overwhelming catastrophe which has produced sudden changes in the earth’s surface; and also, figuratively, of any great and violent change which sweeps away the existing social or political order.
CATACOMB, a subterranean excavation for the interment of the dead or burial-vault. In this sense the word “catacomb” has gained universal acceptance, and has found a place in most modern languages. The original term, catacumbae, however, had no connexion with sepulture, but was simply the name of a particular locality in the environs of Rome. It was derived from the Greek κατά and κύμβη, “a hollow,” and had reference to the natural configuration of the ground. In the district that bore this designation, lying close to the Appian Way, the basilica of San Sebastiano was erected, and the extensive burial-vaults beneath that church—in which, according to tradition, the bodies of the apostles St Peter and St Paul rested for a year and seven months previous to their removal to the basilicas which bear their names—were, in very early times, called from it coemeterium ad catacumbas, or catacumbas alone. From the celebrity of this cemetery as an object of pilgrimage its name became extensively known, and in entire forgetfulness of the origin of the word, catacumbae came to be regarded as a generic appellation for all burial-places of the same kind. This extension of the term to Christian burial-vaults generally dates from the 9th century, and obtained gradual currency through the Christian world. The original designation of these places of sepulture is crypta or coemeterium.
The largest number of Christian catacombs belong to the 3rd and the early part of the 4th centuries. The custom of subterranean interment gradually died out, and entirely ceased with the sack of Rome by Alaric, A.D. 410. “The end of the catacomb graves,” writes Mommsen (Cont. Rev., May 1871), “is intimately connected with the end of the powerful city itself.... Poverty took the place of wealth, ... the traditions of the Christian tomb-architects sank into utter insignificance, and the expanse of the wasted Campagna now offered room enough to bury the few bodies, without having to descend as once far down below the surface of the earth.” The earliest account of the catacombs, that of St Jerome narrating his visits to them when a schoolboy at Rome, about A.D. 354, shows that interment in them was even then rare if it had not been altogether discontinued; and the poet Prudentius’s description of the tomb of the Christian martyr Hippolytus, and the cemetery in which it stood, leads us to the same conclusion. With the latter part of the 4th century a new epoch in the history of the catacombs arose—that of religious reverence. In the time of Pope Damasus, A.D. 366–384, the catacombs had begun to be regarded with special devotion, and had become the resort of large bands of pilgrims, for whose guidance catalogues of the chief burial-places and the holy men buried in them were drawn up. Some of these lists are still extant. Pope Damasus himself displayed great zeal in adapting the catacombs to their new purpose, restoring the works of art on the walls, and renewing the epitaphs over the graves of the martyrs. In this latter work he employed an engraver named Furius Philocalus, the exquisite beauty of whose characters enables the smallest fragment of his work to be recognized at a glance. This gave rise to extensive alterations in their construction and decoration, which has much lessened their value as authentic memorials of the religious art of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Subsequent popes manifested equal ardour, with the same damaging results, in the repair and adornment of the catacombs, and many of the paintings covering their walls, which have been assigned to the period of their original construction, are really the work of these later times. The catacombs shared in the devastation of Rome by the Goths under Vitiges in the 6th century and by the Lombards at a later period; and partly through the spoliation of these barbarian invaders, partly through the neglect of those who should have been their guardians, they sank into such a state of decay and pollution that, as the only means of preserving the holy remains they enshrined from further desecration, Pope Paul I., in the latter part of the 8th century, and Pope Paschal, at the beginning of the 9th, entered upon the work of the translation of the relics, which was vigorously carried on by successive pontiffs until the crypts were almost entirely despoiled of their dead. The relics having been removed, the visits of pilgrims naturally ceased, and by degrees the very existence of those wonderful subterranean cemeteries was forgotten. Six centuries elapsed before the accidental discovery of a sepulchral chamber by some labourers digging for pozzolana earth (May 31, 1578) revealed to the amazed inhabitants of Rome “the existence,” to quote a contemporary record, “of other cities concealed beneath their own suburbs.” Baronius, the ecclesiastical historian, was one of the first to visit the new discovery, and his Annals in more than one place evidence his just appreciation of its importance. The true “Columbus of this subterranean world,” as he has been aptly designated, was the indefatigable Antonio Bosio (d. 1629), who devoted his life to the personal investigation of the catacombs, the results of which were given to the world in 1632 in a huge folio, entitled Roma sotterranea, profusely illustrated with rude but faithful plans and engravings. This was republished in a Latin translation with considerable alterations and omissions by Paolo Aringhi in 1651; and a century after its first appearance the plates were reproduced by Giovanni Bottari in 1737, and illustrated with great care and learning. Some additional discoveries were described by Marc Antonio Boldetti in his Osservazioni, published in 1720; but, writing in the interests of the Roman Church with an apologetic, not a scientific object, truth was made to bend to polemics, and little addition to our knowledge of the catacombs is to be gained from his otherwise important work. The French historian of art, Seroux d’Agincourt, 1825, by his copious illustrations, greatly facilitated the study of the architecture of the catacombs and the works of art contained in them. The works of Raoul Rochette display a comprehensive knowledge of the whole subject, extensive reading, and a thorough acquaintance with early Christian art so far as it could be gathered from books, but he was not an original investigator. The great pioneer in the path of independent research, which, with the intelligent use of documentary and historical evidence, has led to so vast an increase in our acquaintance with the Roman Catacombs, was Padre Marchi of the Society of Jesus. His work, Monumenti delle arti christiane primitive, is the first in which the strange misconception, received with unquestioning faith by earlier writers, that the catacombs were exhausted sand-pits adapted by the Christians to the purpose of interment, was dispelled, and the true history of their formation demonstrated. Marchi’s line of investigation was followed by the Commendatore De Rossi, and his brother Michele, the former of whom was Marchi’s fellow-labourer during the latter part of his explorations; and it is to them that we owe the most exhaustive scientific examination of the whole subject. The Catacombs of Rome are the most extensive with which we are acquainted, and, as might be expected in the centre of the Christian world, are in many respects the most remarkable. No others have been so thoroughly examined and illustrated. These may, therefore, be most appropriately selected for description as typical examples.
Our description of the Roman Catacombs cannot be more appropriately introduced than by St Jerome’s account of his visits to them in his youth, already referred to, which, after the lapse of above fifteen centuries, presents a most accurate picture of these wonderfulCatacombs of Rome. subterranean labyrinths. “When I was a boy,” he writes, “receiving my education in Rome, I and my schoolfellows used, on Sundays, to make the circuit of the sepulchres of the apostles and martyrs. Many a time did we go down into the catacombs. These are
- The most important of these lists are the two Itineraries belonging to the first half of the 7th century, in the Salzburg library. One still earlier, but less complete, appears in the Notitia Urbis Romae, under the title Index Coemeteriorum. Another Itinerary, preserved at Einsiedeln, printed by Mabillon, dates from the latter half of the same century. That found in the works of William of Malmesbury (Hardy’s ed. vol. ii. pp. 539-544) appears to be copied from it, or both may be from the same source. De Rossi gives a comparative table of these Itineraries and other similar lists.