A catacomb is an underground cavern or cave. The word is used to denote the ancient underground cemeteries or resting places for the dead in the neighborhood of Rome and of several other chief cities of the Graeco-Roman world. The early view was that catacombs were originally sand or gravel pits and stone quarries from which the heathen derived their building materials and then used the resulting cavities as burial places for deceased slaves and prisoners. This view has been abandoned on the ground that many of the catacombs were no sand pits and stone quarries. It has been well established that he catacombs were dug by the Christians and are thus of Christian and not of pagan origin. It was once thought that the catacombs were built by the Christians as places of refuge in times of persecution. It was seen that the objection to this view is that the task of excavation was huge and could only be carried out by the Christians if unmolested by the heathen magistrates and police. In the present century the investigation of the catacombs has brought to light that they were dug by the Christians for the purpose of serving as burial places for their dead. That the Christians provided burial places for their dead without being molested by the hostile heathen is easily explained. The dead must be removed for the benefit of the living.
The Roman catacombs are long and narrow halls with recesses for tombs built in the hills outside the city of Rome. They are without daylight so that light had to be provided by lamps. Some of the halls extend to a great length. Their combined length is several miles long and the graves can be counted by tens of thousands. Most of the catacombs were constructed during the first three centuries. After Constantine the Christians began to bury their dead above ground. Some of the catacombs belonged to churches, others to private families. Jerome tells of how as a schoolboy he and his comrades visited every Sunday the graves of the apostle—so he thought—in the catacombs of Rome where, to quote him, “in subterranean depths the visitor passes to and fro between the bodies of the entombed in both walls and where all is dark. 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 you find yourself in the darkness of night.” After Constantine the catacombs ceased to be used as burial places. Then pilgrims resorted to them and the devotional use of the catacombs began. Little churches were built near them for the celebration of the memory of martyrs. Pope Damascus decorated the catacombs and built more staircases for the convenience of the pilgrims. His successors did likewise. Then came the barbarian invasion. Christian barbarians, in search for bones of deceased saints, which they regarded as sacred, entered the catacombs and conveyed loads of dead men’s bones from these tombs to their chapels. The result was that the worship of deceased saints was diverted from the catacombs to the churches. The catacombs ceased to be places of interest and were forgotten for six centuries. In the sixteenth century they were rediscovered and they became objects of research. In the present century the investigation of the catacombs has become a department of Christian archeology.
Numerous pictures have been found in the catacombs,—pictures representing scenes of Bible history and of Christ. Pictures of “The Good Shepherd” predominate. These pictures were painted on the walls of the catacombs. The Christians also painted their favorite symbols on the walls of the catacombs and on the graves of their dead they wrote fitting epitaphs and comforting thoughts. The language is a mixture of Greek and Latin and many of the words are badly misspelled, which shows that, on a whole, the Christians were an uneducated people. Only one name of the deceased is given, sometimes his age and the day of his burial but never the day of his birth. More than five thousand of these inscriptions have been collected and interpreted and can now be found in museums. The catacombs also have a varied furniture, most of which has been removed to churches and museums. Among the articles found are rings, seals, bracelets, necklaces, clay lamps, coins, all sorts of tools and children’s toys. Upon many of these articles are found monograms of Christ. A great number of cups are found beside the graves. The presence of this furniture in the catacombs would indicate that the Christians would retreat in them for worship and would hide themselves in these caverns in times of persecution. Rarely would they be pursued in these silent caves.
The catacombs reflect the Christianity of the first three centuries, its hope, faith, and love, its life in the face of death and eternity. These pictures, symbols and relics of handicraft are so many silent testimonies to the social and domestic conditions of early Christianity. And this testimony is that the early Christians were poor, humble, devotional, that they were a people with trials and sufferings in the midst of which they believed and hoped. The most characteristic pictures found on the walls of the catacombs are those of the Good Shepherd, the fish and the vine. The three combined express the child-like faith of the early Christians. The Good Shepherd represents Christ who calls Himself such. The fish symbolizes salvation and the baptismal water of regeneration. The vine sets forth the vital union of Christ and his people. The catacombs reveal a living hope. Unlike the expressions of despair found on the coffins of the heathen, they proclaim in symbol and word the conviction of the resurrection of the body and of life everlasting. The large number of graves show that Christianity must have been strong in Rome. The religion inscribed upon the walls of the catacombs agrees fully with the religion of the early Christians as reflected by the writings of the church fathers of that period. Many of these inscriptions are also expressive of natural affection. They read, “My sweetest child, innocent lamb, dearest husband, wife, my well deserving father and mother.”