The Catacombs Of Rome




WHO has not heard of the old Roman catacombs,—those interesting vaults of the earth to which the early Christians fled for refuge in times of persecution? These catacombs are underground rooms, dug in a soft, volcanic stone called in Italian, tufa.

The word catacomb is derived from the Greek words, kata, down, and kumbos, a hollow, as if descriptive of an underground excavation. It is supposed by many modern writers that these sepulchers date back nearly to the times of the apostles.

There are forty-two of the catacombs, and they are situated mostly near the great roads leading out from Rome. The rocky ground in every direction is completely honeycombed by these vast cemeteries. Here, for centuries, the Christians were buried. During times of persecution they held meetings in the tombs, and even lived in them. The existence of baptisteries also prove that the rite of immersion was practiced there. The catacombs consist mainly of two parts,—corridors and chambers. The corridors are long, narrow passages, forming a complete network of underground paths. The main corridors are from three to five feet wide, and average eight feet in height; but the side passages are often narrower, affording room for only one person to pass. The chambers are little rooms, often not more than eight or ten feet square. A view of one of these is given in the central part of the picture. Here the early Christians assembled in small groups, partook of the Lord's supper, and comforted each other in their trials.

The sides of all the passages, galleries, and chambers, are lined with stone graves, cut in the walls. These are also clearly shown in the picture.

Here they are, as closely as they can be arranged, one tomb above another, like the berths of a ship.

It is difficult to compute the number of graves in these great cemeteries. Some seventy thousand have been counted, but they are only a small part of the entire number. Father Marchi estimates the average to be ten graves for every seven feet of gallery. Upon this basis he reckoned the entire number buried in the catacombs to be seven millions!

These graves were at first all made airtight by slabs of marble, or terra cotta tiles and plaster and cement. The name of the sleeper was generally scratched in the soft stone, or plaster. These inscriptions are exceedingly interesting, as they show the faith of the sleeping Christian. The symbols and inscriptions are those of peace and joy, and are even now found on many of the graves. The well-known symbols of the dove, lamb, olive branch, anchor, bread and wine, fish, lamp, good shepherd, and numerous others, point to the hope of the silent sleeper. While such inscriptions as " Resting in peace," "Laid to sleep," "In Christ,"

"Waiting for the resurrection," etc., show how the early Christians looked for the sounding of the last trump as the fulfillment of their hope.

In the silent chambers of the catacombs are the remains of men, women, and children. If the graves are opened, the lifeless forms, though frequently perfect at first, dissolve into a white, flaky powder on being touched or exposed to the air.

The length of all the galleries, corridors, and passages, put together, has been computed at from six to nine hundred miles! But it is difficult to give the precise extent of this vast city of the dead, on account of the tangled intricacy of its passages. Some of the catacombs also are almost wholly inaccessible on account of water.

The entrance to these sepulchers is sometimes like a fox's burrow, often nearly concealed by the long grass or the melancholy cypress or ilex. Frequently an arch is formed at the catacomb's mouth, or a little chamber.

But in all cases there is a stairway leading down to the silent crypt beneath, as is shown in the lower right hand corner of the picture. In the gloomy halls below reposes the precious dust of the martyrs, who may have heard the words of life even from the very lips of the apostles.

The walls are sometimes plastered, and where they have given way, are supported by masonry. At the corners of the passages are little niches in which lamps were placed; without these the halls would have been an impenetrable labyrinth.

The chambers of the catacombs generally have vaulted roofs, and are sometimes plastered, or cased with marble, and paved, occasionally with mosaic. The walls and ceiling are often covered with fresco work, frequently of elegant design.

To secure freedom from dampness, which would hasten decomposition and corrupt the atmosphere, the catacombs were always excavated in high ground, in the undulating hills about the city, but never in the valleys. They were made several stories deep. The awful silence and dense darkness of the lowest depths is absolutely frightful. It is the realm of eternal gloom—a place destitute of all light. Not so much as a lizard or bat has penetrated its obscure recesses. Nothing but skeletons, and dust, and ashes, on every side!

The catacombs were ventilated by numerous openings to the world above, called apiragli, or breathing-holes. There were also openings to admit some light to the various chambers, called lurninari,

or light-holes. These are shown in the upper left-hand corner of the engraving. Sometimes several chambers are partially lighted and ventilated by the same shaft. This is true of the upper stories, but not even the faintest ray ever reaches the lowest passages.

The catacombs are now somewhat mutilated by earthquakes and floods. Sometimes the stairways are broken, the corridors blocked up, and the roofs fallen. The rains of a thousand Italian winters have washed tons of earth down the light-holes; and the smoke of the lamps of early worshipers, and the torches of recent visitors, have impaired the beauty of many of the paintings. The hand of the spoiler, too, has rifled the graves and broken the tablets. Many fortunes have been expended by interested investigators in removing the collection of earth and debris so that the catacombs could be explored.

During the darkness of the Middle Ages, the catacombs almost passed out of the knowledge of the human mind. But in the year 1578, they were rediscovered by some workmen, who were digging building material, in a vineyard on the Salarian Way. Since then, they have ever been invested with a new interest to the Christian world.

The exploration of the catacombs is always attended with danger. M. Bosnio was several times well-nigh lost in those mysterious depths. And Mons. Roberts, a French savant, nearly lost his life the same way. As he wandered through gallery and chamber, absorbed in interest, the thread imperceptibly slipped from his hand! In his excited attempt to find the clew, the torch went out, leaving him in total darkness, a living prisoner among the dead. He shouted, but the hollow echoes only mocked his voice. Wearied and in despair, he threw himself on the ground, when—could he believe it!—his hand touched the cord by which he was enabled to retrace his way back to the mouth of the catacomb.

In 1798, some French officers of Berthier's army, infidel in principle, visited the catacombs. Here they sang their wicked songs, rifled the graves, and said death was "an eternal sleep." One of their number, more daring than the others, resolved to explore some remote galleries. He was speedily lost, and abandoned by his companions. Groping through the dark, he touched nothing but cold walls and moldering bones. His soul was filled with awe as he thought of his sins, of death and the Judgment. His physical powers soon gave way, and he sank in exhaustion. When rescued the next day, he was ill, but a converted man, and one who honored the Saviour's cause till the day of his death, years after on the field of battle. Even as late as 1837, a professor with his class, numbering nearly thirty persons, were lost in these underground labyrinths, and never discovered, though repeated and diligent search was made for their recovery.




G. w. A.





Do what we will, we cannot drive away the mist that hangs low in the morning. But it is possible for us to get above it. By ascending the hill we see the blue sky serenely above. It is often the same with our troubles. They may hang about us like mist, and we may not see the way clearly; but if we, ascend the mount of prayer, these things will be left behind, and God's face will shine upon us.