In the first 400 years or so following the ressurection of Jesus Christ there existed a community of believers in the city of Rome that lived and died under unique circumstances. Roman society and culture was a culture where every aspect of life was given over to a pantheon of false gods. If you were a Christian living in Rome at these times, at every turn you were faced with the choice of giving some sort of acknowledgment to these man-made deities or face ridicule, scorn and persecution. Whether it was the public prayers offered up at virtually every public event, or the oaths to gods compelled during military service, or the paganism of your neighbors, a subtle oppression existed everywhere. To abstain or speak up might cost you your job, or your social standing. To proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ might mean the severing of family ties or physical hardship.
On top of that, they endured the occasional period of state persecution in which various emperors would pledge to wipe them out. Emperor worship and overall state worship was very much a part of Roman life , and the early Christian community made it clear that they would pray for the king, but not to the king. Christians were declared enemies of the state and their practices were said to be injurious to the homogeneity of Roman society. Christianity was proclaimed "strange and unlawful" in AD 35 by the Senate. It was called "deadly" and "detestable" by Tacitus, "wicked and unbridled" by Plinius, "new and harmful" by Svetonius , and "mysterious and opposed to light" by Octavius. Diocletian even erected a column proclaiming his victory over the Christians in his realm. The properties of followers would be seized, and their houses burned to the ground with full governmental approval. They were set on fire, or fed to lions for public sport. To stand up for Jesus in Rome meant at least discomfort, and possibly martyrdom before a cheering crowd of bloodthirsty pagans. The gospel of Jesus Christ thrived under these conditions, and one of the greatest monuments to the persecuted church exists in the form of a series of winding underground caves, tunnels, and rooms beneath the city. These catacombs were referred to by Charles Maitland as “..a vast necropolis, rich in the bones of saints and martyrs; a stupendous testimony to the truth of Christian history, and consequently, of Christianity itself; a faithful record of the trials of the persecuted Church….” Author Selina Bundy referred to the catacombs as the "infant church in it's underground cradle". For over 400 years, the Christians of Rome, met, worshiped, and were buried out of the sight of their oppressors in this underground city.
There is some speculation as to how this underground city even came to be. In early Rome, the bodies of prominent people were burned on elaborate funeral pyres, and one theory is that the early Christians began burying their dead underground to separate themselves from this practice.
Other researchers say that the tunnels weren’t dug by the Christians, just occupied by them after the rock and sand were removed to build houses. The sandy volcanic material known as tufa was mined from the Roman countryside and used in cement. It has been suggested by some chroniclers that Roman soldiers who who were known converts to Christianity were made to labor in the excavation of this building material. This provided the empire with cheap labor and also put the soldiers in the position of digging out the future resting place of other Christians. Either way, the tunnels and chambers and graves stretch out under the ancient city in all directions for roughly 15 miles. Some join up to the family crypts of believers, and some have entrances that existed under people's houses.
In some places, the tunnels go down several levels, hand carved through rock , with the graves themselves being chiseled out of hard rock and then sealed up with plaster.
When one of their own was killed, the Christians would recover the body and take it beneath the city for burial. But it wasn't just a graveyard, it was place to flee the sporadic persecutions of the Roman government. Found inside the catacombs are chapels carved from the rock, altars, benches, chairs and fountains that supplied water to those hiding there. This was such a well-known fact that several pagan Roman emperors ( Vallerian, Gallenius, Maximus) forbid entry into the underground city, and would arrest those found at the entrances. Despite their best efforts though, the Roman state was never able to plug all the holes or block all the entrances, and the underground community grew and grew, with a population of approximately 40,000 dead, although an exact number is impossible due to vandalism and grave-robbing.
The graves themselves offer remarkable insight in to this community. The mourners would write epitaphs for their departed on the cave walls, or in the wet plaster, and we often see a very human side of these dear saints. We read of their families, of their faith, and of their murders.
|translated 'The Tomb of Philemon'|
Sometimes persecutions were so severe, and internment so hasty, that what results is a sort of mass grave.
Equally compelling is the artwork that adorns the walls of the catacombs. Hand-painted and personal, it not only gives us a picture into the heart of the church, but it also documents a shift in the mindset of believers from the period immediately after the Resurrection to the slow rise of what would eventually become the Roman Catholic Church. In these paintings you can see a slwo drift away from Biblical Christianity to paganism and then the very beginnings of Catholicism.The early artwork highlights the biblical focus of the church, with Old Testament Biblical scenes being represented, such as Noah's ark as well as New Testament themes such as the Good Shepherd.
|Jonah and the Whale|
|The Three Hebrews from the Book of Daniel|
|The Good Shepherd|
Unfortunately as time went on , apostasy began to creep in, and the catacombs become adorned with vague 'Christian' symbology. Decorating graves with symbols as opposed to words was a well known pagan custom.
|The 'Christian' fish|
By the time the catacombs fell into disuse by the close of the 4th century, the Catholic elevation of Mary had already begun, and her steady rise in the minds of believers shows itself in the catacomb paintings. Admiration of martyrs in the first century became, sadly, worship of martyrs by the 4th century.
Due to a multitude of factors, including the fall of Rome and it's invasion by foreign armies, the catacombs were lost to history for almost a thousand years. The faithful in Jesus slept beneath the city while on the surface upheavals and invasions were happening. The catacombs were rediscovered in the 1500's and were excavated off and on for the next several hundred years.
Unfortunately, at the time of their rediscovery the Roman Catholic church was at a peak of great power, and claimed the catacombs for themselves. What remains today is still under Vatican control. They rewrote the history, claiming the catacombs as 'proof' that the Church of Rome was the one great true church. They used the catacombs to establish a legitimacy that they could trace back to the time of Christ, although a careful student of history will note the difference between the church of the catacombs and the Vatican monstrosity.
Vatican thugs plundered the catacombs.Graves were opened, and the bones removed to be treated as relics and worshiped. Artifacts were stolen, and sold to the highest bidder. Complete fabrications and histories were drummed up by Vatican propagandists. Parishes paid large sums to acquire a finger bone or leg bone from the catacombs. They would then proceed to charge money for pilgrims to see it or kiss it.
|a plundered tomb|
But it didn't stop there. For the right price, you could do much better than just a finger bone; you could get yourself a mummified believer or even a whole corpse, grotesquely arrayed for veneration and trotted across the countryside. Special indulgences and privileges were extended to those who would show the remains 'proper respect'. They were set on thrones and bedecked with jewels. Parishes across Europe clamored to either get their hands on such a relic or arrange for one to tour through their district.
The movement of a dead saint from place to place would draw a crowd, and drawing a crowd was good for business. Small parishes couldn't always afford the real relics and so a huge underground black market developed for forgeries. This led to further pillaging of the graves and grave robbing to feed the demand. It wasn't that hard to visit your local graveyard and claim the bones you dug up belonged to John the Baptist or some other famous name in Christianity. This led to by some estimates, hundreds of parts of the same saint existing simultaneously all over Europe, a confusion that continues to this day.
What also continues to this day is that Rome claims the exclusive right to interpret the history of the catacombs in Rome, and the handful of similar structures that have been discovered in other parts of Europe. The entrances to the catacombs are dominated by popish structures, and adorned with all manner of relics, such as the rock at San Sebastiano which purports to contain the footprints of Jesus Christ. With their well-established morbidity, and flair for the absurd,what should be a celebration of being steadfast and faithful unto death, has become a pageantry of death and whitewashed history.
Most of this plundered grave material lingers on in our modern world in the Gallery of the Vatican.
Most of this plundered grave material lingers on in our modern world in the Gallery of the Vatican.
But before we get too busy lamenting that this crucial piece of church history has stayed for so long in the hands of the church's greatest enemy, consider the words of Selinda Bundy who wrote "In Rome, destined to act so great, so awful a part in that church's future history, a cradle for those whom the Lord out of the world was provided, even beneath the ground over which their opponents trod in pride an power; and a receptacle afforded for the ashes of the martyrs who had been faithful unto death, and who, with others more peacefully fallen asleep in Jesus left their tombs as a testimony to ages and ages yet to come, of the truth of that religion for which they suffered, bled and died"