On our last morning in Rome, Mason and I wandered around the Piazza Venezia, trying to find the Archaeobus that would take us out to the Appian Way. I was sick with a cold I’d picked up in the Vatican (go figure) and we’d had no time for breakfast. As we rushed down the stairs near Trajan’s column, I missed a step. When I painfully straightened my legs, I discovered I’d skinned both knees. Miraculously, the fall hadn’t torn my slacks. I limped to the bus stop and was swept off on our adventure.
The ancient Christian catacombs hadn’t initially been on my “must-see in Rome” list. However, the more I read, the more it seemed I should overcome my skepticism. A lot of history had been buried in the old tunnels.
Beyond the third mile marker, the Archaeobus dropped us off near the Catacombe di San Sebastiano. A mob already loitered in the plaza. Mason and I hurried into the cloister on the right side of the small yellow basilica to be near the entrance when the catacomb reopened after lunch.
We bought our tickets at a window barred like an old train station. The lobby occupied a long low room full of fragments of marble and terracotta, many clamped tightly to the brown walls. Each item had a relief on it: a bird, a fish, a lamb — symbols of Christianity to people who couldn’t read.
These shards of ransacked tombs saddened me. The bodies have been removed from their rest, whether portioned out by the Church or otherwise disrupted. For me, the grave is not the person, but I feel that the spirit of the person enlivens the grave. A vacant tomb has lost something that a rock never owned. Whoever they were to those who loved them, these people have been swallowed by time.
A German-speaking guide summoned a small group of tourists to follow him down the steps, leaving Mason and me in the chilly gallery of shattered tombs. A busload of chattering American tourists filed in behind us. Mason wondered if we should follow the Germans, even without understanding the guide, just so we’d be able to see everything below our feet without the mob.
An English-speaking guide appeared. A cheerful Turkish woman, Maria spoke with a mélange of British and Middle Eastern inflections. She glowed with inspiration. She had clearly been “called” to talk about the catacombs, her faith strengthened by the history of the martyrs below our feet. I was relieved that she felt no need to testify. Instead, she assumed we were all Christians, that we began with the same point of view.
Maria led us partially down the steps so that she could count the group. Thirty-seven of us would muddle through the tunnels together. Some were frail old people: ladies as fragile as birds, an elderly gentleman who leaned heavily on his middle-aged daughter. At the risk of gross generalization, many of the others appeared to be teachers on spring break. Other than a knot of African American women in bright flowered dresses, ninety-five percent of the group was white. Mason and I embodied the low edge of the age curve.
Our guide promised that there would be no ghosts in the tunnels. There were no longer any bodies, either. Most had been removed in the fourth and fifth centuries, when the catacombs suffered at the mercy of barbarian hordes who couldn’t breach the walls of Rome.
Maria ran through some figures for us: thousands of graves in four levels comprised the seven miles of Saint Sebastian’s catacombs. The tour passed through only a fraction of the second level. The other levels were unlocked only to archaeologists blessed by the Pontificia Commissione di Archaeologia Sacra, a bureau of the Vatican.
The steps reached a landing, then turned to continue downward. We had to take care not to jostle each other on the stairs. I had visions of some lady breaking her hip. Before long, the group reached a level and surged forward. The air, already cold and still, lost another couple of degrees.
Yellow globes, hung at intervals near the tunnel’s ceiling, did little to brighten the gloom. Other tunnels, also lighted, branched off at right angles. They tempted me, but I dreaded getting lost.
Our guide directed our attention overhead with the beam of her flashlight. A pickaxe had scarred the ceiling. “They excavated the catacomb by hand,” Maria explained. “The ground here is called tufa, a lava rock that is easy to dig. Fossores, special miners in service to the early church, planned the excavations and did the digging. They carried the earth away in baskets.”
She turned our attention to the walls of the tunnel. It looked as if bunks had been carved into the stone, irregular indentations that appeared comfy enough to crawl into. The bed of each cubbyhole lay reasonably flat. The shallow niches spanned just large enough to tuck a body inside.
Maria said, “The dead would be wound in a sheet and placed here, without a coffin, then a slab of marble — if they were wealthy — or terracotta would seal them inside. You may wonder how they reached the graves at the top.” She swept her flashlight beam upward. “They filled the graves on top first, then dug the floor down below them.” In the tunnel where we stood, the floor had been lowered five times.
She gestured to another hole. Carved between columns of larger holes, this one spanned only as long as my arm and barely deep enough for a bed pillow. “You’ll see a lot of graves for children,” she warned. “Infant mortality was high.”
Maria set off at a pretty good pace into the maze of tunnels. We used Mason’s flashlight to peer into graves as we passed. Each featureless hole had been stripped of mementos.
We walked by low arched compartments that began level with the tunnel floor and reached hip-high. Eventually we passed one with its sarcophagus still in place. Did you know that the word sarcophagus means flesh-eating stone? The original Greek sarcophagi were so named because the kind of limestone used speeded up dissolution of the corpse within.
That’s the sort of thing I knew going into the tour. I’m sure we could have had more lecture if there hadn’t been approximately forty of us in the group. Few areas were large enough that such a large group could coalesce. The guide spoke only when all of us could hear, which I don’t dispute, but I’m sure we passed treasures she never mentioned.
In some places, the tunnel expanded into small rooms with low, vaulted ceilings. The configuration made me think of a snake who’d swallowed an egg. Those rooms had once entombed families. We jammed into one, mostly dark as a cave. I huddled into the hollow where a shadowy altar stood, more concerned about cobwebs than ghosts. Then again, what would spiders eat so far underground?
I tried to conjure a sense of what the place must have been like when bodies filled it. There was, of course, no embalming in the Roman world of the second and third centuries. When people died, their survivors had to cart them out of Rome, since the Law of the Twelve Tables forbade burial inside the city walls. Most Romans would not have owned a horse or an ox, especially not Christians, who tended to come from the lower and slave classes. I suspect that transportation of a cadaver presented a pressing concern in the Roman summer.
So here we have a cool — though unrefrigerated — compound of seven miles of unembalmed corpses. I envisioned early Christians negotiating the tunnels by the flickering light of clay oil lamps, through air clouded with myrrh and the inescapable, cloying sweetness of rot.
The pagan majority of Romans disposed of their dead by cremation. They burned corpses on a pyre, then collected the ashes into an urn. These urns of ashes were placed in tombs that lined the Appian Way, the road to Ostia through the Porta San Paolo, and all the other old roads leading out of Rome.
Jews practiced inhumation — burial in earth — in observation of Genesis 3:19: “Earth you are and to Earth you shall return.” We hear it most commonly as “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” from the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer. Early Christians pursued this custom, burying their dead because Christ had been placed whole in his tomb. Like Christ, early Christians anticipated bodily resurrection.
So this was a vast maze of rotting bodies where the souls were believed to linger, awaiting resurrection. Some of these dead did not go gently to their graves but had been martyred, dying for their faith. How could there not be ghosts?
Romans called a collection of graves a necropolis: a city of the dead. Christians, many of whom spoke Greek rather than Latin, referred to their burial places as coemeteria, equivalent to dormitories. The root of dormitory means to sleep. Christians believed that their dead were merely resting (ideally in peace) until Christ came again and ushered them into heaven. This is why we refer to a graveyard as a cemetery.
Maria led us into a room unlike any we’d visited. Marble sheathed its floor. Its walls were whitewashed. In contrast to the rest of the catacomb, this room was brightly lit. It seemed spacious until the tour group spread out into it.
On my left stood a simple stone table, draped with a spotless white cloth edged in lace. Across from that, on a pedestal, balanced a polished marble bust of a man in pain or ecstasy. The bust was so wonderfully crafted that my fingertips tingled, wanting to touch that emotion.
Maria said, “Sebastian was a Roman soldier who decided he could no longer persecute Christians. The other soldiers tied him to a tree and shot him with their arrows. They left him to die, but he recovered from his wounds and started to preach. They captured him a second time and killed him. Christians buried his body beneath this altar. This has always been known. This room has always been a place of worship. When Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, he had a church built above the catacombs and Saint Sebastian’s bones moved into the basilica, directly over our heads.”
A friend of mine (who hadn’t grown up Catholic) believed Sebastian to be the most homoerotic saint. Bound mostly naked to his tree, his soldier’s body straining against the ropes, mouth open in passion: Sebastian’s image has inspired artists for centuries. Bernini, the architect who decorated St. Peter’s Basilica, had carved the bust before us. I wondered that such a rare and valuable piece of art remained out where people might touch it.
The tour group flowed into a room with a low, arched ceiling. Glass encased its carefully lighted far wall. “This is another holy place,” Maria said reverently. “For a while, the Saints Peter and Paul were buried here.”
That seemed unlikely to me. St. Peter’s Basilica, at the heart of Vatican City, claims to have Peter’s body in its crypt. The legend is that Peter was crucified upside down by Nero and buried nearby in the pagan necropolis on Vatican Hill. I’m not clear why the early Christians would have moved his body to this catacomb so far from Rome, then moved it back (where they promptly lost it) until the excavations to build the current St. Peter’s in the sixteenth century. It’s not impossible, but it’s a lot of lugging for his bones to end up buried back where they began.
Paul also was supposed to have been brought from the site of his martyrdom and buried in this room, only to be transported back to the Via Ostiense where Emperor Constantine later built a basilica in his honor.
The evidence for these postmortem migrations? Graffiti. Scratched into the plaster were prayers in Greek, addressed to the Apostle and the Evangelist.
I had been willing to accept all else as history, if perhaps churchified history, but the temporary burials tweaked my skepticism. Our incandescent guide glowed with faith.
The tour made one final stop. At some point during the excavation of the catacomb in the late 1800s, church archaeologists had discovered three Roman-era tombs. These little villas had been perfectly preserved when the low area where they stood had been filled with rubble to support the church above.
I waited for the crowd to move ahead so I could peer into the Roman tombs. Beautiful delicate mosaics brightened the surprisingly roomy interiors. One tomb had a staircase that stretched down to the tunnels below it. I found it hard to conceive that the Christian architects had just thrown rubble down on these lovely tombs.
“Here is the origin of the word catacomb,” Maria said before we left the area. “This place was called cata cumbas, meaning the low place near the quarries. Here stood a crevice between the tufa hills where the Romans cremated their dead. Since it was already a necropolis, it made sense for the Christians to bury their dead here.”
From this place, the word catacomb spread to refer to any hall of Christian tombs, from the ossuary in the quarry under Paris to the aboveground mausoleum complex at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, California.
I got all excited. Though I had been ill and injured, it was a thrill to visit a place that inspired so much of what I’ve studied. I suppose the feeling must echo what the Christian tourists felt as they completed their pilgrimages.
This essay was originally published in Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.