:   Ars Mar Film       Webauthor: M.J. Maresca
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