Vol. 2, Chapter VII. The Church in the Catacombs

82. Literature

Comp. the works quoted in ch. VI., especially Garrucci (6 vols.), and the Illustrations below, § 85.


I. Older Works

By Bosio (Roma Sotterranea, Rom. 1632; abridged edition by P. Giovanni Severani da S. Severino, Rom. 1710, very rare); Boldetti (1720); Bottari (1737); D’AGINCOURT (1825); Roestell (1830); Marchi (1844); Maitland (The Church in the Catacombs, Lond. 1847); Louis Perret (Catacombes de Rome, etc. Paris, 1853 sqq. 5 vols., with 325 splendid plates, but with a text that is of little value, and superseded).


II. More Recent Works

*Giovanni Battista de Rossi (the chief authority on the Catacombs): La Roma Sotterranea Cristiana descritta et illustrata, publ. by order of Pope Pio Nono, Roma (cromolitografia Pontificia), Tom. I. 1864, Tom. II. 1867, Tom. III. 1877, in 3 vols. fol. with two additional vols. of plates and inscriptions. A fourth volume is expected. Comp. his articles in the bimonthly “Bulletino di archeologia Cristiana,” Rom. 1863 sqq., and several smaller essays. Roller calls De Rossi “le fouilleur le mieux qualifié fervent catholique, mais critique sérieux.”

*J. Spencer Northcote (Canon of Birmingham) and W. R. Brownlow (Canon of Plymouth): Roma Sotteranea. London (Longmans, Green & Co., 1869; second edition, “rewritten and greatly enlarged,” 1879, 2 vols. The first vol. contains the History, the second, Christian Art. This work gives the substance of the investigations of Commendatore De Rossi by his consent, together with a large number of chromo-lithographic plates and wood-engravings, with special reference to the cemetery of San Callisto. The vol. on Inscriptions is separate, see below.

F. X. Kraus (R.C.), Roma Sotterranea. Die Röm. Katakomben. Freiburg. i. B. (1873), second ed. 1879. Based upon De Rossi and the first ed. of Northcote & Brownlow.

D. de Richemont: Les catacombes de Rome. Paris, 1870.

Wharton B. Marriott, B.S.F.S.A. (Ch. of England): The Testimony of the Catacombs and of other Monuments of Christian Art from the second to the eighteenth century, concerning questions of Doctrine now disputed in the Church. London, 1870 (223 pages with illustrations). Discusses the monuments referring to the cultus of the Virgin Mary, the supremacy of the Pope, and the state after death.

F. Becker: Roms Altchristliche Cömeterien. Leipzig, 1874.

W. H. Withrow (Methodist): The Catacombs of Rome and their Testimony relative to Primitive Christianity. New York (Nelson & Phillips), 1874. Polemical against Romanism. The author says (Pref., p. 6): “The testimony of the catacombs exhibits, more strikingly than any other evidence, the immense contrast between primitive Christianity and modern Romanism.”

John P. Lundy (Episc.): Monumental Christianity: or the Art and Symbolism of the Primitive Church as Witnesses and Teachers of the one Catholic Faith and Practice. New York, 1876. New ed. enlarged, 1882, 453 pages, richly illustrated.

*John Henry Parker (Episc.): The Archaeology of Rome. Oxford and London, 1877. Parts ix. and x.: Tombs in and near Rome, and Sculpture; Part XII: The Catacombs. A standard work, with the best illustrations.

*Theophile Roller (Protest.): Les Catacombes de Rome. Histoire de l’art et des croyances religieuses pendant les premiers siècles du Christianisme. Paris, 1879-1881, 2 vols. fol, 720 pages text and 100 excellent plates en hétiogravure, and many illustrations and inscriptions. The author resided several years at Naples and Rome as Reformed pastor.

M. Armellini (R.C.): Le Catacombe Romane descritte. Roma, 1880 (A popular extract from De Rossi, 437 pages). By the same the more important work: Il Cimiterio di S. Agnese sulla via Nomentana. Rom. 1880.

Dean Stanley: The Roman Catacombs, in his “Christian Institutions.” Lond. and N. York, 1881 (pp. 272-295).

Victor Schultze (Lutheran): Archaeologische Studien über altchristliche Monumente. Mit 26 Holzschnitten. Wien, 1880; Die Katakomben. Die altchristlichen Grabstätten. Ihre Geschichte und ihre Monumente (with 52 illustrations). Leipzig, 1882 (342 pages); Die Katakomben von San Gennaro dei Poveri in Neapel. Jena, 1877. Also the pamphlet: Der theolog. Ertrag der Katakombenforschung. Leipz. 1882 (30 pages). The last pamphlet is against Harnack’s review, who charged Schultze with overrating the gain of the catacomb-investigations (see the “Theol. Literaturzeitung,” 1882.)

Bishop W. J. Kip: The Catacombs of Rome as illustrating the Church of the First Three Centuries. N. York, 1853, 6th ed., 1887 (212pages).

K. Rönneke: Rom’s christliche Katakomben. Leipzig, 1886.

Comp. also Edmund Venables in Smith and Cheetham, I. 294-317; Heinrich Merz in Herzog, VII. 559-568; Theod. Mommsen on the Roman Catac. in “The Contemp. Review.” vol. XVII. 160-175 (April to July, 1871); the relevant articles in the Archaeol. Dicts. of Martigny and Kraus, and the Archaeology of Bennett (1888).


III. Christian Inscriptions in the Catacombs and Other Old Monuments

*Commendatore J. B. de Rossi: Inscriptiones Christiana Urbis Romae septimo seculo antiquiores. Romae, 1861 (XXIII. and 619 pages). Another vol. is expected. The chief work in this department. Many inscriptions also in his Roma Sott. and “Bulletino.”

Edward Le Blant: Inscriptions chrétiennes de la Gaule anterieures au VIIIme siècle. Paris, 1856 and 1865, 2 vols. By the same: Manuel d’Epigraphie chrétienne. Paris, 1869.

John McCaul: Christian Epitaphs of the First Six Centuries. Toronto, 1869. Greek and Latin, especially from Rome.

F. Becker: Die Inschriften der römischen Cömeterien. Leipzig, 1878.

*J. Spencer Northcote (R.C. Canon of Birmingham): Epitaphs of the Catacombs or Christian Inscriptions in Rome during the First Four Centuries. Lond., 1878 (196 pages).

G. T. Stokes on Greek and Latin Christian Inscriptions; two articles in the “Contemporary Review” for 1880 and 1881.

V. Schultze discusses the Inscriptions in the fifth section of his work Die Katakomben (1882), pp. 235-274, and gives the literature.

The Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum by Böckh, and Kirchhoff, and the Corpus Inscriptionium Lat, edited for the Berlin Academy by, Th. Mommsen and others, 1863 sqq. (not yet completed), contain also Christian Inscriptions. Prof. E. Hübner has added those of Spain (1871) and Britain (1873). G. Petrie has collected the Christian Inscriptions in the Irish language, ed. by Stokes. Dublin, 1870 sqq. Comp. the art. “Inscriptions,” in Smith and Cheetham, I. 841.


83. Origin and History of the Catacomb

The Catacombs of Rome and other cities open a new chapter of Church history, which has recently been dug up from the bowels of the earth. Their discovery was a revelation to the world as instructive and important as the discovery of the long lost cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and of Nineveh and Babylon. Eusebius says nothing about them; the ancient Fathers scarcely allude to them, except Jerome and Prudentius, and even they give us no idea of their extent and importance. Hence the historians till quite recently have passed them by in silence. But since the great discoveries of Commendatore De Rossi and other archaeologists they can no longer be ignored. They confirm, illustrate, and supplement our previous knowledge derived from the more important literary remains.

The name of the Catacombs is of uncertain origin, but is equivalent to subterranean cemeteries or resting-places for the dead. First used of the Christian cemeteries in the neighborhood of Rome, it was afterwards applied to those of Naples, Malta, Sicily, Alexandria, Paris, and other cities.

It was formerly supposed that the Roman Catacombs were originally sand-pits (arenariae) or stone-quarries (lapidicinae), excavated by the heathen for building material, and occasionally used as receptacles for the vilest corpses of slaves and criminals. But this view is now abandoned on account of the difference of construction and of the soil. A few of the catacombs, however, about five out of thirty, are more or less closely connected with abandoned sand-pits.

The catacombs, therefore, with a few exceptions, are of Christian origin, and were excavated for the express purpose of Christian burial. Their enormous extent, and the mixture of heathen with Christian symbols and inscriptions, might suggest that they were used by heathen also; but this is excluded by the fact of the mutual aversion of Christians and idolaters to associate in life and in death. The mythological features are few, and adapted to Christian ideas.

Another erroneous opinion, once generally entertained, regarded the catacombs as places of refuge from heathen persecution. But the immense labor required could not have escaped the attention of the police. They were, on the contrary, the result of toleration. The Roman government, although (like all despotic governments) jealous of secret societies, was quite liberal towards the burial clubs, mostly of the poorer classes, or associations for securing, by regular contributions, decent interment with religious ceremonies. Only the worst criminals, traitors, suicides, and those struck down by lightning (touched by the gods) were left unburied. The pious care of the dead is an instinct of human nature, and is found among all nations. Death is a mighty leveler of distinctions and preacher of toleration and charity; even despots bow before it, and are reminded of their own vanity; even hard hearts are moved by it to pity and to tears. “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.”

The Christians enjoyed probably from the beginning the privilege of common cemeteries, like the Jews, even without an express enactment. Galienus restored them after their temporary confiscation during the persecution of Valerian (260).

Being mostly of Jewish and Oriental descent, the Roman Christians naturally followed the Oriental custom of cutting their tombs in rocks, and constructing galleries. Hence the close resemblance of the Jewish and Christian cemeteries in Rome. The ancient Greeks and Romans under the empire were in the habit of burning the corpses (crematio) for sanitary reasons, but burial in the earth (humatio), outside of the city near the public roads, or on hills, or in natural grottos, was the older custom; the rich had their own sepulchres (sepulcra).

In their catacombs the Christians could assemble for worship and take refuge in times of persecution. Very rarely they were pursued in these silent retreats. Once only it is reported that the Christians were shut up by the heathen in a cemetery and smothered to death.

Most of the catacombs were constructed during the first three centuries, a few may be traced almost to the apostolic age. After Constantine, when the temporal condition of the Christians improved, and they could bury their dead without any disturbance in the open air, the cemeteries were located above ground, especially above the catacombs, and around the basilicas; or on other land purchased or donated for the purpose. Some catacombs owe their origin to individuals or private families, who granted the use of their own grounds for the burial of their brethren; others belonged to churches. The Christians wrote on the graves appropriate epitaphs and consoling thoughts, and painted on the walls their favorite symbols. At funerals they turned these dark and cheerless abodes into chapels; under the dim light of the terra-cotta lamps they committed dust to dust, ashes to ashes, and amidst the shadows of death they inhaled the breath of the resurrection and life everlasting. But it is an error to suppose that the catacombs served as the usual places of worship in times of persecution; for such a purpose they were entirely unfitted; even the largest could accommodate, at most, only twenty or thirty persons within convenient distance.

The devotional use of the catacombs began in the Nicene age, and greatly stimulated the worship of martyrs and saints. When they ceased to be used for burial they became resorts of pious pilgrims. Little chapels were built for the celebration of the memory of the martyrs. St. Jerome relates, how, while a school-boy, about a.d. 350, he used to go with his companions every Sunday to the graves of the apostles and martyrs in the crypts at Rome, “where in subterranean depths the visitor passes to and fro between the bodies of the entombed on both walls, and where all is so dark, that the prophecy here finds its fulfillment: The living go down into Hades. Here and there a ray from above, not falling in through a window, but only pressing in through a crevice, softens the gloom; as you go onward, it fades away, and in the darkness of night which surrounds you, that verse of Virgil comes to your mind:

“Horror ubique animos, simul ipsa silentia terrent.”

The poet Prudentius also, in the beginning of the fifth century, several times speaks of these burial places, and the devotions held within them.

Pope Damasus (366-384) showed his zeal in repairing and decorating the catacombs, and erecting new stair-cases for the convenience of pilgrims. His successors kept up the interest, but by repeated repairs introduced great confusion into the chronology of the works of art.

The barbarian invasions of Alaric (410), Genseric (455), Ricimer (472), Vitiges (537), Totila (546), and the Lombards (754), turned Rome into a heap of ruins and destroyed many valuable treasures of classical and Christian antiquity. But the pious barbarism of relic hunters did much greater damage. The tombs of real and imaginary saints were rifled, and cartloads of dead men’s bones were translated to the Pantheon and churches and chapels for more convenient worship. In this way the catacombs gradually lost all interest, and passed into decay and complete oblivion for more than six centuries.

In the sixteenth century the catacombs were rediscovered, and opened an interesting field for antiquarian research. The first discovery was made May 31, 1578, by some laborers in a vineyard on the Via Salaria, who were digging pozzolana, and came on an old subterranean cemetery, ornamented with Christian paintings, Greek and Latin inscriptions and sculptured sarcophagi. “In that day,” says De Rossi, “was born the name and the knowledge of Roma Sotterranea.” One of the first and principal explorers was Antonio Bosio, “the Columbus of this subterranean world.” His researches were published after his death (Roma, 1632). Filippo Neri, Carlo Borromeo, and other restorers of Romanism spent, like St. Jerome of old, whole nights in prayer amid these ruins of the age of martyrs. But Protestant divines discredited these discoveries as inventions of Romish divines seeking in heathen sand-pits for Christian saints who never lived, and Christian martyrs who never died.

In the present century the discovery and investigation of the catacombs has taken a new start, and is now an important department of Christian archaeology. The dogmatic and sectarian treatment has given way to a scientific method with the sole aim to ascertain the truth. The acknowledged pioneer in this subterranean region of ancient church history is the Cavalier John Baptist de Rossi, a devout, yet liberal Roman Catholic. His monumental Italian work (Roma Sotterranea, 1864-1877) has been made accessible in judicious condensations to French, German, and English readers by Allard (1871), Kraus (1873 and 1879), Northcote & Brownlow (1869 and 1879). Other writers, Protestant as well as Roman Catholic, are constantly adding to our stores of information. Great progress has been made in the chronology and the interpretation of the pictures in the catacombs.

And yet the work is only begun. More than one half of ancient Christian cemeteries are waiting for future exploration. De Rossi treats chiefly of one group of Roman catacombs, that of Callistus. The catacombs in Naples, Syracuse, Girgenti, Melos, Alexandria, Cyrene, are very imperfectly known; still others in the ancient apostolic churches may yet be discovered, and furnish results as important for church history as the discoveries of Ilium, Mycenae, and Olympia for that of classical Greece.


84. Description of the Catacombs

The Roman catacombs are long and narrow passages or galleries and cross-galleries excavated in the bowels of the earth in the hills outside and around the city, for the burial of the dead. They are dark and gloomy, with only an occasional ray of light from above. The galleries have two or more stories, all filled with tombs, and form an intricate net-work or subterranean labyrinth. Small compartments (loculi) were cut out like shelves in the perpendicular walls for the reception of the dead, and rectangular chambers (cubicula) for families, or distinguished martyrs. They were closed with a slab of marble or tile. The more wealthy were laid in sarcophagi. The ceiling is flat, sometimes slightly arched. Space was economized so as to leave room usually only for a single person; the average width of the passages being 2 1/2 to 3 feet. This economy may be traced to the poverty of the early Christians, and also to their strong sense of community in life and in death. The little oratories with altars and episcopal chairs cut in the tufa are probably of later construction, and could accommodate only a few persons at a time. They were suited for funeral services and private devotion, but not for public worship.

The galleries were originally small, but gradually extended to enormous length. Their combined extent is counted by hundreds of miles, and the number of graves by millions.

The oldest and best known of the Roman cemeteries is that of St. Sebastian, originally called Ad Catacumbas, on the Appian road, a little over two miles south of the city walls. It was once, it is said, the temporary resting-place of the bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul, before their removal to the basilicas named after them; also of forty-six bishops of Rome, and of a large number of martyrs.

The immense cemetery of Pope Callistus (218-223) on the Via Appia consisted originally of several small and independent burial grounds (called Lucinae, Zephyrini, Callisti, Hippoliti). It has been thoroughly investigated by De Rossi. The most ancient part is called after Lucina, and measures 100 Roman feet in breadth by 180 feet in length. The whole group bears the name of Callistus, probably because his predecessor, Zephyrinus “set him over the cemetery” (of the church of Rome). He was then a deacon. He stands high in the estimation of the Roman church, but the account given of him by Hippolytus is quite unfavorable. He was certainly a remarkable man, who rose from slavery to the highest dignity of the church.

The cemetery of Domitilla (named in the fourth century St. Petronillae, Nerei et Achillei) is on the Via Ardeatina, and its origin is traced back to Flavia Domitilla, grand-daughter or great-grand-daughter of Vespasian. She was banished by Domitian (about a.d. 95) to the island of Pontia “for professing Christ.” Her chamberlains (eunuchi cubicularii), Nerus and Achilleus, according to an uncertain tradition, were baptized by St. Peter, suffered martyrdom, and were buried in a farm belonging to their mistress. In another part of this cemetery De Rossi discovered the broken columns of a subterranean chapel and a small chamber with a fresco on the wall, which represents an elderly matron named “Veneranda,” and a young lady, called in the inscription “Petronilla martyr,” and pointing to the Holy Scriptures in a chest by her side, as the proofs of her faith. The former apparently introduces the latter into Paradise. The name naturally suggests the legendary daughter of St. Peter. But Roman divines, reluctant to admit that the first pope had any children (though his marriage is beyond a doubt from the record of the Gospels), understand Petronilla to be a spiritual daughter, as Mark was a spiritual son, of the apostle (1Pe_5:13), and make her the daughter of some Roman Petronius or Petro connected with the family of Domitilla.

Other ancient catacombs are those of Pruetextatus, Priscilla (St. Silvestri and St. Marcelli), Basilla (S. Hermetis, Basillae, Proti, et Hyacinthi), Maximus, St. Hippolytus, St. Laurentius, St. Peter and Marcellinus, St. Agnes, and the Ostrianum (Ad Nymphas Petri, or Fons Petri, where Peter is said to have baptized from a natural well). De Rossi gives a list of forty-two greater or lesser cemeteries, including isolated tombs of martyrs, in and near Rome, which date from the first four centuries, and are mentioned in ancient records.

The furniture of the catacombs is instructive and interesting, but most of it has been removed to churches and museums, and must be studied outside. Articles of ornament, rings, seals, bracelets, neck-laces, mirrors, tooth-picks, ear-picks, buckles, brooches, rare coins, innumerable lamps of clay (terra-cotta), or of bronze, even of silver and amber, all sorts of tools, and in the case of children a variety of playthings were inclosed with the dead. Many of these articles are carved with the monogram of Christ, or other Christian symbols. (The lamps in Jewish cemeteries bear generally a picture of the golden candlestick).

A great number of flasks and cups also, with or without ornamentation, are found, mostly outside of the graves, and fastened to the grave-lids. These were formerly supposed to have been receptacles for tears, or, from the red, dried sediment in them, for the blood of martyrs. But later archaeologists consider them drinking vessels used in the agapae and oblations. A superstitious habit prevailed in the fourth century, although condemned by a council of Carthage (397), to give to the dead the eucharistic wine, or to put a cup with the consecrated wine in the grave.

The instruments of torture which the fertile imagination of credulous people had discovered, and which were made to prove that almost every Christian buried in the catacombs was a martyr, are simply implements of handicraft. The instinct of nature prompts the bereaved to deposit in the graves of their kindred and friends those things which were constantly used by them. The idea prevailed also to a large extent that the future life was a continuation of the occupations and amusements of the present, but free from sin and imperfection.

On opening the graves the skeleton appears frequently even now very well preserved, sometimes in dazzling whiteness, as covered with a glistening glory; but falls into dust at the touch.


85. Pictures and Sculptures

The most important remains of the catacombs are the pictures, sculptures, and epitaphs.

I. Pictures. These have already been described in the preceding chapter. They are painted al fresco on the wall and ceiling, and represent Christian symbols, scenes of Bible history, and allegorical conceptions of the Saviour. A few are in pure classic style, and betray an early origin when Greek art still flourished in Rome; but most of them belong to the period of decay. Prominence is given to pictures of the Good Shepherd, and those biblical stories which exhibit the conquest of faith and the hope of the resurrection. The mixed character of some of the Christian frescos may be explained partly from the employment of heathen artists by Christian patrons, partly from old reminiscences. The Etrurians and Greeks were in the habit of painting their tombs, and Christian Greeks early saw the value of pictorial language as a means of instruction. In technical skill the Christian art is inferior to the heathen, but its subjects are higher, and its meaning is deeper.

II. The works of sculpture are mostly found on sarcophagi. Many of them are collected in the Lateran Museum. Few of them date from the ante-Nicene age. They represent in relief the same subjects as the wall-pictures, as far as they could be worked in stone or marble, especially the resurrection of Lazarus, Daniel among the lions, Moses smiting the rock, the sacrifice of Isaac.

Among the oldest Christian sarcophagi are those of St. Helena, the mother of Constantine (d. 328), and of Constantia, his daughter (d. 354), both of red porphyry, and preserved in the Vatican Museum. The sculpture on the former probably represents the triumphal entry of Constantine into Rome after his victory over Maxentius; the sculpture on the latter, the cultivation of the vine, probably with a symbolical meaning.

The richest and finest of all the Christian sarcophagi is that of Junius Bassus, Prefect of Rome, a.d. 359, and five times Consul, in the crypt of St. Peter’s in the Vatican. It was found in the Vatican cemetery (1595). It is made of Parian marble in Corinthian style. The subjects represented in the upper part are the sacrifice of Abraham, the capture of St. Peter, Christ seated between Peter and Paul, the capture of Christ, and Pilate washing his hands; in the lower part are the temptation of Adam and Eve, suffering Job, Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem, Daniel among the lions, and the capture of St. Paul.


Illustration, The Good Shepherd Fresco (From Bosio, ceiling)

In the centre, “The Good Shepherd.” The subjects, beginning at the top and going to the right, are: (1) The Paralytic carrying his Bed; (2) Five Baskets full of Fragments; (3) Raising of Lazarus; (4) Daniel in the Lion’s Den; (5) Jonah swallowed by the Fish; (6) Jonah vomited Forth; (7) Moses striking the Rock; (8) Noah and the Dove.

Illustration, Opheus Fresco (Ceiling in the Crypt of St. Domitilla)

Orpheus in the centre, playing the Lyre to the enchanted Animals, surrounded by landscapes and Scripture Scenes, viz., beginning at the right: (1) The Raising of the mummy-like Corpse of Lazarus; (2) Daniel in the Lion’s Den; (3) Moses smiting the Rock; (4) David with the Sling.


86. Epitaphs

“Rudely written, but each letter

Full of hope, and yet of heart-break,

Full of all the tender pathos of the Here

and the Hereafter.”

To perpetuate, by means of sepulchral inscriptions, the memory of relatives and friends, and to record the sentiments of love and esteem, of grief and hope, in the face of death and eternity, is a custom common to all civilized ages and nations. These epitaphs are limited by space, and often provoke rather than satisfy curiosity, but contain nevertheless in poetry or prose a vast amount of biographical and historical information. Many a grave-yard is a broken record of the church to which it belongs.

The Catacombs abound in such monumental inscriptions, Greek and Latin, or strangely mixed (Latin words in Greek characters), often rudely written, badly spelt, mutilated, and almost illegible, with and without symbolical figures. The classical languages were then in a process of decay, like classical eloquence and art, and the great majority of Christians were poor and illiterate people. One name only is given in the earlier epitaphs, sometimes the age, and the day of burial, but not the date of birth.

More than fifteen thousand epitaphs have been collected, classified, and explained by De Rossi from the first six centuries in Rome alone, and their number is constantly increasing. Benedict XIV. founded, in 1750, a Christian Museum, and devoted a hill in the Vatican to the collection of ancient sarcophagi. Gregory XVI. and Pius IX. patronized it. In this Lapidarian Gallery the costly pagan and the simple Christian inscriptions and sarcophagi confront each other on opposite walls, and present a striking contrast. Another important collection is in the Kircherian Museum, in the Roman College, another in the Christian Museum of the University of Berlin. The entire field of ancient epigraphy, heathen and Christian in Italy and other countries, has been made accessible by the industry and learning of Gruter, Muratori, Marchi, De Rossi, Le Blant, Boeckh, Kirchhoff, Orelli, Mommsen, Henzen, Hübner, Waddington, McCaul.

The most difficult part of this branch of archaeology is the chronology (the oldest inscriptions being mostly undated). Their chief interest for the church historian is their religion, as far as it may be inferred from a few words.

The key-note of the Christian epitaphs, as compared with the heathen, is struck by Paul in his words of comfort to the Thessalonians, that they should not sorrow like the heathen who have no hope, but remember that, as Jesus rose from the dead, so God will raise them also that are fallen asleep in Jesus.

Hence, while the heathen epitaphs rarely express a belief in immortality, but often describe death as an eternal sleep, the grave as a final home, and are pervaded by a tone of sadness, the Christian epitaphs are hopeful and cheerful. The farewell on earth is followed by a welcome from heaven. Death is but a short sleep; the soul is with Christ and lives in God, the body waits for a joyful resurrection: this is the sum and substance of the theology of Christian epitaphs. The symbol of Christ (Ichthys) is often placed at the beginning or end to show the ground of this hope. Again and again we find the brief, but significant words: “in peace;” “he” or “she sleeps in peace;” “live in God,” or “in Christ;” “live forever.” “He rests well.” “God quicken thy spirit.” “Weep not, my child; death is not eternal.” “Alexander is not dead, but lives above the stars, and his body rests in this tomb.” “Here Gordian, the courier from Gaul, strangled for the faith, with his whole family, rests in peace. The maid servant, Theophila, erected this.”

At the same time stereotyped heathen epitaphs continued to be used but of course not in a polytheistic sense), as “sacred to the funeral gods,” or “to the departed spirits.” The laudatory epithets of heathen epitaphs are rare, but simple terms of natural affection very frequent, as “My sweetest child;” “Innocent little lamb;” “My dearest husband;” “My dearest wife;” “My innocent dove;” “My well-deserving father,” or “mother.” A. and B. “lived together” (for 15, 20, 30, 50, or even 60 years) “without any complaint or quarrel, without taking or giving offence.” Such commemoration of conjugal happiness and commendations of female virtues, as modesty, chastity, prudence, diligence, frequently occur also on pagan monuments, and prove that there were many exceptions to the corruption of Roman society, as painted by Juvenal and the satirists.

Some epitaphs contain a request to the dead in heaven to pray for the living on earth. At a later period we find requests for intercession in behalf of the departed when once, chiefly through the influence of Pope Gregory I., purgatory became an article of general belief in the Western church. But the overwhelming testimony of the oldest Christian epitaphs is that the pious dead are already in the enjoyment of peace, and this accords with the Saviour’s promise to the penitent thief, and with St. Paul’s desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better (Luk_23:43; Phi_1:23; 2Co_5:8). Take but this example: “Prima, thou livest in the glory of God, and in the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”



I. Selection of Roman Epitaphs

The following selection of brief epitaphs in the Roman catacombs is taken from De Rossi, and Northcote, who give facsimiles of the original Latin and Greek. Comp. also the photographic plates in Roller, vol. I. Nos. X, XXXI, XXXII, and XXXIII; and vol. II. Nos. LXI, LXII, LXV, and LXVI.

1. To dear Cyriacus, sweetest son. Mayest thou live in the Holy Spirit.

2. Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. To Pastor, a good and innocent son, who lived 4 years, 5 months and 26 days. Vitalis and Marcellina, his parents.

3. In eternal sleep (somno aeternali). Aurelius Gemellus, who lived … years and 8 months and 18 days. His mother made this for her dearest well-deserving son. In peace. I commend [to thee], Bassilla, the innocence of Gemellus.

4. Lady Bassilla [= Saint Bassilla], we, Crescentius and Micina, commend to thee our daughter Crescen [tina], who lived 10 months and … days.

5. Matronata Matrona, who lived a year and 52 days. Pray for thy parents.

6. Anatolius made this for his well-deserving son, who lived 7 years, 7 months and 20 days. May thy spirit rest well in God. Pray for thy sister.

7. Regina, mayest thou live in the Lord Jesus (vivas in Domino Jesu).

8. To my good and sweetest husband Castorinus, who lived 61 years, 5 months and 10 days; well-deserving. His wife made this. Live in God!

9. Amerimnus to his dearest, well-deserving wife, Rufina. May God refresh thy spirit.

10. Sweet Faustina, mayest thou live in God.

11. Refresh, O God, the soul of ….

12. Bolosa, may God refresh thee, who lived 31 years; died on the 19th of September. In Christ.

13. Peace to thy soul, Oxycholis.

14. Agape, thou shalt live forever.

15. In Christ. To Paulinus, a neophyte. In peace. Who lived 8 years.

16. Thy spirit in peace, Filmena.

17. In Christ. Aestonia, a virgin; a foreigner, who lived 41 years and 8 days. She departed from the body on the 26th of February.

18. Victorina in peace and in Christ.

19. Dafnen, a widow, who whilst she lived burdened the church in nothing.

20. To Leopardus, a neophyte, who lived 3 years, 11 months. Buried on the 24th of March. In peace.

21. To Felix, their well-deserving son, who lived 23 years and 10 days; who went out of the world a virgin and a neophyte. In peace. His parents made this. Buried on the 2d of August.

22. Lucilianus to Bacius Valerius, who lived 9 years, 8 [months], 22 days. A catechumen.

23. Septimius Praetextatus Caecilianus, servant of God, who has led a worthy life. If I have served Thee [O Lord], I have not repented, and I will give thanks to Thy name. He gave up his soul to God (at the age of) thirty-three years and six months. [In the crypt of St. Cecilia in St. Callisto. Probably a member of some noble family, the third name is mutilated. De Rossi assigns this epitaph to the beginning of the third century.]

24. Cornelius. Martyr. Ep. [iscopus].


II. The Autun Inscription

This Greek inscription was discovered a.d. 1839 in the cemetery Saint Pierre l’Estrier near Autun (Augustodunum, the ancient capital of Gallia Aeduensis), first made known by Cardinal Pitra, and thoroughly discussed by learned archaeologists of different countries. See the Spicilegium Solesmense (ed. by Pitra), vols. I.-III., Raf. Garrucci, Monuments d’ epigraphie ancienne, Paris 1856, 1857; P. Lenormant, Mémoire sur l’ inscription d’ Autun, Paris 1855; H. B. Marriott, The Testimony of the Catacombs, Lond. 1870, pp. 113-188. The Jesuit fathers Secchi and Garrucci find in it conclusive evidence of transubstantiation and purgatory, but Marriott takes pains to refute them. Comp. also Schultze, Katak. p. 118. The Ichthys-symbol figures prominently in the inscription, and betrays an early origin, but archaeologists differ: Pitra, Garrucci and others assign it to a.d. 160-202; Kirchhoff, Marriott, and Schultze, with greater probability, to the end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century, Lenormant and Le Blant to the fifth or sixth. De Rossi observes that the characters are not so old as the ideas which they express. The inscription has some gaps which must be filled out by conjecture. It is a memorial of Pectorius to his parents and friends, in two parts; the first six lines are an acrostic (Ichthys), and contain words of the dead (probably the mother); in the second part the son speaks. The first seems to be older. Schultze conjectures that it is an old Christian hymn. The inscription begins with Ἰχθύος ο [ὐρανίου ἅγ] ιον [or perhaps θεῖον] γένος, and concludes with μνήσεο Πεκτορίου, who prepared the monument for his parents. The following is the translation (partly conjectural) of Marriott (l.c. 118):

‘Offspring of the heavenly Ichthys, see that a heart of holy reverence be thine, now that from Divine waters thou hast received, while yet among mortals, a fount of life that is to immortality. Quicken thy soul, beloved one, with ever-flowing waters of wealth-giving wisdom, and receive the honey-sweet food of the Saviour of the saints. Eat with a longing hunger, holding Ichthys in thine hands.’

‘To Ichthys … Come nigh unto me, my Lord [and] Saviour [be thou my Guide] I entreat Thee, Thou Light of them for whom the hour of death is past.’

‘Aschandius, my Father, dear unto mine heart, and thou [sweet Mother, and all] that are mine … remember Pectorius.’


87. Lessons of the Catacombs

The catacombs represent the subterranean Christianity of the ante-Nicene age. They reveal the Christian life in the face of death and eternity. Their vast extent, their solemn darkness, their labyrinthine mystery, their rude epitaphs, pictures, and sculptures, their relics of handicrafts worship, and martyrdom give us a lively and impressive idea of the social and domestic condition, the poverty and humility, the devotional spirit, the trials and sufferings, the faith and hope of the Christians from the death of the apostles to the conversion of Constantine. A modern visitor descending alive into this region of the dead, receives the same impression as St. Jerome more than fifteen centuries ago: he is overcome by the solemn darkness, the terrible silence, and the sacred associations; only the darkness is deeper, and the tombs are emptied of their treasures. “He who is thoroughly steeped in the imagery of the catacombs,” says Dean Stanley, not without rhetorical exaggeration, “will be nearer to the thoughts of the early church than he who has learned by heart the most elaborate treatise even of Tertullian or of Origen.”

The discovery of this subterranean necropolis has been made unduly subservient to polemical and apologetic purposes both by Roman Catholic and Protestant writers. The former seek and find in it monumental arguments for the worship of saints, images, and relics, for the cultus of the Virgin Mary, the primacy of Peter, the seven sacraments, the real presence, even for transubstantiation, and purgatory; while the latter see there the evidence of apostolic simplicity of life and worship, and an illustration of Paul’s saying that God chose the foolish, the weak, and the despised things of the world to put to shame them that are wise and strong and mighty.

A full solution of the controversial questions would depend upon the chronology of the monuments and inscriptions, but this is exceedingly uncertain. The most eminent archaeologists hold widely differing opinions. John Baptist de Rossi of Rome, the greatest authority on the Roman Catholic side, traces some paintings and epitaphs in the crypts of St. Lucina and St. Domitilia back even to the close of the first century or the beginning of the second. On the other hand, J. H. Parker, of Oxford, an equally eminent archaeologist, maintains that fully three-fourths of the fresco-paintings belong to the latest restorations of the eighth and ninth centuries, and that “of the remaining fourth a considerable number are of the sixth century.” He also asserts that in the catacomb pictures “there are no religious subjects before the time of Constantine,” that “during the fourth and fifth centuries they are entirely confined to Scriptural subjects,” and that there is “not a figure of a saint or martyr before the sixth century, and very few before the eighth, when they became abundant.” Renan assigns the earliest pictures of the catacombs to the fourth century, very few (in Domitilla) to the third. Theodore Mommsen deems De Rossi’s argument for the early date of the Coemeterium Domitillae before a.d. 95 inconclusive, and traces it rather to the times of Hadrian and Pius than to those of the Flavian emperors.

But in any case it is unreasonable to seek in the catacombs for a complete creed any more than in a modern grave-yard. All we can expect there is the popular elements of eschatology, or the sentiments concerning death and eternity, with incidental traces of the private and social life of those times. Heathen, Jewish, Mohammedan, and Christian cemeteries have their characteristic peculiarities, yet all have many things in common which are inseparable from human nature. Roman Catholic cemeteries are easily recognized by crosses, crucifixes, and reference to purgatory and prayers for the dead; Protestant cemeteries by the frequency of Scripture passages in the epitaphs, and the expressions of hope and joy in prospect of the immediate transition of the pious dead to the presence of Christ. The catacombs have a character of their own, which distinguishes them from Roman Catholic as well as Protestant cemeteries.

Their most characteristic symbols and pictures are the Good Shepherd, the Fish, and the Vine. These symbols almost wholly disappeared after the fourth century, but to the mind of the early Christians they vividly expressed, in childlike simplicity, what is essential to Christians of all creeds, the idea of Christ and his salvation, as the only comfort in life and in death. The Shepherd, whether from the Sabine or the Galilean hills, suggested the recovery of the lost sheep, the tender care and protection, the green pasture and fresh fountain, the sacrifice of life: in a word, the whole picture of a Saviour. The popularity of this picture enables us to understand the immense popularity of the Pastor of Hermas, a religious allegory which was written in Rome about the middle of the second century, and read in many churches till the fourth as a part of the New Testament (as in the Sinaitic Codex). The Fish expressed the same idea of salvation, under a different form, but only to those who were familiar with the Greek (the anagrammatic meaning of Ichthys) and associated the fish with daily food and the baptismal water of regeneration. The Vine again sets forth the vital union of the believer with Christ and the vital communion of all believers among themselves.

Another prominent feature of the catacombs is their hopeful and joyful eschatology. They proclaim in symbols and words a certain conviction of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body, rooted and grounded in a living union with Christ in this world. These glorious hopes comforted and strengthened the early Christians in a time of poverty, trial, and persecution. This character stands in striking contrast with the preceding and contemporary gloom of paganism, for which the future world was a blank, and with the succeeding gloom of the mediaeval eschatology which presented the future world to the most serious Christians as a continuation of penal sufferings. This is the chief, we may say, the only doctrinal, lesson of the catacombs.

On some other points they incidentally shed new light, especially on the spread of Christianity and the origin of Christian art. Their immense extent implies that Christianity was numerically much stronger in heathen Rome than was generally supposed. Their numerous decorations prove conclusively, either that the primitive Christian aversion to pictures and sculptures, inherited from the Jews, was not so general nor so long continued as might be inferred from some passages of ante-Nicene writers, or, what is more likely, that the popular love for art inherited from the Greeks and Romans was little affected by the theologians, and ultimately prevailed over the scruples of theorizers.

The first discovery of the catacombs was a surprise to the Christian world, and gave birth to wild fancies about the incalculable number of martyrs, the terrors of persecution, the subterranean assemblies of the early Christians, as if they lived and died, by necessity or preference, in darkness beneath the earth. A closer investigation has dispelled the romance, and deepened the reality.

There is no contradiction between the religion of the ante-Nicene monuments and the religion of the ante-Nicene literature. They supplement and illustrate each other. Both exhibit to us neither the mediaeval Catholic nor the modern Protestant, but the post-apostolic Christianity of confessors and martyrs, simple, humble, unpretending, unlearned, unworldly, strong in death and in the hope of a blissful resurrection; free from the distinctive dogmas and usages of later times; yet with that strong love for symbolism, mysticism, asceticism, and popular superstitions which we find in the writings of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen.