(probably from Gr. kata kumbas, “at the ravine”). A term used for the subterranean Christian cemeteries whose origins go back to the first century a.d. They were labyrinths of underground galleries with connecting passages, often at more than one level. The majority of the excavations were carried out in the third and fourth centuries. Bodies were put into each of the spaces (loculi) hewn out of the rocky sidewalls. The loculi were then sealed by means of large marble slabs or tiles. Though catacombs existed in Paris, Asia Minor, Malta, and , Rome had the largest number. The latter have been extensively excavated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This period of excavation was inspired by the work of such men as Adami, Raoul-Rochette, and Settele, and the classic work of G.B. de Rossi, Roma sotterranea cristiana (3 vols., 1864-77). About forty catacombs survive in an area of three miles around Rome, and they include those named after such saints as Callistus, Praetextatus, Sebastian, Domitilla, Agnes, Pancras, and Commodilla. Most are situated at the sides of the great Roman roads (e.g., the Via Appia) which led out of the city. Their excavation has brought to light many inscriptions, paintings, and sarcophagi. The earliest inscriptions, written in beautiful characters, are distinguished by their sober wording and the use of ancient symbols (e.g., the anchor and cross). Christian symbolism reached its most lofty expression in the third century, as is seen in the symbols of the dove, palm branch, fish, bread and basket. The fourth century saw the development of Christian epigraphy. Since burial grounds were regarded as sacrosanct in Roman law, Christians were able in times of persecution to worship in the catacombs. They also used them for services held on the anniversaries of martyrs. In order to provide sufficient air and light for the crowds who attended the services, shafts to the surface were constructed. Certain popes (e.g., Damasus, 366- 84) encourage the beautification of the catacombs-hence the first examples of Christian art date from this period. From the fifth century they were no longer used for burials, but services continued to be held. During the they seem to have been virtually forgotten.
G.M. Bevan, Early Christians of Rome, Their Words and Pictures (1928); O. Marucchi, The Evidence of the Catacombs (1929); see also entries under Archaeology and Art.
CATACOMBS kat’ ə kōms’ (κατὰ κύμβας, meaning uncertain; drinking cup, boat, wallet, tumbler pigeon have been suggested). Subterranean burial places used by the Early Church.
The name originally referred to a locality near the church of St. Sebastian on the, three m. S of Rome. The name prob. referred to a natural hollow in the terrain or to an inn sign. It was used in the 4th and 5th centuries for the cemetery associated with the church in the forms ad catacumbas, catacumbae.
The principal catacombs are at Rome, though others exist at Albano, Alexandria, Naples, Malta and Syracuse. They are all dug in soft rock. Those in Rome extend for more than 350 m. and so surround the city that they act as a cushion against earthquakes. Famous ones include St. Sebastian, St. Priscilla, St. Paul, St. Callixtus, St. Praetextus, and St. Pontianus. They consist of a series of underground galleries and tomb chambers. The walls were lined with tiers of coffin-like recesses holding from one to four bodies each.
Estimates of the number of burials at Rome range from 1,750,000 to 4,000,000 within ten generations. This would mean that the Christian population of the city was between 175,000 and 400,000 in each generation. Within a cent. after the official recognition of Christianity in the empire, the catacombs ceased to be used and became places of pilgrimage.
Four Jewish catacombs have also been identified at Rome. Although a great many Jews were brought to the city as slaves during the late republic and early empire, there is not a single indication of slave status among the burials. This confirms Philo’s statement that many Jews came to Rome as slaves, but were soon set free (legatio 23. 155). Moreover, many Jews took lofty Rom. names for themselves and, except for the fact that they are buried in the Jewish catacombs, would not have been recognized as Jews.
M. Besnier, Les Catacombes de Rome (1900); O. Marucchi, Le Catacombe romane (1933); P. Styger, Die romische Katacombe (1935); H. J. Leon, The Jews of Ancient Rome (1960).