Catacombs of Rome

The Catacombs of Rome are truly remarkable.


The Catacombs of Rome include underground burial niches carved into soft volcanic rock.

The Catacombs of Rome are ancient catacombs, underground burial places under Rome, Italy, of which there are at least forty, some discovered only in recent decades.

They were carved through tufo, a soft volcanic rock, outside the walls of the city, because Roman law forbade burial places within city limits.

There are sixty known subterranean burial chambers in Rome.


The Catacombs of Rome narrative drops the High Middle Ages [1000-1250 AD] and the Late Middle Ages [1250-1500 AD] down the memory hole.

By the 10th century catacombs were practically abandoned, and holy relics were transferred to above-ground basilicas. In the intervening centuries they remained forgotten until they were accidentally rediscovered in 1578, after which Antonio Bosio spent decades exploring and researching them for his Roma Sotterranea (1632).

Antonio Bosio (c. 1575 or 1576 – 1629) was an Italian scholar, the first systematic explorer of subterranean Rome (the “Columbus of the Catacombs”), author of Roma Sotterranea and first urban spelunker.

Roma Sotterranea – Antonio Bosio – 1632 – Freiburg University Library


The Catacombs of Rome are famous for their Early Christian art that often looks a little too early and/or a little too Greek and/or a little too Vedic and/or a little too speculative.

The Christian catacombs are extremely important for the art history of Early Christian art, as they contain the great majority of examples from before about 400 AD, in fresco and sculpture, as well as gold glass medallions (these, like most bodies, have been removed).

Orpheus is a legendary musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greek religion and myth. The major stories about him are centered on his ability to charm all living things and even stones with his music, his attempt to retrieve his wife, Eurydice, from the underworld, and his death at the hands of those who could not hear his divine music.


Therefore, it’s not unreasonable to conjecture that a group of Roma people [aka The Sea Peoples] settled in Corinth “around 900 BC” and [subsequently] become known as the Dorians in the mainstream narrative.

Clearly, one major advantage of this hypothesis is that it explains how Ancient Greek acquired it’s Sanskrit affinities and archaic features.



The Catacombs of Rome narrative drops Pozzolana down the memory hole.

Roman concrete, also called opus caementicium, was a material used in construction during the late Roman Republic until the fading of the Roman Empire.

Vitruvius, writing around 25 BC in his Ten Books on Architecture, distinguished types of aggregate appropriate for the preparation of lime mortars.

For structural mortars, he recommended pozzolana (pulvis puteolanus in Latin), the volcanic sand from the beds of Pozzuoli, which are brownish-yellow-gray in color in that area around Naples, and reddish-brown near Rome.

Volcanic dusts, called pozzolana or “pit sand”, were favored where they could be obtained.

However, with the help of John Henry Parker, some of the memory holes can be plugged.

John Henry Parker CB (1806-1884) was an English archaeologist and writer on architecture and publisher.

Later he devoted much attention to explorations of the history of Rome by means of excavations, and succeeded in satisfying himself of the historical truth of much usually regarded as legendary.

Two volumes of his Archaeology of Rome were published at Oxford in 1874 and 1876.

In Italy one of Parker’s principal projects was to compose an archive collection of photographs of the city’s greatest monuments from the Renaissance era onwards.

Employing local photographers the collection recorded not only Rome’s greatest building and works, but also detailed scenes of the late 19th century archaeological excavations.
He used many of these to illustrate his books.

In 1893 the entire archive perished in a fire at the Palazzo Della Porta Negroni Caffarelli depriving modern archeologists of an invaluable source of material.

Plugging the Pozzolana Memory Hole
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of John Henry Parker’s narrative is the pivotal part played by Pozzolana in the Catacombs of Rome narrative.

a) The Pozzolana [or “pit-sand”] near Rome occurs in layers [about ten feet thick] that are sandwiched between layers of soft volcanic rock.

b) The excavation of Pozzolana created “hundreds of miles” of sand-pit roads.

c) The excavation of Pozzolana probably dates back to foundation of Rome.

d) The excavated sand-pit roads [and associated sand-pits] provided easy access to the soft volcanic rock used to carve out the burial niches that are the Catacombs of Rome.

Preface To The Catacombs

So many popular delusions are current on the subject of the Roman Catacombs, that it is difficult to obtain a hearing for a plain, unvarnished tale, in which the truth has been the only object sought for.

There is a very general misunderstanding on the subject of sand-pits ; those who are accustomed to English sand-pits only cannot easily understand how very different the Roman sand-pits are, from the peculiar geological formation of the Campagna of Rome, the whole of the subsoil of which consists of successive layers of tufa of different degrees of hardness ; one hard layer is good for building-stone, another is only loose sand called Pozzolana, a third is between the two.

The last kind of tufa is the best for the purpose of catacombs, but they are by no means all made in that material : some are in clay, others in river sand, which is quite different from the Pozzolana.

The sand-pit roads were made by excavating, in a bed or layer of sand, a space sufficient to allow a horse and cart to go along, and the sand dug out to make the road was itself a sand-pit, but there are other pits at intervals also.

These subterranean roads formed very convenient modes of access to the Catacombs, which were generally made in the harder bed of tufa under that level.

In some cases the beds are alternate, the Pozzolana is found at two or three different levels.

In the catacomb of S. Priscilla, which is five stories deep, two are sand-pit roads, one of which has been partially used for burials, the other has not.

When these roads passed under the property of a family, whether their farm or their burial-place, the ground was the property of that family to any depth, and the name prædium would apply equally to both.

Some of the sand-pit roads appear originally to have been open at the top, and have been only ancient foss-ways, fifteen feet below the level of the soil, as was usual in the time of the kings of Rome, and to have been arched over after the fashion had changed, and the roads were made on the level of the ground; but this was not until the second century of the Christian era, or subsequent to that time.

In several instances the original entrance to a catacomb was near a sand-pit in the usual sense, others in a sand-pit road; the present entrances are almost all modern, merely cut through into the catacombs by accident, or for convenience ; the original entrance, when found, is not used, and sometimes seems to be rather studiously avoided.

Scores of Pagan inscriptions have been found in the Catacombs, and many of them remain there still.

The theory of the priests and their followers is that all these were carried down to the Catacombs as old marble, to be used again ; this appears to me extremely improbable.

There are hundreds of miles of sand-pit roads undermining the Campagna of Rome in all directions, some still in use, others long disused and the entrances walled up.

Some of them are probably as old as the foundation of Rome.

The earliest commerce of which we have any record is the exchange of salt for Pozzalana sand at Rome, which is the highest point to which the Tiber is navigable, and the early Kings of Rome made salt marshes at the mouth of the Tiber, called Ostia, for the preparation of salt, and these are still in use.

A sand-pit road is itself a sand-pit at the same time, as it is commonly made in a layer of Pozzalana sand of about ten feet thick, and the sand dug out in making the road was carried away as sand to be sold ; there are pits at intervals also on each side of the road, but nearly on the same level.

The Archaeology of Rome – Part XII – The Catacombs of Rome
John Henry Parker – 1877

Natural Sections in the Catacomb of S. Cyriaca, and Loculi in the Corridors (called also streets), now in the burial-ground of S. Lorenzo.

In the course of the enlargement of the great burial-ground of Rome in the year 1870 – 1871, part of the tufa rock on the side of it was cut away in which this catacomb was situated, and one side of the corridors or streets, and of the cubicula, or burial-vaults, was thrown open to view.

It is now, in 1874, again concealed by modern tombs built up against it, but the views here given shew very clearly the old arrangement, and the manner in which the corridors followed the geological formation of the rock, being always made on a bed of soft tufa between two beds or layers of hard tufa.

The loculi, or places for the bodies to be laid in the graves cut in the rock, instead of being dug out in the ground, are here shewn very clearly.

The Archaeology of Rome – Part XII – The Catacombs of Rome
John Henry Parker – 1877

Parker also explains there is “no real distinction between a tomb and a catacomb”.

There is no real distinction between a tomb and a catacomb.

Under a tomb by the road-side there is frequently a catacomb, and over a catacomb there was commonly a tomb, sometimes made into a church or a burial chapel.

There are frequently columbaria or places for the urns, containing the ashes of burnt bodies ; and arco-solia or places for sarcophagi, or for bodies to be interred in the same tomb.

At first only loculi, or mere graves in stone or sand excavated out of the rock on the sides of the subterranean sand-pit roads, were used ; then arco-solia, or graves under arches for two persons, were brought into use ; then chambers for family burial-vaults were excavated, with entrances from the sand-pit roads ; then these were made with distinct entrances, independent of the sand-pit roads altogether, as we see by the flight of steps descending into them ; but these are generally of later date.

The family vaults, or cubicula or coemeteria, bear evident marks of having been used by many successive generations; and when there was no longer any place for more bodies either in the walls or in the floor, the painted vault above was broken through, and bodies were inserted there over the rest of the family.

The Archaeology of Rome – Part XII – The Catacombs of Rome
John Henry Parker – 1877

This subject has already been partially shewn in Plate I., as it appeared in 1870, but the process of enlarging the present cemetery of S. Lorenzo has been continued down to 1875, and some more of the hill has been cut away, bringing to light other remains of the ancient cemetery long concealed in that hill.

This gives a better idea of the manner in which these ancient cemeteries were made than any architect’s drawing could do.

We see here the corridors or streets ascending and descending, as the tufa rock was hard or soft ; the loculi for single bodies cut on each side of this passage, the arco-solia for the burial of man and wife, and the cubicula for family burial-vaults.

The Archaeology of Rome – Part XII – The Catacombs of Rome
John Henry Parker – 1877

Montjuïc Cemetery, known in Catalan as Cementiri del Sud-oest or Cementiri de Montjuïc, is located on one of the rocky slopes of Montjuïc hill in Barcelona.

It was opened on 17 March 1883 by the city of Barcelona as its main cemetery, supplanting the older cemetery at Poblenou in the east.

It now contains over one million burials and cremation ashes in 150,000 plots, niches and mausolea and is operated by Cementiris de Barcelona S.A.

Parker observes that the few “bits of architecture” found in the Catacombs of Rome date from the “time of the Republic” through to the “sixth century”.

The soft tufa rock has in many of the other catacombs also to be supported by walls, generally of brick, but sometimes with stone doorways ; these walls and doorways are the only bits of architecture about the Catacombs by which we can judge of their dates.

The earliest which are in the tomb or catacomb of the Scipios, are of the time of the Republic, and are dated by the mouldings of the arch at the original entrance, and by the sarcophagi found in them.

The next are in the catacomb of the Jews, part of which is of the time of Augustus, another part of the time of Constantine, shewing that it continued in use for three or four centuries, and perhaps a longer period.

Most of the tombs there bear marks of great poverty.

The next catacombs in point of date, so far as can be judged by the architecture, are those of Praetextatus, and of SS. Nereus and Achilleus, in which there are fine doorways and cornices of moulded brick of the first or second century.

Most of the others which have any architectural character at all are of the fourth century, of the time of Constantine, or subsequent to it.

That of S. Agnes, which is one of the finest, is chiefly of that period.

That of SS. Thraso and Saturninus on the Via Salaria, has brick walls of the sixth century at the foot of the stairs and at the end of the long corridor.

The Archaeology of Rome – Part XII – The Catacombs of Rome
John Henry Parker – 1877

The inscription of Bishop Eutychianus, A.D. 238, Fabianus, A.D. 249, and Anteros, A.D. 235, are in Greek characters; that of Cornelius, martyr and bishop, A.D. 252, is in the Latin character.

It is the fashion now for Protestants to doubt the authenticity of these inscriptions, because they see that the catacomb of Calixtus has been too much restored and got up for show, with the object of restoring it to use as a place of worship and for pilgrimages on certain festival days.

But these suspicions are carried too far ; there is no reason to doubt the genuineness of these inscriptions in the Catacombs.

Greek was the language of the Church until after that period, and there were many Greek Christians in Rome in the third century.

The change of the seat of empire was the ruin of Rome in many ways, and after that time more Romans went to Greece than Greeks came to Rome.

Those inscriptions have all the character of authenticity, only in some cases the originals were carried off to the Pontifical Museum, and plaster casts substituted for them in their original places.

The Archaeology of Rome – Part XII – The Catacombs of Rome
John Henry Parker – 1877

Plugging the Medieval Memory Hole
Parker’s narrative also reveals numerous medieval connections to the Catacombs of Rome.

The origin of the name of Catacomb, to begin with, is one of the questions long discussed and still undecided; but as the name is medieval only, and not that by which they were originally called, it does not seem very material : the original name was Cemeteria, and like many other words this had a double signification, one general, the other specific; the general name was that of a tract of ground applied for the purpose of interment, the specific name was a particular burial-vault, called also a cubiculum, which was usually sold in perpetuity to a particular family, without reference to the religion of its members.

The Archaeology of Rome – Part XII – The Catacombs of Rome
John Henry Parker – 1877

A.D. 1217 – 1229
The pilgrimages to the tombs of the martyrs in the Catacombs were renewed under Honorius III.

The Archaeology of Rome – Part XII – The Catacombs of Rome
John Henry Parker – 1877

In the time of Paschal II., A.D. 1104, the Roman Christians went barefoot on a pilgrimage to the Catacombs.

Honorius III., A.D. 1220, translated a number of bodies from the catacomb of Pontianus, called in his time ad Ursum Pileatum.
It is probable that he restored the paintings in some of the vaults from which he had taken them, as such appears to have been the custom. Some of the paintings published in Perret’s work appear to be of the thirteenth century.

In the Middle Ages, the Catacombs are said to have been abused, like everything else in Rome, for warlike purposes in the barons’ wars, and battles are said to have taken place in them between the adherents of the Colonna and the Orsini families.

Petrarch describes these lamentable events in his time, and the adherents of Cola di Rienzi are said to have used them as places of muster and concealment.

Notwithstanding all this desecration, they seem to have been still used occasionally as places of pious pilgrimage.

Amongst the graffiti, or names scratched upon the walls, with several dates of the fourteenth century have been found, a bishop of Rome and companions early in this century, with several German names Latinized, and the date 1397.

On one of the early Christian tombs was found a small chalice of silver gilt, and a palm-leaf worked in silver, with the date 1340.

In another crypt was discovered this inscription, with the date 1321 above it, and the names of three visitors beneath it : —

” Gather together, O Christians, in these caverns, to read the holy books; to sing hymns to the honour of martyrs and the saints that here lie buried, having died in the Lord ; to sing Psalms for those who are now dying in the faith. There is light in this darkness. There is music in these tombs.”

In the catacomb of S. Calixtus, the names of various pilgrims, who had visited them in the fifteenth century, are scratched upon the walls : some Franciscan friars in 1432 ; Brother Lawrence, of Sicily, with twenty brothers of the order of friars minor, on the seventeenth of January, 1451, and again in 1455, “in the week in which Pope Nicholas V. died;” some Cistercians in 1467 ; the abbot of S. Sebastian’s, with a large party, in 1469 ; other Franciscan friars in 1482.

At the same period, Pomponio Leto, and other litterati, who were active in the revival of classical literature, and were suspected of heresy, also visited them, and inscribed their names, giving themselves, apparently in joke, grandiloquent titles, including that of Pontifex Maximus.

The Archaeology of Rome – Part XII – The Catacombs of Rome
John Henry Parker – 1877

Plugging the Monetary Memory Hole
Parker was very honest about those who had a financial interest in the Catacombs of Rome.

That the early Christian martyrs were buried in the Catacombs there is no doubt ; but the exaggeration of the numbers, that was made by the Roman-Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, has made many consider the whole history as apocryphal, which is to be regretted.

There is a natural reverence for them which would be allowed by all Christians, if it were not for the exaggeration of modern Rome, and the impatience felt at the bones found here being made an article of lucrative traffic.

This led to much exaggeration as to the number of martyrs interred in the Catacombs, until eventually the people were taught to believe that all the people interred in them were martyrs.

The tombs of martyrs had great influence on the history of the Catacombs : hundreds of persons sought to have the bodies of their friends interred in the same cemetery, and large prices were paid for a family burying-place near a martyr.

The assumption always made by the Roman Church that the Catacombs were exclusively Christian, or that a distinction was made after death between the bodies of Christians and of Pagans, requires to be examined before it is assented to by those who seek the truth only, without regard to any preconceived theory or traditions.

That some of the Catacombs were Christian is probable, because they belonged to Christian families ; but it is very doubtful whether they were rigidly exclusive.

So many Pagan inscriptions, Pagan glasses, and Pagan paintings have been found in them, that the idea of strict exclusiveness can hardly be maintained.

The legends of the Roman branch of the Catholic Church are not received as being necessarily true and the whole truth, but like other authorities of history to be weighed, and the date of the documents or of the writers to be always considered.

The Archaeology of Rome – Part XII – The Catacombs of Rome
John Henry Parker – 1877

Plugging the Management Memory Hole
He was very honest about the management of artefacts from the Catacombs of Rome.

Respecting the inscriptions on the tombstones there is no such doubt, they have scarcely been touched, and are the most genuine things from the Catacombs ; but few of them are before the third century, and by far the largest proportion are of the fourth and fifth, with a few of the sixth, and even later; the family burial-places continued to be in use as long as they were accessible.

Unfortunately all the inscriptions have been removed from their places and arranged on the walls of museums, and cloisters, and monasteries ; frequently there is no record of what catacomb they came from, but the great works of the successive Keepers of the Catacombs, and the Plates of Bosio, and the old Itineraries supply the localities of many of them, and they are highly-interesting records of the piety of the early Christians.

Several inscriptions recording the purchase of a particular loculus, or cubiculum, have been found in the Catacombs; but as the officials of modern times have removed all the inscriptions from their places, this part of their history has been rendered obscure on the pretext of preserving them, which could have been done as effectually by keeping the doors locked, and establishing a toll for entering them.

A great part of the interest, and nearly the whole of the historical value of the Catacombs, has been destroyed by the want of a chronological arrangement, and by the inscriptions having been collected in museums, arranged and classed according to the objects of the authorities.

They thus possess very little interest compared with what they would have done if left in their places.

An inscription of the second or third century is of very different value from one of the eighth or ninth ; but it may be convenient for certain objects to mix them together without distinction.

In the same manner the lamps and glass cups which were found in the Catacombs belonging to particular graves, have all been removed to museums, and arranged according to the fancy or the convenience of the custodians.

These would also have been of tenfold interest and value, if left as they were found.

The Archaeology Of Rome – Part XII – The Catacombs of Rome
John Henry Parker – 1877

The custom of having funeral feasts at the time of the funeral, and on the anniversaries of it, which we know to have been usual with the ancient Romans, was continued by the early Roman Christians also, and the family was probably assembled in the family vault or cubiculum.

The paintings so frequently found in them representing a feast, and called by some the marriage-feast at Cana, by others an agape, are more probably intended for the family funeral feast.

This is also said by some to be the last supper of Christ upon earth, when He partook of the broiled fish with six of the Apostles, as described in the last chapter of S. John’s Gospel.

The Archaeology Of Rome – Part XII – The Catacombs of Rome
John Henry Parker – 1877

All the paintings in that part of this great catacomb that is usually open to the public, and in which masses are said on certain occasions, have long been said by well-informed persons to have been restored within the last twenty years, but this is now denied by the Roman Catholic authorities.

To English eyes a restoration is quite another matter from an original painting, it is like a copy of a Raphael compared with the original.

The Archaeology Of Rome – Part XII – The Catacombs of Rome
John Henry Parker – 1877

Plugging the Knowledge Gap
And the serendipity of a “pierced pipe” has begun a whole new chapter in the narrative of the Catacombs of Rome.

The Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter are ancient catacombs situated on the 3rd mile of the ancient Via Labicana, today Via Casilina in Rome, Italy, near the church of Santi Marcellino e Pietro ad Duas Lauros.

With its 18,000 square meters of galleries and chambers at about 16 meters below ground level, these catacombs represent an authentic treasure trove of Subterranean Christian Rome.

Catacombs of the SS. Marcellino and Pietro

Google Translation

Raffaella Giuliani, inspector in charge of the Catacombs of Rome for the case, decided to start repair work on the pierced pipe and to take advantage of it to clear the inaccessible area (Giuliani, Castex, 2006-2007).

The clearance revealed a section of gallery and five rooms of irregular shape and surface (from 2 to 9 m²).

The cleared parts were clearly distinguishable from the organization that existed in the rest of the catacomb, notably because of the absence of loculi, arcosolia, cubicula.

During the excavation of the newly discovered rooms, the discovery of a large quantity of human bones alerted the archaeologists of the Pontifical Commission who then interrupted their work.

Multiple funeral complexes of the catacombs of Saints Peter and Marcellin in Rome
Philippe Blanchard , Dominique Castex and Raffaella Giulian
Archéopages, Hors-série 2 – 2010, 6-19’une_Catacombe_La_Catacombe_des_Saints_Pierre-et-Marcellin_Rome_fin_Ier_-_IIIe_s_premiers_resultats_Archaeoentomology_of_a_Catacomb_The_catacomb_of_Pierre-et-Marcellin_saints_Roma_I

Excavations conducted from 2004 to 2010 in the central area of the catacomb of Sts Peter and Marcellinus (hereafter the SSPM catacomb) located in the south-east of Rome revealed several mass graves dated to between the first and the third century AD based on radiocarbon and artifact (coins) dating (Castex et al., 2007, 2011).

They contained tens to hundreds of articulated human skeletons laid together according to well-reasoned management (Blanchard et al., 2007; Castex et al.,2007, 2009, 2011).

A significant number of these individuals received a specific funerary treatment characterized, in particular, by the use of gypsum to partially or entirely cover the corpses (Vanhove, 2006; Castex et al., 2009; Devièse et al., 2010; Castex and Blanchard, 2011).

Variability of bone preservation in a confined environment:
The case of the catacomb of Sts Peter and Marcellinus (Rome, Italy)
K.Salesse, E.Dufour, M.Lebon, C.Wurster, D.Castex, J.Bruzek, A.Zazzob
Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology – Vol 416 – 15 Dec 2014

However, plenty of people prefer not to turn the page…

Gallery | This entry was posted in Books, Epigraphy - Inscriptions, Geology, History. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Catacombs of Rome

  1. Tim,

    Excellent! The catacombs are actually old Rome that was buried under volcanic ash and deposits and the dead left there to rot since a volcanic deluge of that magnitude would not have had any survivors. As anachronistic as the aqueduct in the Garzweiler mining pit.

  2. Pingback: Roman Volcanoes | Louis Hissink's Crazy World

  3. Strange many of the entombed were treated with gypsum etc. Middle Miocene was the desiccation of the Mediterranean Sea? Unless the sea was boiled off during some catastrophic event mentioned in the Old Testament. Which suggests the OT was compiled during the Medieval Period, post hoc.

  4. Pingback: Roman Chronology: Credibility Gap | MalagaBay

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