View Article: Enter into the underground...
University of Washington Honors Program in Rome

Enter into the underground...
Section One 1 of 7

Pliny the Younger
Renaissance statue of Pliny the Younger.
Emperor Decius
Emperor Decius persecuted Christians to please the Roman gods, to restore order, and to rescue the Empire from economic ruin
Emperor Diocletian's persecutions
An illustration by Elisabeth Jvanovsky depicting Diocletian persecuting the Christians.
Statue of Emperor Constantine
Arch of Constantine
The Arch of Constantine was dedicated in AD 315 to honor Constantine's victory over Maxentius in the Battle of the Mulvian Bridge.
Enter into the underground. Indulge yourself in the creation of a new religion, in the makings of history itself. Over six million burial sites, including sixty catacombs, are scattered across the Roman world; six million small glimpses into early Christianity. How did the Roman Empire switch so drastically from a land of tolerant, polytheistic paganism to the thriving center of Roman Catholicism? How did Christianity, a quiet and newly emerging cult in the second century survive the clash of religious beliefs and triumph over all, becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire?

The Rise of Christianity:

Up until and during the rule of Caesar, the Roman Empire was overwhelmingly pagan and polytheistic. The pagan views were tolerant of other believers’ gods as there could be a god for anything. The Roman Empire was also tolerant of the beliefs of the people as long as everyone performed their civic duty to sacrifice to the gods and to the emperor. No one took much notice of what the people truly believed and if the people of Rome had true faith in their gods.

Through the first century, Christianity had been considered a bizarre sect of Judaism. To Romans, religion was ancient. During this time, Christianity was nothing but new, and thus, pagan and Jewish Romans refused to recognize Christianity as its own religion. Instead, it was considered nothing but superstition, and superstitions were to be avoided.

Following their beliefs, early Christians refused to sacrifice and worship the Roman gods and emperor, as they chose to worship their only god. This was not acceptable to the Roman emperor, as such Christians were criminals for not paying homage to him. In AD 112, Pliny the Younger, a respected official of the Roman province of Bithynia, wrote a letter to the Roman emperor as to how he should punish Christians. Pliny witnessed that the Christians brought before him seemed to be harmless, kind people; yet he felt obligated to execute those who insisted on remaining Christian, even after he warned them. Those who did deny they were Christians, he discharged. The emperor replied that Pliny should not hunt out the Christians, but that he would still have to deal with those who were accused as Christians. Even if the accused were Christian, the emperor said they should be released if they agreed to stop. Such events took place throughout the Roman Empire as officials were perplexed by the harmless ways of the Christians. The historical significance of Pliny the Younger is the recognition by Pliny and the emperor that Christians were a separate group, no longer lumped together with Jews.

Because Judaism had existed in Rome for years, Jews had a legal agreement with the Empire that Jews were exempt from participating in the civic pagan rituals. Now that Christians were no longer considered a direct sect of Judaism, their lack of participation in public sacrifices, rituals, and festivals made them seem antisocial and a threat to the Roman gods and the Empire itself. Christianity conflicted with the tolerant ways of Paganism as its members were forbidden to worship anything but the one Christian God. Michael White, in his discussion of the absence of Christians in the Roman world, writes: "With a few key exceptions, this is where the Christians become more noticeable to their pagan neighbors. They don't go to the temples. On important feast days when it would be customary to offer sacrifices on behalf of the health of the emperor and on behalf of the health of the state. The Christians probably would have viewed these ritual performances as incompatible with their belief in the one true God. So Christians would have been on those occasions conspicuous by their absence." Although Christians did not participate in many of the public rituals of Rome, they were typically law-abiding, good citizens, creating a confusing contradiction, as witnessed by Pliny the Younger.

As Christianity became more popular, Christians became more conspicuously absent from the public religious sphere. In time, they became the scapegoat for all things bad; because they did not perform their civic duty of worshiping the Roman gods, they were blamed for everything from plagues to drought to bad crops. It was to the point, in the second century, that Christians were forced to either sacrifice to the emperor or sacrifice their lives. During this time of persecution, arenas like the Colosseum, which were once used to execute convicted criminals, were now used to torture and execute convicted Christians.

During this time, institutions began developing in some churches across Rome. In AD 250, the Christian religion had grown so large that they needed widespread organization. As this new religion grew, Roman rulers felt their power slipping away. Emperor Decius felt that Christianity was a threat to the Empire and made the decision that Christians must be dealt with in a large-scale effort. Anyone accused of being Christian was imprisoned. Anyone who performed public sacrifices was given a Chit, a ticket as supposed proof of being non-Christian. In AD 300, Emperor Diocletian tried to get all Christian high officials out of office, but failed because Christians were some of the few who could read, due to the Bible. In the late 3rd century, the numbers of Christians had risen so high that it was impossible to eradicate them.

The early 4th century marked a dramatic shift for the Roman Empire and for the history of Christianity. It was during this time that Roman General Constantine, born in 285, the sun-worshiping head of an army, had a vision that a cross appeared on the sun with an inscription saying “By this, conquer.” Following his vision, Constantine entered the Battle of the Mulvian Bridge with a cross painted on each soldier’s shield, won the battle, and became emperor. Having won victory using Jesus’ name, Constantine, in partnership with Emperor Licinius of the eastern provinces, granted freedom to all Christians in 313 and returned the property and worshiping rights taken from them during the persecutions. He then gave governmental funds and support to the Christians for the building of churches and basilicas and for the copying of scriptures. Christians worshiped freely with the support of the new emperor and Christianity became part of Imperial Rome and the politics of the Empire. Due to the deep pagan roots of Rome, Constantine could not fully convert Rome to Christianity, so he moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium, which became known as Constantinople.

During his rule, Constantine called for unity in Christian teaching and beliefs; he persecuted those with differing beliefs. By starting one single unified church, the Christian Church officially became a partner with the Roman Empire.

The history of the catacombs themselves is included in the following section (II).
Section Two 2 of 7

The Entrance into the Catacomb of Priscilla
Enter into the underground...
The entrance into one of the galleries
A gallery within the catacombs
Look closely to see the hollowed-out niches in the walls of the gallery. These are the loculi.
The Cubicle of the Good Shepherd and the Velata
The Good Shepherd is at the very top of the photo, the Valata, a woman with outstretched arms, is in the middle of the photo beneath the Good Shepherd.
The Velata, up close and personal
Good Shepherd close-up, 3rd Century
'Virgin and Christ Child and Prophet'
The first known image of the Madonna
The Greek Chapel
The Banquet Scene of the 'Fractio Panis,' the Breaking of the Bread
late 2nd century
The Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace
The Catacombs:

Early Christians knew catacombs as coemeteria – places of repose – originating from the Latin expression ad Catacumbas. This in turn comes from the Greek phrase kata kumbas, “at the hollows,” a suitable expression for underground cemeteries.

The early Christians, just as their pagan predecessors, regarded the burial of the dead as a tremendously important deed. Originally, when there were few Christians, the burial of Christians took place in pagan cemeteries. Later on, Christian cemeteries were constructed on the properties of prominent and wealthy Christians, or land offered by other wealthy Romans. In the beginning of the second century, due to grants and donations, Christians began to bury their dead underground. Many of the catacombs started and developed near family tombs, whose newly-converted owners but opened them to their fellow Christians. Burials were often performed by family members and servants, but as the numbers of Christians increased, burials were hired out to professionals called fossores, or diggers. Fossores performed many tasks, from the preparation of surface graves to the excavation and decoration of the catacombs. Early in the third century, the Church took charge over the burial places of Rome.

Aboveground cemeteries were also popular during this time in Rome, but for many reasons, Christians preferred underground cemeteries. Mostly, Christians preferred burial because Christ was buried, as opposed to the pagan ritual of cremation which they felt disrespected the dead. As Christians grew in numbers, the space available for aboveground burial would have been quickly exhausted if they had not used the catacombs since Christians did not own enough land for all of the burials. The catacombs were the solution to this problem. They were economical, safe and practical. It turned out to be cheaper to dig underground than to buy large pieces of land in the open. As the early Christians were predominantly poor, this was the solution to their problems. Other such reasons for burying their dead underground in tombs were influenced by the sense of community felt by the Christians. In the catacombs, they felt they could be together even in the “sleep of death.” Not only were the catacombs used as burial grounds, they were well-suited for community meetings and “free displaying of Christian symbols” as they were out-of-the-way places, especially during the Christian persecutions.

Near the year AD 150, hundreds of years of development began on the long series of Christian catacombs. This idea of an underground tomb chamber was not necessarily unique, as such chambers had been constructed years before. Other such catacombs had been constructed long before, in the fourth and third centuries BC, by non-Christians in Anzio and in North Africa.

During the construction of the Christian catacombs, Roman law forbade the burial of the dead within the city walls. Because of this, all catacombs are located beyond the city walls.

Physical description:

The catacombs are a series of underground tunnels that form a labyrinth that can reach several miles. The galleries of the Catacomb of Priscilla reach 13 kilometers. Catacomb galleries were cut into rows of narrow rectangular tombs, called ‘loculi’, of different sizes, each of which could hold one body. Sometimes, though, the remains of more than one body were found in one. The bodies were wrapped in a sheet, in imitation of Christ, and placed in the loculi. The loculi were then sealed with a slab of marble, tiles, or terracotta slabs. Most of these seals have disintegrated by present day. On the seal, sometimes the name of the deceased was engraved along with a Christian symbol. Between the loculi, one can see the small holes that held oil lamps that illuminated the gallery and perfume vases.

In addition to the loculi, other types of tombs were used in the catacombs: the arcosolium, the sarcophagus, the forma, the cubicula, and the crypt. The arcosolium, used in the third and forth centuries, was a larger tomb than the loculi and had an arch above it. The tomb covering was placed horizontally and was often used as the burial chamber for families. A sarcophagus is an inscripted stone or marble coffin. The forma is a tomb dug into the floor, commonly used near the martyrs’ tombs. The cubicula, meaning ‘bedrooms’, were small rooms with several loculi, used as family tombs. The cubicles and the arcosoliums were often adorned with frescoes of biblical scenes and themes of Baptism, Eucharist and Resurrection. The crypt is a larger room used as martyrs’ tombs and underground churches decorated with paintings and mosaics.

The fossores, gravediggers, dug each gallery by the dim light of lamps and used baskets and bags to haul the dirt away. The lucemaria, meaning ‘skylights’, were shafts that reached the surface opened in the vaults of crypts and cubicles. They were used to pass dirt out of the catacomb and served as a vent for air and light into the catacomb.

The Catacomb of Priscilla:

The Catacomb of Priscilla is one of the smaller catacombs of Rome, located beneath a villa once owned by the ancient Roman family Arcili, a family of which Saint Priscilla was once a member. Many popes were buried in the Catacomb of Priscilla because the catacombs of Saint Callistus were full.

The Cubicle of the Velata in the Catacomb of Priscilla is named after the fresco on the central wall depicting a woman in a tunic and veiled head with her arms outstretched in a prayer. On either side of this fresco are scenes showing significant moments in the life of the deceased. In the crown of the cubicle is a fresco of the Good Shepherd. This mid-third century painting depicts one of the most common themes in early Christian art: the Shepherd carrying a sheep. This theme arises from John 10:1-21, Luke 15:1-7 and 11-32. The shepherd is said to represent Jesus’ loving search for each child of God. In the depiction of the Good Shepherd in the Catacomb of Priscilla, the Shepherd holds a lost sheep upon his shoulders as two other sheep look on. This figure is part of a larger fresco of praying figures and the story of Jonah and the Whale.

Dating back to the third century, a fresco in a gallery in the Catacomb of Priscilla depicts the oldest known image of the Madonna. On the ceiling of the gallery, one can see another Good Shepherd, a symbol of Christ amongst trees. At the far right of this is an image of the Madonna and Child with a prophet pointing. Resources disagree as to what the prophet is pointing to; some say an apple in a tree, some say a star. The star is considered an allusion to the prophecy of Balaam: “A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel” (Num 24:15-17). Those who say the prophet points to an apple say that the apples in the tree are in the placement of the stars on Jesus’ birth and that the specific apple to which the prophet points is the Star of David.

The Greek Chapel, a Pompeian-style decorated chamber, has a unique architectural plan with three niches for sarcophagi and a long bench for visitors along the left wall. Many scenes depict themes from Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, along with Greco-roman mythology, that allude to the resurrection and immortality of the soul. Such symbols include the Phoenix and the personification of the four seasons. In the far arch of the chamber, one can see the Fractio Panis, ‘the Breaking of the Bread’. On the opposite side of the arch is Jesus calling Lazarus out from the tomb. Other symbols, like Noah and Moses, depict salvation through baptism, and others, like Daniel in the Lion’s Den and the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, depict salvation through divine intervention.
Section Three 3 of 7

The Good Shepherd, a common symbol
The "Orante" or "Orans"
The Valata discussed earlier is a symbol of the Orante. Above the Orante is a Peacock, another symbol used in early Christian imagery, symbolizing immortality. It is said that a peacock's skin remains forever.
The Monogram of Christ
Look closely to see the Greek letters X (chi) and P (ro).
The fish continues to be a popular symbol of Christ even today
The catacombs of Rome are the ancient pagan, Christian, and Jewish underground cemeteries. Originally, Christians were buried alongside non-Chrstians in the catacombs. The Christian catacombs date from the second to the fifth centuries AD. At first, the catacombs were merely burial places; places where Christians could meet to perform funeral rites and celebrate the anniversaries of the martyrs and the dead. During the persecutions for the third century, Christians used the catacombs as places of momentary refuge for the celebration of the Eucharist. Although it has been suggested that the catacombs were secret hiding places for Christian worship, this is merely a myth. Despite the large rooms and chambers of the catacombs, Christians did not use them to escape the persecutions aboveground; instead, such rooms were used to hold meals for the dead, a ceremony performed by both Christians and non-Christians of the time. Michael White, a professor at the University of Texas, writes, “So, we have to imagine as part of their daily life, as part of their regular activity, Christians, just like their pagan neighbors, going down into the catacombs to hold memorial meals with dead members of their families.”

As the early Christians were continuously persecuted, they began the use of symbols in order to express their faith without openly drawing attention to themselves. These symbols appear on the walls of the catacombs and are carved upon the slabs that seal the tombs. These symbols were carved and painted upon the walls of the catacombs for all visiting Christians to see and recognize as a sign of faith. A symbol is a concrete sign or figure that stands for an idea or a spiritual reality, a visible sign of something invisible. The main symbols are the Good Shepherd, the “Orante” or “Orans”, the monogram of Christ, and the fish. The Good Shepherd is a young man with a lamb around his shoulders who represents Christ and a soul that he has saved. The “orante” is a praying figure with open arms that signifies a soul that lives in divine peace. The monogram of Christ is formed by the first two letters of the Greek word “Chistos” or Christ: X (chi) and P (ro). When this monogram was inscribed on tombstones, it meant that Christians were buried there. The fish, a widespread symbol of Christ, often contains the Greek letters IXTHYS (ichtus). Written vertically, the letters form an acrostic meaning Iesus Chirstos Theou Uios Soter, meaning Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.

Other symbols used in the catacombs include the dove and an olive branch, symbolizing a soul that has reached divine peace, and the phoenix, a mythical Arabian bird, which, according to ancient beliefs, arises from its ashes after a thousand years. The phoenix is the symbol of the resurrection of the bodies. Overall, the symbols, along with the frescos depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments, “…form a miniature Gospel, a summary of the Christian faith.”

Although many of these symbols are seen as strictly Christian symbols today, they arose from pagan symbols that had existed in Rome before Christianity. What we call the Good Shepherd, for example, is a shepherd with a sheep over his shoulders that we tend to think symbolized the biblical stories of Jesus and the lost sheep. As written by Frontline’s Michael White: “…From Roman perspective, this is the virtue of philanthropy, of love of humanity, and it's one of the most important virtues of Roman civic and public life. The Christians seem to take it over very readily and apply it to the gospel virtues as well. In the case of the ‘orans’ figure..., this is the old pagan virtue of piety, of loyalty to the state, and so the person standing with eyes up cast toward heaven and hands in a gesture of appeal to the gods could have been seen by a pagan as a sign of loyalty to the state, loyalty to the old gods. To the Christians it becomes loyalty to the God of Jesus Christ.”

In learning about the symbols and art of early Christianity, it is important to view the larger picture rather than merely assume the Christians invented these symbols themselves. As with many things considered new and different, the art and symbolism within the Christian catacombs are merely adaptations of pagan symbols fit to the Christian faith.
Section Four 4 of 7

*Much of this topic was answered through the history covered in section one, and will be further discussed in section six.

As discussed in the section on the rise of Christianity and the history of the catacombs, the catacombs were built out of necessity for space, due to the Christian belief that bodies must be buried out of respect. Not only were the catacombs places to be entombed, they were places to worship freely, to express oneself through symbols and art, and to perform the Eucharist when persecutions were raging. Despite contradicting reports, the catacombs were not used as places of refuge for Christians during the persecutions, nor were they built because of the persecutions.

The Christians embraced the preexisting practice of underground excavation and “…developed it on an immense scale into a cast and multi-levelled network of galleries” as a solution to the challenge of the burial of an increasing community of Christians. Some catacombs were developed surprisingly quickly due to the cult of martyrs buried there and as many Christians insisted on having tombs as close to the tombs of martyrs as possible.
Section Five 5 of 7

When I chose this topic from Lisa’s list, I chose it because of the mysteriousness of burial places. Like walking through a cemetery at night, I expected the catacombs to be a topic that would send chills through my spine and I would catch everyone’s attention with the creepiness of the theme. As with most sensational topics, the more I learned about the catacombs, the less mysterious they became, and the more my eyes were opened to the life within the catacombs, as opposed to the death. The catacombs I once thought of as gloomy are now places of gorgeous art and symbols that show the beginnings of a religion and the faith a people had in their God and in their future.

The art and faith expressed through the catacomb are merely the beginning. Emerging as a small cult, Christians carefully worshiped in private. The secrecy and mysteriousness of this new religion is apparent through the early Chrsitian imagery seen in the catacombs. As history progressed, these symbols once used in private as a sign of faith and obedience became the symbols of the grandeur of the Roman Catholic world. The Monogram of Christ, as one example, once neatly and simply scratched into the walls of the catacombs can now be seen ornately engraved in the brilliant basilicas throughout Rome today.

Walking through the catacombs, experiencing the incredible number of Christians buried there, it became obvious the huge impact this new religion had on the people of Rome. The catacombs are intriguing because they open our eyes to the lives of the earliest Christians. What was it like to live in the first and second centuries of Rome as a Christian? How would I feel watching and hearing the stories of martyrs sacrificing their precious lives in the name of their God? As hard as it is to imagine the life of Christians during this time, the Catacombs, complete with their galleries of tombs and walls filled with early Christian symbols, shine a light on the deep faith people had in their God and in Christ.

As hard as I try, I cannot say it better than does the website on the Catacombs of Rome:
"The Christians of the first centuries bore a wonderful witness to Christ; many of them even by the shedding of their blood, so that martyrdom has become a glorious mark of the Church.
Despite the fact that the catacombs are, after all, only cemeteries, they speak to the mind and heart of the visitors in a silent and understandable language. In the catacombs everything speaks of life more than death. Every gallery they pass through, every symbol or painting they see, every inscription they read, brings the past to life and gives a message of faith and of Christian testimony. Therefore the visit to the catacombs cannot be reduced to a mere sightseeing tour neither to a cultural archaeological trip. Following the example of the numberless pilgrims of the past, it should turn out to be an authentic pilgrimage of faith to one of the historical monuments that better expresses the life and martyrdom of the Roman Church of the first centuries."

As intriguing as the catacombs are on paper, I cannot wait to experience them myself. The photos and descriptions of the artwork and galleries of the Catacomb of Priscilla cannot come close to Catacombs themselves. Only when we are able to smell, touch, and see the catacombs ourselves will we be able to catch a true glimpse into the history that took place with them thousands of years ago.
Section Six 6 of 7

  Personal Observations
An Icon of Saint Priscilla
During my research of the catacombs, the elements that caught my attention the most were the contradictions of “facts.” Movies and stories have dramatized the catacombs, portraying them as hiding grounds for the Christians to escape the furious persecutions aboveground. As my research continued, I found this was merely a myth. The catacombs were Christian burial places, it is that simple. “The early Christians did not bury their faith nor their lives in the underground, but lived common people lives in their families, in society, in all activities, jobs and professions. They testified their faith everywhere, but it was in the catacombs that those heroic Christians found the strength and support to face the trials and persecutions, as they prayed to God through the martyrs' intercession.”

Since the particular catacomb we are visiting is names after “Priscilla,” I set out to find who this Priscilla was, and why the catacomb was named after her. It seemed like a simple task from the get-go, but proved to be much harder as none of my resources on the catacomb itself mentioned Priscilla at all. As my research continued, it seemed as though no one was quite sure who Priscilla even was. My best assumption is that the Catacomb of Priscilla is named after St. Priscilla, who, according to Catholic Online, was the wife of Aquila, a Jewish tentmaker. Priscilla and Aquila were forced to leave Rome when Emperor Claudius forbade Jews to live there. They traveled to Corinth, where St. Paul lived with them during his stay there and may have converted them to Christianity. They followed Paul to Ephesus and stayed with him on his third missionary journey. They then returned to Rome, where their house was also used as a church, and then returned to Ephesus. The couple was martyred in Asia Minor, although tradition has it that they were martyred in Rome.
Section Seven 7 of 7

From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians (Part IV). Frontline. 1998. Videocassette. PBS Home Video, 2004

Hibbert, Christopher. Rome: The Biography of a City. New York: Penguin Books, 1985

Le Catacombe di Priscilla. 13 July 2004.

Lundberg, Sarah. Early Christian Art. 1996. Northpark Univeristy. 24 July 2004.

Maresca, M.J. “The Art of The Catacombs.” The Catacombs of Rome: Discover a mysterious world hidden for 2000 years. 1998-2002. Ars Mar Film. 13 July 2004.

PBS Online. “From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians.” Frontline. 1998, 22 July 2004.
(and several sub sites of this Frontline special)

Stevenson, J. The Catacombs: Rediscovered Monuments of Early Christianity. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1978

The Christian Catacombs of Rome. 2004. Istituto Salesiano S. Callisto. 18 July 2004.