The Catacombs of St. Domitilla, as we know them, are spread over 17 kilometers of underground caves, some of which are inaccessible. They are laid out on four levels - one on top of another.
The catacombs of the Eternal City offer one of the most complete and eloquent pictures of the Christian community in Imperial Rome, and of Catholicism in the city between the 2nd and 9th centuries. Until the 2nd century, in fact, the early Christians didn’t have their own cemeteries but were buried alongside the pagans in communal burial grounds outside the city along the main consular roads. The Apostle Peter was buried on the Vatican hill and St. Paul along the road to Ostia.
From the end of the 2nd century on, burial space ground was getting hard to come by and so small underground tombs were dug. These were often connected by short tunnels and were called hypogeums. It was a practice widely used by the Christians insofar as it allowed them to create several tombs in a confined space and at low cost. It also meant they could accommodate poorer members of the community either in private hypogeums or in Church-run cemeteries which had been donated by private citizens.
Such was the case with the catacombs you are visiting: we know from inscriptions that the land originally belonged to Flavia Domitilla. One such inscription bearing her name, can be seen on the righthand wall of the Basilica at the foot of the entrance stairway between the two sarcophagi. She was a noblewoman - the Emperor Vespasian was her grandfather and Domitian was her uncle. Her husband, Flavio Clemente, was a consul together with Domitian in 95 AD - but was condemned to death by the emperor that same year and Domitilla was exiled to the island of Ventotene.
They were accused of the crime of "atheism" - meaning they were probably both Christians. Their niece, whose name was also Flavia Domitilla was exiled to the island of Ponza for the same reason and by the 4th century her prison was a popular site of pilgrimage.
Private tombs multiplied in this area during the first half of the 3rd century AD and were linked by an extensive network of galleries. The complex of the catacombs of Domitilla began with seven early hypogeums which were carved out on two distinct levels and joined together during the first half of the 4th century. Galleries and tombs continued to be dug until the end of the 5th century with new stairways leading down into them from above.
The main reason behind the construction of all the great catacombs, including those of Domitilla, was the desire to be buried near the tombs of the martyrs.
They were victims of persecution under the Emperors Decius and Valerian in 250 and 257 AD and under Diocletian in 303. Originally given simple burial, their tombs began to be venerated following the so-called "Peace of the Church" in the year 313 AD and the official recognition of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine. At that stage everyone wanted to be buried in the same cemetery as the martyrs, or as close to them as possible, in areas known in Latin as "retrosanctos" or "apud sanctos". Later, during the time of Pope Damasus (366-384), sanctuaries were built for liturgical celebrations above the venerated tombs which, by now, were popular places of pilgrimage.
Popular opinion has it that the Christians took refuge in the catacombs during the persecutions: nothing could be further from the truth. The catacombs were simply underground burial places, where there was so little space and air that no one could stay down there for very long. Besides this, the Roman authorities were well aware of their existence, insofar as burial places of all religions were considered sacred and protected areas. The underground galleries were used only for burial purposes and were visited exclusively by the family members of the deceased .
The catacomb was discovered in 1593 by the first modern explorer of Christian cemeteries, Antonio Bosio. He almost got lost in the labyrinth of galleries and wrote of his fear of dying there and of contaminating the sacred place with his own "unworthy" corpse. At that time, Bosio believed he was in a part of the vast catacomb of St Calixtus. It was only in the last century that G.B. de Rossi, founder of Christian archeology, understood this was really the catacomb of St Domitilla and the sanctuary of the martyrs Nereus and Achilleus. Subsequent excavation has brought many new galleries to light.
THE BASILICA OF THE MARTYRS NEREUS AND ACHILLEUS
Your visit begins with the basilica that was built at the end of the 4th century AD above the tomb of the two martyrs Nereus and Achilleus. They are remembered by Pope Damasus (366-384) in a lengthy and well-carved inscription which can be seen up on the right-hand wall at the foot of the entrance stairway.
Damasus records that the two martyrs were soldiers of the imperial guard and were killed for confessing their faith. They were probably victims of the military persecutions that were conducted against the Christians at the orders of the Emperor Diocletian in the year 303. Perhaps it was Pope Damasus who built the basilica: he certainly celebrated the main Roman martyrs with different inscriptions and built numerous sanctuaries in other catacombs in Rome.
We enter the basilica via a modern staircase which links up with the original towards the end. The church has three naves and was partly under the ground, its roof extending above the ground, as shown in the modern reconstruction. So as not to move the tombs of the martyrs preserved in the apse, several galleries were destroyed there when the basilica was built, although access to some of the surrounding galleries was maintained. The basilica totally replaced an earlier and smaller sanctuary which had also, at the time of its construction, upset the area in which Nereus and Achilleus had been buried. The church was quickly filled with numerous tombs of the faithful who were devoted to the martyrs: many can still be seen in the sarcophagi or in the floor and explain why so many fragments of inscriprions from other sarcophagi were found here.
In the apse to the right, there is a column on which the martyr Achilleus is depicted, as indicated by the inscription (Acileus).He is represented with his hands tied behind his back and is being followed by a soldier who is about to decapitate him. This column together with another like it depicting the martyrdom of Nereus, supported a canopy above the altar in the apse of the church - probably over the tombs of the martyrs themselves. Today the exact position has been lost.
The veneration of the martyrs in the basilica continued until halfway through the 9th century when the remains were transferred into the city. The catacombs had ceased to be used as burial places since the 5th century. It’s thought that the church collapsed during the earthquake that struck Rome in 897.
GALLERIES AND BURIAL
The catacombs are dug out of tufa stone, a soft stone of volcanic origin on which the whole of Rome is built. Sometimes the galleries were obtained by reusing already existing passageways (water-conduits or quarries) or, as happened most often, they were freshly dug out of the tufa . The oldest tombs are the ones higher up: when there was no more space left, the grave diggers lowered the floor level or continued the gallery along even further, creating different storeys, one above the other, with connecting stairways.
The most common tombs can be seen along the walls of the galleries: the rectangular loculi, cut length-wise for a single person - although they sometimes housed more than one.The smaller loculi were for children - there are so many because in ancient times the infant death rate was extremely high.
Another type of burial used was the arcosolio: namely, a tomb for one or more persons cut into the tufa and covered with an arch, also carved into the stone.
Openings in the galleries give onto the cubicoli, rooms of different sizes - but usually quadrangular - often frescoed, and generally the property of an individual family.
The deceased would be wound in a sheet and laid in the tomb which, according to the taste or financial wherewithal of the family, would be sealed with tiles or a marble slab, which was fastened to the wall with lime. The name of the deceased was carved onto the marble or the lime, along with details concerning their age, the date of their death, some loving phrase, and frequently a symbol.
Most of the tombs, though, - especially those of the poor people - remained anonymous.
Along the walls of the basilica and of the galleries in the catacombs there are numerous symbols. Carved onto the walls of the tombs, on the marble coverings or the lime that sealed them - they all refer to the faith of the deceased.
The Good Shepherd: a man dressed like a shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders is a symbol of Christ the Saviour and of the Soul He has saved.
The Person Praying: often depicts the deceased, standing upright with arms outstretched the way people used to pray at the time, and symbolizes the soul’s certainty of living in peace with God.
The fish: the letters of the Greek word (ichtùs) were taken by the early Christian community to form the words in Greek: "Jesus Son of God Saviour".
Constantinian monogram: composed of two letters in Greek X (chi) and R (ro) intertwined: these form the first letters of Christ’s name in Greek (Christòs). They’re found mostly after the beginning of the Constantinian era (from 312 to 337).
Dove with an olive branch (in its beak ot between its feet): the symbol of peace and of the saved soul that rests in divine peace.
The Anchor: is read as a symbol hidden in the Cross representing the Christian’s salvation in God and the arrival of the soul in the harbor of the eternal life.
Besides these symbols, the Christian catacombs contain other figures representing episodes taken from the Old and the New Testaments, like for example:
Noah and the Ark
Daniel in the lion’s den
Moses making water spring from a rock [img]
Jonah (who was thrown into the sea and swallowed by a whale which threw him out safe and sound after three days) [img]
The Birth of Jesus with the three Kings
Some of Christ’s miracles (the favorites being the raising of Lazarus from the dead and the multiplication of the bread and fishes)
Each of these scenes was meant to present a message of salvation and to be a lesson to anyone who looked at them.
Walking through the galleries one sees many tombs still sealed with their marble slab while others stand opened with all their decoration stripped off.
Along the left hand side of the gallery you are in right now there are two arcosoli closed off by a grate. In them are preserved various objects found in the catacombs: lamps, shells, glass objects. These were often walled into the outside of the tomb: they might have belonged to the deceased or have been used to help relatives identify the tomb. The lamps were also walled into the side of the loculi and provided a dim illumination to the inside of the galleries.
Towards the end of the gallery on the left is a stairway that descends to the lower level of the catacomb: the third which lies beneath the basilica and the fourth which had to be abandoned because of water infiltration.
HYPOGEUM OF THE FLAVIANS
Continuing on our way, further ahead to the left we enter the "gallery of the sarcophagi" in the Hypogeum of the Flavians - the name it was given when it was discovered and wrongly attributed to the Christian Flavians. It’s really a pagan hypogeum in which the oldest tombs date back to the beginning of the 3rd century AD: in the second half of the same century it was occupied by Christian tombs and in the 4th century it became part of the larger Christian catacomb that was gradually being formed.
Onto the gallery open four niches meant to contain sarcophagi which have long disappeared. All the walls were decorated with frescoes which are in a poor condition today: they depict vines, bunches of grape, birds and cupids making wine (the large niche on the right contains a famous fresco depicting a vase with two birds on either side). When the hypogeum was occupied by Christian tombs, the frescoes were added - badly faded today - depicting scenes from the lives of Daniel and Moses in the Old Testament.
The entrance to the original hypogeum, where you enter up the stairs at the end of the gallery, opened out onto the side of a hill. The facade of the ancient vestibule was in yellow brick. Above the doorway within a rectangular space there was an inscription - long since lost - with the names of the unknown owners of the burial-ground.
Towards the right of the entrance is a large hall which was originally covered with a vaulted ceiling (only the ruins are left), built at the start of the 4th century and decorated with paintings of which a few fragments have survived. On three sides of the wall there’s a continuous table which stops at the entrance. This is where the refrigeri, or funeral banquets, took place - they were meals that were consumed beside the tombs of the deceased, usually on the anniversary of their death. This ritual was a continuation of pagan rites and was practiced by Christians to celebrate the anniversaries of the martyr’s deaths as well - until it was definitively substituted by the celebration of the Eucharist.
On the right-hand wall of the room (looking at the entrance of the hypogeum), behind a metal grate is small painted cubiculum dating back to the end of the 3rd century AD. In amongst garlands, baskets of flowers and birds, is depicted the pagan myth of Love and Psyche, represented as two cherubs collecting flowers. The myth tells how Psyche, who lost her love through her own fault, searched for him in pain and suffering until, purified, she was united with him in eternal wedlock.
About the same time, to the left of the entrance to the hypogeum, a deep well was dug to about 11 meters from which water was emptied into a bath on the right from which a lead pipe (which is still visible) emptied it into a second bath which lies at your feet. The area around the well was decorated with frescoes depicting different kinds of vegetation.
THE ARCOSOLIO OF THE "LITTLE APOSTLES"
These paintings date back to around the mid 4th century. The 12 Apostles beside the figure of Christ can be seen depicted on the vault of the arcosolio. At the center of the lunette (on the end wall) is the faded figure of a woman in a praying position and with the monogram Chi Ro above her head: to her left is Peter and to her right, Paul - representing the faith of the deceased in the intercession of the Apostles. To the sides of the arcosolio are depicted two doves with olive branches between their feet - symbols, as we’ve seen, of peace and salvation.
The Twelve Apostles are represented five times inside the Catacombs of Domitilla - always around Christ seated on a throne and teaching them. It was a fairly common scene in 4th century Christian art and was meant to represent the Heavenly Kingdom as symbol of the sovereignty and teaching authority of Christ and His representatives.
THE CUBICULUM OF THE GRAVE-DIGGER DIOGENES
This is where Diogenes was buried. He was a grave-digger, perhaps the head of the corporation. His name, now invisible, was painted above his tomb which stand in front of the entrance (a large niche with paintings). Christ and the Apostles Peter and Paul (the only one visible today on the right) were depicted on the vault of this large arcosolio. Below to the left is the scene of the raising of Lazarus (the mummy stands at the entrance to the tomb), and to the right is depicted the miracle of Moses (still visible) making water spring from a rock. The figure of Diogenes was painted on the lunette (and was destroyed in the 18th century): he was dressed in his working clothes and holding the instruments of his trade - a pick on his shoulder, a staff with a lantern attached, and axe, spade and shovel lying on the ground.
In ancient Christian times, the corporation of grave-diggers played an extremely important role: their job was to dig the galleries and all the tombs contained in the catacombs; they were in charge of selling the tombs and they did the actual burying of the deceased. They dug in the light of their lanterns, using picks and spades, collecting the earth in baskets and depositing it outside via the stairs of the lucernari - large square-shaped shafts that went up to the surface and were sources of air and light.
Before going back outside, stop in front of the sarcophagus that stands to the left of the exit stairway. It’s a large pagan sarcophagus in white marble dating back to the 3rd century with comb-like decoration (wavy or S-shaped decorations). At the ends are lions that look like stags. In the 4th century it was reused for a deceased Christian and in the center on the front a small praying figure was carved.
Beneath the arch in front of the exit stairway, on the right hand-rail there’s a fragment of a saprcophagus depicting the figure of the Madonna with the Child Jesus in her arms and the Three Kings kneeling before her - and to the right, the miracle of Moses the spring of water.
As already noted, on all the walls of the basilica - but especially on the right-hand side - numerous fragments of sarcophagi can be found along with the stones that closed the tombs and which contain many of the early Christian symbols we’ve already seen.
The catacombs of Domitilla are extremely vast, about 17 kilometers long and extending to a depth of around 30 meters. Our visit dealt with just a portion of the second level with all its interesting artifacts. Although brief, our visit has given us a clear idea of how the early Christians dealt with death and with the burial of their deceased.
The word "cemetery" comes from Greek and means "place of rest" - especially for the early Christians as they await the Resurrection and their final salvation. This peaceful trust fills all the paintings and phrases carved upon the tombs that we find in the catacombs - and it’s the message that comes down to us through the centuries.