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Roman law forbade burials within cities, and so what we would today call cemeteries developed in specific locations outside Roman cities. La Via Appia, exiting Rome from the southeast and originally connecting to Terracina on the Gulf of Gaeta (90 km), and eventually extending to Brindisi on the Adriatic, down at the "heel" of Italy, was lined with all sorts of burial situations. Beginning immediately outside the walls and gates of Rome, many of these funerary places still exist. Interestingly, the road is lined with tombs and burial monuments near other cities along its route.

There were five basic types of burial places:

  1. Coemeteria, or underground chambers, containing holes in their walls in which would be placed urns of ashes, perhaps. These became known as catacombs, possibly taking that name from coemeteria ad Catacumbas, the name of a Roman district where many such were found. Exact origin of the word is in dispute.

  2. Monumental tombs

  3. Pyramidal tombs

  4. Temple-like tombs

  5. Sculptural memorials


The catacombs are the ancient underground cemeteries, used by the Jewish and Christian communities, particularly outside of Rome. The Christian catacombs, which are the most numerous, began in the second century and the burials continued until the first half of the fifth century. They were initially burial places. Here the fellow religionists gathered to celebrate their funeral rites, and to pay respect to the anniversaries of the martyrs and of the dead.

Since Christians were regarded as a sect of the Jews for some time, they were buried in the same catacombs as their fellow Jews. It was only when non-Jews were converted that Christians developed their own burial areas.

During the persecutions of Christians, the catacombs became places to conduct religious ceremonies literally forbidden above ground. They were not used as secret hiding places of the early Christians. This is only a fiction taken from novels or movies, and occasional tour guides, from whom a number of authors spread quite interesting stories. Always remember, the more a tour guide entertains you, the greater your tip. Sometimes they say the darndest things.

After the persecutions, especially in the time of the pope known as St. Damascus (366 - 384), the catacombs became shrines dedicated to martyrs, centers of prayer, and pilgrimage destinations for Christians from every part of the Roman Empire.

Cremation had been customary for Romans, but normal cemeteries did exist, especially when the custom of cremation began to fade. Christians, for several reasons, preferred underground cemeteries. First, they rejected the pagan custom of cremation, preferring burial, just as Christ was buried, because they felt they had to respect the bodies that one day would rise from the dead. This followed the Jewish concept of resurrection, and cremation was forbidden in Jewish law. Secondly, Christians were not free to buy land for the living or the dead, and if they did, it could be confiscated. Therefore, the Christians went underground.

The standard form of burial was the loculus, a niche cut into the walls of the galleries parallel to those galleries. Loculi were usually arranged in vertical tiers, to maximize space usage.

The barbaric invaders, however, attacked monuments and cemeteries, as well as the catacombs, and towards the end of the eighth century, the Popes decided to remove all-important relics of martyrs and saints to city churches. The catacombs were abandoned, and cave-ins and vegetation began to hide their existence. In the Middle Ages, their whereabouts were forgotten. It was not until the 17th century that they began to be uncovered by a man nicknamed the "Columbus of subterranean Rome," Antonio Bosio. Extensive excavations took place in the 19th century under the direction of Giovanni Battista de Rossi. He discovered the tombs of nine popes buried in the catacomb of St. Callixtus, in what has come to be known as the Crypt of the Popes.

The outskirts of Rome contain more than sixty catacombs, with possibly 600 miles of galleries, and as many as a million tombs (this is subject to some further verification, but several sources do cite this rather enormous figure). When we visited, we were told that they were places of refuge for people who practiced a forbidden religion. Serious scholarly work seems to dispute this, claiming the underground tombs were places of choice, albeit all but pagan worshippers were restricted from above-ground cemeteries, as mentioned. Roman law apparently protected all underground cemeteries.

In reality, there is a certain measure of practicality to burying the dead in multi-leveled underground chambers: it saves space on top of the land. Additionally, it seems that many Christians wanted to be buried near their martyrs, for hopes of divine intervention.

What exists today is an almost museum-like character, in that the catacombs provide a history (I was almost going to write "living" history) of the origins of Christianity, and therefore, largely, Western civilization. Actually, through the sculptures, paintings, and inscriptions we can see the customs, rites, and beliefs that are all documented there; the past does come to life.

Two-thirds of inscriptions indicating Jewish burials exist in only two catacombs outside of Rome, actually adjacent to Christian catacombs, but across the Appian Way from the Catacombs of Callixtus. One of the catacombs contains a synagogue, and there are references in the catacombs to eleven different synagogues in Rome. Actually five Jewish catacombs have been identified in total; they are:

  1. On the Via Nomentana near the Villa Torlonia

  2. On the Via Labicana outside the Porta Maggiore

  3. On the Via Appia Pignatelli (beyond the second milestone, closer to the city than the Christian catacombs)

  4. On the Via Appia (Via Cimarra)

  5. On the Via Ostiensis, at Monteverde

The Jewish catacombs were used from the late 2nd into the late 4th centuries. A sad reflection on human nature is that archaeologists have practiced more ecumenism in their studies than the people they study did. Roman authorities were not exactly hospitable to the Jews in their midst, forcing one neighborhood to use a polluted aqueduct, often forbidding the teaching, study and practice of Judaism – more so in Jerusalem than in Rome, seemingly. Penalties included flaying, or burning alive, in addition to crucifixion.

In 64 A.D. when Rome burned, the Emperor Nero, to divert suspicion from himself, blamed the Christians. The Christians, in this particular instance, were subjected to cruel tortures and punishments. This persecution however was a personal act of an insane man and was confined only to the city of Rome (tell that to those he killed and maimed).

Another first century emperor normally cited by tradition as a zealous persecutor of Christians was Domitian (51-96 A.D.). This persecution was against people who were accused of "atheism and Jewish practices," and probably included the Christians, but this is by no means certain. At any rate, the persecution, although empire-wide, was of a limited duration (it started in 95 A.D. and ended with Domitian's death in 96 A.D.) and is thought to have not been very violent. Furthermore, it was the Jews that were the main target of the persecution.

Major persecutions against Christians occurred in 250 A.D., under the Roman emperor Decius, beginning with the execution of Bishop Fabian of Rome. This was followed in 258 A.D. when the Roman emperor Valerian ordered the execution of all Christian clergy, and again in 303 A.D. when Diocletian began yet another wave of persecution of Christians. These persecutions came to an end in 313 A.D with the Edict of Milan (see SESSION FOUR above), in which Constantine declared religious freedom for all Christians; Jews, however, lost many of their rights. The edict was actually issued by Constantine's co-emperor Licinius and helped to put an end to institutionalized persecution of Christians in the Empire. It restored confiscated properties to Christian congregations and allowed Christianity to be professed in the empire. Constantine called a meeting of Christian bishops at Nicaea in 325 A.D. that decided what a Christian was, and what Christians should believe: essentially that the divinity of Jesus be made official dogma .

It wasn't until the end of the century, in the rule of Theodosius (379-395), that Rome was again united under a single emperor. Theodosius made his mark in history by declaring Christianity the state religion of Rome; he made all pagan religions illegal.

Back to the catacombs, and a few tombs.

The basilica of St. Sebastian houses the remains of the Saint, but his body was originally buried in the catacombs on which the basilica was built. The church dates from the 4th century, and sits atop 6.67 miles (11 km) of tunnels. In those tunnels are mausoleums, mosaics, and graffiti.

Underground galleries are lined with hollowed-out recesses (loculi), frequently two or three levels high. Each was large enough to receive a dead body, whether wrapped in cloth or placed in a coffin. Smaller niches were used for placement of urns. When the dead were buried without coffins, bodies were wrapped in double layers of cloth sprinkled with lye to protect the living.

The bodies of Saints Peter and Paul were hidden in the catacombs from the reign of Valerian to that of Constantine.

The Appian Way outside of Rome, heading southeast to Brindisi, in the heel of the boot of Italy, is the region of Apulia. Begun in 312 B.C.E. by Appius Claudius Caecus, it was extended to its final length of 350 miles (563 km). Original construction was of smoothly fitted blocks of lava placed on a stone foundation. The road was to provide transport for merchandise going to and coming from Greece by ship. According to legend, Romulus and Remus, after a series of adventures, came back to Rome on an old unpaved road that led from Alba Longa, in the Alban Hills, about 12 miles (19 km) southeast of Rome. It was an ancient city, founded in the 12th century B.C.E., thus pre-dating Rome. The point of all of this is that the Via Appia might be the only road leading to Rome, all others leading from the capital city.

Before we get to a tomb, a stop along the Via Appia, actually the first section of that ancient highway. It brings us to an archaeological site recently opened to the public, and is actually part of the Rome Archaeological pass, one of nine sites and museums which can be visited..

This is what remains of the Villa dei Quintilli. The Villa was the largest private “home” outside of Rome, and belonged to the two Quintillius brothers, both of them Senators. Built in the second century A.D., the site included baths, and a hippodrome. In reality, it resembled a small town. As has happened throughout history, dictators and royalty, and occasional elected officials view with serious suspicion the accumulated wealth of their underlings.

Such became the situation with the brothers Quintilli, for the Emperor Commodus had them both beheaded in 182 A.D. on a charge of conspiracy (theorists take note), and of course, seized their property.

Remnants of a mosaic tile floor.

The Tomb of Cecilia Metella is described as being the best preserved, though it is in a state of almost complete ruin. The tomb was erected in about 60 - 50 B.C.E. for Cecilia Metella, daughter of the counsel Quintus Metellus Creticus (see the inscription).

The tomb was the travertine cylindrical structure seen here jutting out of a brick wall. This latter was a castle addition built by the Caetani family in 1302, when they used the cylindrical tomb as a castle keep. The crenelations were probably added for defensive purposes at that time.

The top of the tomb was decorated in marble with festoons (the catenary curved designs) and bucranes (skulls of oxen). Because of the heads, the complex is often referred to as “Castle Bove.” These two design elements were symbolic forms used in early Roman architecture, dating from the time when apparently real skulls were dedicated to the gods of a particular temple. Interestingly, such skull motifs were attempted during the Renaissance, but were deemed to be rather inappropriate for civic designs. The cylinder is 36 feet high (11 m.) and its diameter measures 97 feet (29.5 m.).

Some of the travertine facing remains, shown applied to a brick underlayment.

This archway is an entrance to passages below.

Barrel vault construction with niches cut into the walls on the sides.

Across from the tomb of Cecilia Metella is the ruin of an early 14th century church, dedicated to St. Nicola of Bari (Chiesa di S. Nicola di Bari).

It has, obviously, lost its roof, but eight buttresses remain on each side, along with pointed arch windows (known as “lancet” in England, but “monofore” in Italy). Buttresses remain on each side, revealing the need for support at right angles to the tall wall.

The window openings reveal the thickness of the wall itself.

The Casale Rotondo (round farm) is the largest tomb on the Via Appia, and apparently part of a farm that sits on top of the round section to the right in the photo. The wall on the left is a separate structure, and decorative elements found on the site have been assembled on that surface.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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