(the name, not older than the third century A.D., is formed from κατὰ+κύμβη, a hollow place). A name given to subterranean burialplaces, of which the most famous exist in Egypt, Rome, Naples, Syracuse, and Malta. The so-called Catacombs of Paris, as places of interment, are modern, dating from the close of the last century only.
The Catacombs of Egypt are vast in extent and extremely numerous, running through the range of mountains in the vicinity of Thebes. (See Thebae.) Among them are especially to be noted the caverns in which the bodies of the Theban kings were originally interred. These were forty-seven in number, and, like the more elaborate of the other tombs, were covered with hieroglyphics and ornamented with pictures, mostly in fresco. The oldest of them now existing are not less than 4000 years of age, and have long since been plundered for the sake of the ornaments and other valuables contained in them. A most interesting collection of these frescoes can be found in the drawings and coloured plates of Wilkinson's Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (London, 1847).
The Roman Catacombs were originally quarries, of which some are of very great antiquity, antedating the traditional date of the founding of the city. These were subsequently extended so that at last all the seven hills of Rome were pierced by them. They are low dark corridors or vaulted halls excavated in the soft volcanic tufa and puzzolana, in the lateral walls of which apertures were made for the reception of corpses. In all there are some forty Catacombs, each forming a network of galleries, usually intersecting one another at right [figure in text: Roman Catacombs. Gallery with Loculi. (From Northcote's Roma Sotterranea.)] [p. 293]
angles, but occasionally radiating from a common centre. The passages are of an average height of eight feet and of an average width of from three to five feet. The apertures (loculi) used as graves run in tiers at the sides, and were covered in by marble slabs or tiles bearing either religious emblems or mortuary inscriptions. The whole length of the Roman Catacombs is from 500 to 550 miles, and they are estimated to have contained fully 6,000,000 bodies.
It must be remembered that while the Greeks and Romans finally adopted cremation as a means for disposing of their dead (see Funus), the Egyptians and Jews, and latterly the Christians, regarded interment as more in accordance with their views on the subject of a future life. Hence the Roman Christians used and greatly extended the subterranean excavations now called Catacombs, and only afterwards employed them for purposes of concealment during the various per[figure in text: Ground Plan of Roman Catacombs.] secutions that harassed the Church at intervals from the time of Nero to that of Diocletian (A.D. 303). A popular error makes the Catacombs to have been originally the secret, anxiously concealed places of refuge of the primitive Christians; but they were rather, as Professor Springer says, their legally recognized, publicly accessible places of burial. Reared in the midst of the customs of heathen Rome, the Christian community perceived no reason to depart from the artistic principles of antiquity. In the embellishment of the Catacombs they adhered to the decorative forms handed down by their ancestors; and in design, choice of colour, grouping of figures, and treatment of subject, they were entirely guided by the customary rules.
The monotonous passages of the Catacombs are occasionally broken by the introduction of larger chambers used as cubicula or family burial-places. There are also chambers set apart for worship, but these are not earlier than the fourth century. The Christian excavations were made by a regular society of fossores. In most cases, the bodies to be interred were wrapped in cloth, and after the consecrated bread had been placed upon the breast, various other ornaments and memorials were added. Earthen lamps were frequently set by the slabs which closed the niches.
The decoration of the Catacombs is interesting as throwing light upon the development of early Christian art. Many of the paintings are frescoes of the first and second century, and in their subjects are chiefly symbolical of the hopes of Christianity, the Resurrection being a favourite theme. The Good Shepherd, the Miracles, Daniel in the den of lions, and the Hebrews in the fiery furnace, also occur with frequency. The fish, too, by a kind of acrostic, is likewise an important symbol, on which see Acrosticha. A great number of inscriptions, many of them of much interest, occur. There are no representations of scenes of martyrdom earlier than the fifth century.
The most important of the Catacombs and the only one that has been even yet quite thoroughly explored is that of St. Callistus on the Via Appia. The one farthest distant (six miles) is that of St. Alexander.
Interments in the Catacombs were discontinued in the fifth century, but the caverns were still visited as containing the tombs of the martyrs. As early as A.D. 370, Pope Damasus caused apertures for lighting to be made, and had the most important tombs furnished with inscriptions. In the year 537, during the siege of Rome by the Goths, the tombs were pillaged, and again by the Lombards in 755, for the sake of the ornaments of gold and silver contained in them. From the time of Pope Paschalis I. (817- 824), the Catacombs gradually fell into oblivion, until under Pope Paul III. (in 1535) investigation of them was once more begun. The enthusiastic and learned priest, Father Bosio, spent thirty years in exploring the passages, and in making drawings of the most interesting objects, such as lamps, vases, and monuments, contained in them. His great work, Roma Sotterranea, was published (in Italian) in 1632, three years after his death, edited by Father Severani. It was translated into Latin by Father Aringhi, and is still the most important source of information on the subject. In 1720, appeared Boldetti's valuable folio, which was followed by the noble contribution of Seroux d'Agincourt, Histoire de l'Art par les Monuments, one of the most learned of all the works relating to the Catacombs. Other valuable books for the student are those of Perret, Les Catacombes [p. 294] [figure in text: Interior of Corridor, Catacombs of St. Callistus.]
de Rome (Paris, 1853); Northcote, Roman Catacombs (London, 1859); Dyer, The City of Rome: its Vicissitudes and Monuments (new ed. 1883); Roller, Les Catacombes de Rome, 2 vols. (Paris, 1881); De Rossi, Roma Sotterranea (Rome, 1864-77); and Boissier, Promenades Archologiques (3d ed. Paris, 1887). Popular works are Hare's Walks in Rome (11th ed. London, 1883); Lagrze, Pompi, les Catacombes, et l'Alhambra (Paris, 1872); Rio, Poetry of Christian Art (Eng. trans. London, 1854); Forbes, Rambles in Rome (London, 1882); Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity (London, 1882); and Lanciani, Rome Pagan and Christian (Boston, 1893). The inscriptions to the number of some 10,000 are given by De Rossi in his Inscriptiones Christianae (1857-61).