Human burial in subterranean rock chambers is an ancient pre-Christian, pre-Roman custom in the Mediterranean. Although cremation was the rule among Greeks and Romans, there was no bar against burial for Christians or Jews, and the catacombs were not constructed in secrecy. Ordinances forbade interment within the city limits. All the Roman catacombs consequently are outside the city gates.
The Roman catacombs lie from 22 to 65 ft (6.7–19.8 m) beneath ground level in a space of more than 600 acres (243 hectares); much of this is in several levels. They date from the 1st cent. AD until the early 5th cent. Lining the walls of the narrow passages, generally 3 ft (91 cm) wide, are the recesses for the bodies. Some passages contained separate chambers or cubicula, usually about 12 ft (4 m) square but sometimes circular or polygonal, which were privately owned family vaults or contained the tomb of a martyr. In these the bodies were often placed in carved sarcophagi that stood within arched niches. In some catacombs rooms are arranged in groups; in the catacombs of Sant'Agnese such a group forms a miniature church. The spreading of the catacombs eventually produced burial places of labyrinthine character. The walls and ceilings of plaster were customarily painted with fresco decorations, and in these can be studied the beginnings of Christian art.
Even after official recognition of Christianity in 313, burials continued, through a desire for interment near the martyrs. The invasions of Goths, Vandals, Lombards, and Saracens brought about the plundering of the catacombs and the robbing of their graves for the bones of saints. Several popes worked at restoring these sacred places, but by the 8th cent. the bodies had been mainly transferred to churches; by the 10th cent. the catacombs, filled with debris, were forgotten.
In 1578 the catacombs were rediscovered. Exhaustive publications based on researches in the catacombs were produced by the archaeologist Battista de Rossi (1822–94). The catacombs discovered in the vicinity of Rome in 1956 and 1959 contain frescoes of notable historical interest. In the Roman liturgy the requirement that Mass be said in the presence of lighted candles and over martyrs' relics is in conscious reminiscence of the catacombs.
See W. H. Adams, Famous Caves and Catacombs (1886, repr. 1972); S. Benko and J. J. O'Rourke, ed., The Catacombs and the Colosseum (1971).
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