Movies and novels have popularized the idea that underground catacombs were used as hiding places for Christians escaping persecution. I learned on my recent visit to Rome that this is a myth. I toured the San Sebastian catacombs, one of nearly sixty catacomb complexes just outside of Rome. Nearly 7 million people were buried in these subterranean chambers between the second and fifth century.
In ancient Rome burial was not allowed within the city walls so most Romans were cremated. However Christians preferred burial because they believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead. Christian estate owners outside of the city provided land that could be used for burial. In order to make maximum use of the property the catacombs were dug very deep. The San Sebastian catacombs had five levels and stretched 17 kilometers.
The first thing our guide did was turn off the lights so we could experience how pitch-black it would have been in a catacomb. That combined with the 95% humidity and the overwhelming stench of all those rotting bodies would have made it virtually impossible for anyone to hide in a catacomb for long. While the catacombs were being constructed skylights provided ventilation and light but when the building was complete these were closed. Our guide also told us there were detailed blueprints showing the layout of the catacombs. The Romans knew where all the entrances were. If Christians had tried to hide there they would have easily been discovered.
The catacombs were big business. People paid lots of money to be buried in them especially in a coveted spot close to a martyr. Constantine spoiled that economic opportunity when he endorsed Christianity as the state religion, thus ending martyrdom. If families wanted a painting or a special symbol like a cross, a dove or a fish on the rock face near the burial spot they had to pay quite a bit extra.
We toured different kinds of burial sites. Families could purchase an entire room and be buried together. We saw longer shelves in the walls for adults, although not that long, because in the third century the tallest Roman was only five feet. There were larger arched nooks where seven or eight people could be buried together. The kind of burial opening that seemed most prevalent was the small one for children. The infant mortality rate at the time was very high.
The catacombs continued to be used till around 540 when barbarian Goths and Vandals began attacking Rome making it too dangerous to leave the city for burials. It became more common for people to be buried in or near the churches and basilicas inside Rome. These invaders looted the catacombs and many were flooded over time. By the 8th century most of the saintly relics from the catacombs had been moved to churches in Rome and the catacombs were abandoned. They were rediscovered by accident in 1578 but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that Italian archeologists began excavating them. This was dangerous work. Our guide told us one archeologist got lost in a catacomb maze for five days and nearly died.
Five Roman catacomb complexes have been partially opened and fortified to make them safe for visitors. Mussolini gave control of the catacombs to the Catholic Church in 1929 so they are in charge of maintaining the sites now. Having only seen the catacombs vicariously in movies like Angels and Demons I appreciated the opportunity to tour them in person and learn both the myths and facts about them.