In ancient Rome people were forbidden to bury their dead within the city limits. This rule led to the creation of the catacombs, a network of underground passages used as a cemetery. The pagans of Rome mainly used cremation, but some pagans and Jews utilized the catacombs to bury loved ones. Following the practice of the Jewish community, Christians began using the catacombs to bury their dead around the second century.
Christians used the catacombs to bury their dead until the time of Constantine and the Edict of Milan in AD 313. At that time, the use of the catacombs declined as Christians were able to bury their dead within the city limits. Some Christians continued to visit the catacombs due to the presence of martyrs buried there, and, by the fourth century, several chapels and shrines were built on top of certain sections of the catacombs in honor of martyred saints. During the eighth century, the church moved some of the remains from the catacombs because of the Visigoth invasion of Rome. After this time, history forgot the catacombs. Not until the sixteenth century, with the excavations of the catacombs by Antonio Bosio (nicknamed “Columbus of the Catacombs”), did the catacombs return to Christian interest. Researchers have since found about forty Christian catacombs near roads that once led into Rome. Today, the Christian catacombs in Rome are a major tourist attraction, although only five sections are open to the public. The Catholic order of the Salesians of Don Bosco act as caretakers.
Among the catacombs that are open for viewing are the Catacombs of St. Agnes, Callixtus, San Sebastiano, Domitilla, and Priscilla. Notably, the Catacombs of Callixtus contain the “Crypt of Popes,” where multiple popes lie. The catacombs contain the remains of various martyrs; through the years, the Catholic Church has exhumed other remains to use as holy relics.
Being dug into soft volcanic rock, the catacombs were perfect for providing a burial ground, as the rock hardened when exposed to air. Within the labyrinth of catacombs are five levels of tombs connected by stairways. Some wealthier Christians were able to have room-like vaults cut out for them.
A major historical value of the Roman catacombs is the rich collection of Christian art and symbols they contain. In the Christian catacombs, one can find the oldest known examples of the “Jesus fish” or Ichthys (ΙΧΘΥΣ), a symbol that proclaims Jesus as the Son of God and Savior (see John 1:49). Other notable symbols in the catacombs include the following:
• An anchor — a symbol of the Christian’s hope in Jesus (Hebrews 6:19).
• A phoenix — a legendary bird that would raise to life from its own ashes. The phoenix was a popular early church symbol for the resurrection and sometimes of the virgin birth of Jesus (see Luke 1:26–38).
• A dove — a symbol of the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:22).
• The Alpha and Omega — a title of Jesus (Revelation 22:13).
• The Chi-Rho (☧) — a monogram of Christ’s name.
• A shepherd — a symbol of Jesus as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11).
Other notable examples of Christian art within the catacombs include depictions of biblical characters and stories: the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment; Moses striking the rock; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace; Paul teaching; etc. A popular drawing is the fish and loaves from the accounts of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand and four thousand (Matthew 14:13–21; 15:29–39).
Throughout the catacombs, the hope of Christians is evident. The early church looked forward to resurrection and honored the Lord Jesus as the Savior. “He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:10).