Discover the Secrets of the Roman Catacombs

Despite their impressiveness, the catacombs of Rome were left forgotten beneath the eternal city for centuries.

May 13, 2024By Hannah Harms, BA Ancient World Studies, BA Literature & Theatre Studies, MA Ancient Mediterranean History, Archaeology and Art (in progress)

secrets roman catacombs


When people think of the Roman Empire, they typically think of conquests, great emperors, monumental architecture, and richly adorned tombs. It may be surprising to learn that just outside Rome’s city walls, there is an extensive system of underground tombs that stretch for an estimated one thousand kilometers. These catacombs mark a definitive period in ancient Roman history: the gradual takeover of the Roman Empire by Christianity.


Where and How Were the Catacombs of Rome Built?

via latina catacomb
The Catacomb of Via Latina (ca. 300-360 CE), by Scala Archives, 2006. Source: JSTOR


Adhering to Roman law, the catacombs are located just outside of the city walls. Table X of The Twelve Tables (c. 450 BCE) states that ‘A dead person shall not be buried or burned in the city’. This meant that the roads leading to and from Rome became popular burial sites as they ensured accessibility. Of particular importance was the Via Appia Antica, which was constructed in 312 BCE. It was the first of the great Roman roads and housed several of the largest and oldest catacombs.


The Catacombs of Saint Callixtus, the largest of the underground networks, was the official cemetery of the Church of Rome in the 3rd century CE and contained over half a million Christian burials. The sheer size and complexity of these landscapes are astounding.


Map of Catacombs around Rome, by the University of California. Source JSTOR.


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Built in pre-existing quarries, burial spaces were dug out to accommodate privately owned family hypogea. The Catacombs of Rome were in use from the 1st to the 5th centuries CE. The earliest of the burials were generally cremations, but by the start of the 2nd century, the practice had changed to inhumation. This gave rise to a more lavish-style tomb, the acrosolium, which typically contained a decorated archway and differed from the common loculi style tombs. These archways contain some of the earliest and best-preserved Christian artworks from the Roman Empire.


loculi acrosolia catacomb priscilla
Loculi and Arcosolia, Catacombs of Priscilla, by Scala Archives, 2006. Source: JSTOR.


As the catacombs turned into places of devotion, large basilicas were built above the catacombs from the 4th to the 7th centuries to accommodate the increase of pilgrims and travelers. By the 8th century, important relics were moved to churches for safekeeping and the catacombs lost their significance. They eventually fell into disuse and were completely forgotten by the 12th century.


Who Was Buried in the Catacombs? 

alberto pisa painting
Procession in Catacomb of Callixtus, Alberto Pisa, c. 1903-1959. Source: Internet Archive.


The Catacombs of Rome are largely labeled as ‘Christian’. However, it wasn’t until the late 3rd century CE that the Christian population began to dominate the underground network. The custom of burying the deceased in underground hypogea was also practiced by Jewish and pagan communities. It was not until the 4th century CE that the catacombs became almost exclusively Christian as the Roman Empire officially turned to Christianity.


pagan mausolea catacomb sebastian
Catacomb of St. Sebastian, three pagan mausolea, by Scala Archives, 2006. Source JSTOR.


The catacombs contain a significant number of pagan burials, commonly placed side by side with Christian ones. This indicates that the separation of pagans and Christians in both life and death is in fact a modern myth. It is from the 4th century onwards that the narrative of these underground funerary complexes as ‘Christian’ constructs appears. There are over sixty surviving catacombs in Rome, six of which are exclusively Jewish. These catacombs are significant in their own right as they are the largest Jewish archaeological sites outside of Israel from ancient times.


The Christianization of the Roman Empire 

jewish symbol catacomb
Painting from Jewish Catacomb Villa Torlonia (3rd – 4th C.), by the University of California. Source: JSTOR.


The images found in the depths of the catacombs illustrate the rise of Christianity. Prior to the 3rd century CE, Christians formed a small portion of the Roman population and were often treated with hostility. As a result, the Christian funerary art in the catacombs was similar to traditional Greco-Roman art.

During the Great Persecutions, religiously ‘neutral’ images were used by Christians. This makes Christianity both art-historically and archaeologically invisible during the first two centuries of its existence. Christian philosopher Clement of Alexandria, writing in around 150-215 CE, advocated for the wearing of rings that bear unassuming symbols:


And let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship running with a fair wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates used, or a ship’s anchor, which Seleucus had engraved; and if the seal is a fisherman, it will recall the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water. For we are not to depict the faces of idols, we who are prohibited from attaching ourselves to them, nor a sword, nor a bow, since we follow peace, nor drinking cups since we are temperate.
Paedagogus 3.59-60.1


fish fresco callixtus
Fresco of fish in Catacomb of Callixtus, by the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS). Source: JSTOR.


It was not until after Constantine’s new laws that Christianity became not only legal but prestigious. This religious shift caused huge changes in the catacombs and the production of Christian funerary art. It was within the 4th century CE that a clear Christian art form was established, and, for the first time, images of Christ became prevalent. New Christian themes flourished across the late Tetrarchic and early Constantinian periods. Biblical images became vibrant and abundant, losing their previously ambiguous nature.


The Origins of Christian Art 

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Christians in a catacomb celebrating communion, threatened by invading Roman soldiers, by Wellcome Collection. Source: JSTOR.


Another thing that makes the catacombs significant is that they document the development of the early Christian art. Prior to the 4th century, popular Greco-Roman images such as the shepherd, phoenix, anchor, dove, fish, and orant were used as decorative motifs in the burials of Christian Romans. These images were adapted to contain Christian teachings while maintaining a moderate degree of anonymity. This made it difficult to differentiate between early Christian and non-Christian burials.


cypriot rambearer figure
Limestone Ram-Bearer (kriophoros), ca. 6th century BCE. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


The Good Shepherd motif is one of the most popular images and appears over a hundred times in the catacombs. The Shepherd is believed to be an early representation of Christ but shares strong artistic parallels with the ancient Greek kriophoros (ram bearer). Two of the oldest known depictions of the Good Shepherd are found in the Catacombs of Domitilla.


good shepherd domitilla
Good Shepherd in the Catacomb of Domitilla, by Scala Archives, 2006. Source: JSTOR.


The Christian use of symbols from Greco-Roman tradition is reflective of the turbulent religious climate during the late imperial period. Catacomb art is generally separated into two broad categories: pre-Constantinian (1st century to 325 CE) and post-Constantinian (325-525 CE).


Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 CE and Theodosius’s declaration of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire in 381 CE granted new freedoms to Roman Christians. As a result, the art within the catacombs began to depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Important chambers, such as the Capella Greca in the Catacombs of Priscilla and the Cubicula of Sacraments in the Callixtus Catacomb, are evidence of this iconographic shift. Several subjects from the Testament frequent these chambers. These include the stories of Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jonah, Daniel, Susanna, and the Three Youths.


How Were the Catacombs Rediscovered in the 16th Century?

three youths priscilla
Three Youths fresco painting in the Catacomb of Priscilla, by the Parker Collection, c. 1868-1869. Source: JSTOR.


The catacombs lay untouched under the streets of suburban Rome until 1578, when workers at the Vigna Del Sanchez accidentally came across an underground cavity along the Via Salaria Nuova. This turned out to be one of the forgotten catacombs.


What is intriguing about the rediscovery of the catacombs during the 16th century, is that they were unearthed during the early years of the Counter-Reformation and immediately became the subject of immense religious and ideological debate between Catholic and Protestant scholars.


basilica saint sebastian
Basilica of St. Sebastian, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, ca. 1750. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Catholic scholars attempted to weaponize the catacombs to further their cause against the Protestants. Catholic priest Richard Lassels published The Voyage of Italy in 1670, reinforcing Catholic perceptions:


“… no man enters into the catacombes but he comes better out, than he went in. Catholicks come out far more willing to dye for that faith, for which so many of their ancestors have dyed before them. The Adversaries of the Roman Church come out more staggered in their faith, and more milde towards the Catholick religion, to see what piety there is even in the bowels of Rome; Atheists come out with that belief that surely there is a God, seeing so many thousands of Martyrs have testifyed it with their blood.”


domitilla catacomb paintings
Catacomb of Domitilla, 3rd- 4th century CE, by Scala Archives, 2006. Source: JSTOR.


Sixteenth-century archaeologist Antonio Bosio, a Catholic in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, had an immense impact on the literature surrounding the Roman burials. His famous book Roma Sotterranea (1632) is evidence of a deep-rooted Catholic tradition in catacomb scholarship, a tradition that aimed at affirming the ancient roots of the Roman Church.


Do The Catacombs of Rome Still Exist Today? 

Antonio Bosio’s Roma Sotterranea engraved titlepage, via Arachne, 2021.


Many catacombs still exist today, but only a select few remain accessible to the public. The largest of the underground networks, the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus, are located on the Via Appia Antica and the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian. Situated nearby are the Catacombs of Domitilla, the oldest of the sites. Also accessible via the Appian Way is the Jewish catacomb, Vigna Randanini. On the other side of the city, two more catacombs are open to visitors. These include the Catacombs of Priscilla along the Via Salaria and the Catacombs of St. Agnes located in Via Nomentana.


via appia antica
The Via Appia Antica, photograph taken by author, 2019.


The catacombs are generally separated into two categories: Christian and Jewish. The majority of the Christian catacombs are now owned and managed by the Roman Catholic Church through the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology. These catacombs are significant for several reasons. They reveal the origins of early Christian art and document the Christianization of the Roman Empire, a process that ultimately shaped Christianity as we know it today. Next time you visit Rome, think about venturing into the depths of the catacombs and see why it is forever known as the ‘eternal city’.

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By Hannah HarmsBA Ancient World Studies, BA Literature & Theatre Studies, MA Ancient Mediterranean History, Archaeology and Art (in progress)Hannah ia a Masters student, currently studying the history, archaeology and art of the Ancient Mediterranean. She is a graduate of Ancient World Studies (BA with Honours), during which she specialised in the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. Apart from her studies, her interests include literature, art and travel. She is currently living abroad in Italy to pursue her travel dreams and archaeological interests.