Some of us might know the catacombs as the ancient initial burial places for Christians– but they are so much more! Fr. James Spencer Northcote details the catacombs and their uses in his book The Roman Catacombs: A History of the Christian City Beneath Pagan Rome.
Here are 7 cool catacomb facts you need to know!
1. At some points, the catacombs go five stories deep
That’s really far below ground! All of the early Christians in and around Rome were buried in the catacombs– that adds up quickly. Fr. Northcote gives a good account of the depth of the catacombs through his wonderfully detailed maps.
2. Rich and poor were buried alongside each other
Bury the dead is a corporal work of mercy, one that the early Christians took very seriously (we should, too!). Therefore, the rich counted it as their duty and pleasure to make sure all were buried properly, which is why you’ll see rich and poor buried right alongside each other in the catacombs.
3. The catacombs were protected under Roman Law
Roman Law protected all burial ground– even Christian and Jewish– and that is what kept the catacombs safe for so long.
4. Worship inside the catacombs became common in the 3rd Century
At first, Christians worshiped in their homes, but when their numbers increased too much for homes to be accommodating, they began to congregate in their cemeteries aka the catacombs. This is when things like benches and tables began to appear in the liturgy for the faithful.
5. The catacombs changed shape as more levels were added
Since the primary purpose of the catacombs was to bury the dead, the first floors are rectangular and plain, fulfilling this primary duty. As more levels were added, they became more spacious and with greater variety of shapes, allowing air and light to reach beneath and accommodate the growing purpose of convening for worship.
6. The largest and mot valuable collection of Christian art is found underneath Rome
The first art in the catacombs was similar to the pagan art and inscriptions of the time, just with subtle differences, like the addition of symbols of the Resurrection, such as doves and lambs. This is also when the fish emerged as a symbol for Christians. As time went on, the artwork became more detailed and unique, picturing things like The Last Supper, Moses and the rock, and the sacrament of baptism. Fr. Northcote’s book includes some beautiful illustrations of these.
7. Inscriptions on the catacombs differed from pagan inscriptions in one major way
Romans would inscribe a person’s name and title on their headstone, denoting the person’s class and station. But the Christians inscribed only a person’s name, cementing the understanding that a person’s worth was found in Christ alone and that all are equal.
If you’re into history, love the early history of the Church, or have a penchant for memorizing dates and obscure facts, Fr. Northcote’s book, The Roman Catacombs, will be a welcome addition to your shelf!