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more than one entrance, and frequently communicated with an arenaria or sand-quarry; so that while one entrance was carefully watched, the pursued might escape in a totally different direction by another. But, to quote J.H. Parker, “the catacombs were never intended, nor fit for, dwelling-places, and the stories of persons living in them for months are probably fabulous. According to modern physicians it is impossible to live many days in the caves of pozzolana in which many of the catacombs are excavated.” Equally exaggerated are the statements as to the linear and lateral extent of the catacombs, and their intercommunication with one another. Without resorting to this exaggeration, Mommsen can speak with perfect truth of the “enormous space occupied by the burial vaults of Christian Rome, not surpassed even by the cloacae or sewers of Republican Rome,” but the data are too vague to warrant any attempt to define their dimensions. Marchi has estimated the united length of the galleries at from 800 to 900 m., and the number of interments at between 6,000,000 and 7,000,000; Martigny’s estimate is 587 m.; and Northcote’s, lower still, at “not less than 350 m.” The idea of general intercommunication is negatived by the fact that the chief cemeteries are separated by low ground or valleys, where any subterranean galleries would be at once filled with water.

It now remains to speak of the history of these subterranean burial-places, together with the reasons for, and mode of, their construction. From the period of the rediscovery of the catacombs in the 16th century till comparatively recent times a gigantic fallacy prevailed, repeated by writer after writer, identifying the Christian burial-places with disused sand-pits. It was accepted as an unquestionable fact by every one who undertook to describe the catacombs, that the Christians of Rome, finding in the labyrinthine mazes of the exhausted arenariae, which abounded in the environs of the city, whence the sand used in building had been extracted, a suitable place for the interment of their martyred brethren, where also the sacred rites accompanying the interment might be celebrated without fear of interruption, took possession of them and used them as cemeteries. It only needed a comparison of the theory with the visible facts to refute it at once, but nearly three centuries elapsed before the independence of the arenariae and the catacombs was established. The discovery of this independence is due to Marchi. Starting with the firmest belief in the old traditional view, his own researches by degrees opened his eyes to the truth, now universally recognized, that the catacombs were exclusively the work of the Christians, and were constructed for the interment of the dead. It is true that a catacomb is often connected with the earlier sand-quarry, and starts from it as a commencement, but the two are excavated in different strata, suitable to their respective purposes, and their plan and construction are so completely unlike as to render any confusion between them impossible.

The igneous formation of which the greater part of the Roman Campagna is, in its superior portion, composed, contains three strata known under the common name of tufa,—the “stony,” “granular,” and “sandy” tufa,—the last being commonly known as pozzolana.[1] The pozzolana is the material required for building purposes, for admixture with mortar; and the sandpits are naturally excavated in the stratum which supplies it. The stony tufa (tufa litoide) is quarried as building-stone. The granular tufa is useless for either purpose, containing too much earth to be employed in making mortar, and being far too soft to be used as stone for building. Yet it is in this stratum, and in this alone, that the catacombs are constructed; their engineers avoiding with equal care the solid stone of the tufa litoide and the friable pozzolana, and selecting the stratum of medium hardness, which enabled them to form the vertical walls of their galleries, and to excavate the loculi and cubicula without severe labour and also without fear of their falling in. The annexed illustration (fig. 16) from Marchi’s work, when compared with that of the catacomb of Sant’ Agnese already given, presents to the eye the contrast between the wide winding irregular passages of the sand-pit, calculated for the admission of a horse and cart, and the narrow rectilinear accurately-defined galleries of the catacomb. The distinction between the two is also plainly exhibited when for some local or private reasons an ancient arenaria has been transformed into a cemetery. The modifications required to strengthen the crumbling walls to support the roof and to facilitate the excavation of loculi, involved so much labour that, as a rule, after a few attempts, the idea of utilizing an old quarry for burial purposes was abandoned.

EB1911 Catacomb - Fig. 16.—Arenaria beneath the Cemetery of Calixtus.jpg
Fig. 16.—Arenaria beneath the Cemetery of Calixtus.

Another equally erroneous idea was that these vast burial-places of the early Christians remained entirely concealed from the eyes of their pagan neighbours, and were constructed not only without the permission of the municipal authorities but without their cognizance. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Such an idea is justly stigmatized by Mommsen as ridiculous, and reflecting a discredit as unfounded as it is unjust on the imperial police of the capital. That such vast excavations should have been made without attracting attention, and that such an immense number of corpses could have been carried to burial in perfect secrecy is utterly impossible. Nor was there any reason why secrecy should have been desired. The decent burial of the dead was a matter especially provided for by the Roman laws. No particular mode was prescribed. Interment was just as legal as cremation, and had, in fact, been universally practised by the Romans until the later days of the republic.[2] The bodies of the Scipios and Nasos were buried in still existing catacombs; and if the Christians preferred to adopt that which Minucius Felix calls “the better, and more ancient custom of inhumation” (Octavius, c. 2), there was absolutely nothing, to quote the words of Northcote (Roma sotterran. pp. 56, 61), “either in their social or religious position to interfere with their freedom of action. The law left them entire liberty,... and the faithful did but use their liberty in the way that suited them best, burying their dead according to a fashion to which many of them had been long accustomed, and which enabled them at the same time to follow in death the example of him who was also their model in life.” Interment in rock-hewn tombs, “as the manner of the Jews is to bury,” had been practised in Rome by the Jewish settlers for a considerable period anterior to the rise of the Christian Church. A Jewish catacomb, now lost, was discovered and described by Bosio (Rom. sott. p. 141), and others are still accessible. They are to be distinguished from Christian catacombs only by the character of their decorations, the absence of Christian symbols and the language of their inscriptions. There would, therefore, be nothing extraordinary in the fact that a community, always identified in the popular heathen mind with the Jewish faith, should adopt the mode of interment belonging to that religion. Nor have we the slightest trace of any official interference with Christian burials, such as would render secrecy necessary or desirable. Their funerals were as much under the protection of the law, which not only invested the tomb itself with a sacred character, but included in its protection the area in which it stood, and the cella memoriae or chapel connected with it, as those of their heathen fellow-citizens, while the same shield would be thrown over the burial-clubs, which, as we learn from Tertullian

  1. In Rome the three strata are known to geologists as tufa litoide, tufa granolare and pozzolana.
  2. Cicero is our authority for the burial of Marius, and for Sulla’s being the first member of the Gens Cornelia whose dead body was burnt (De Legg. ii. 22).