Catacombs of Ancient Rome: How criminals and Christians made a home in the shadows

Beneath the streets of ancient Rome lurked some of the city’s most dangerous criminals. The Catacombs that form a warren of tunnels and caves under the city were home to escaped slaves and outlawed religions that used the underground labyrinth as a hiding place.

A network of tunnels and passageways, dug into the soft volcanic rock beneath Rome, the Catacombs were created as underground cemeteries by Hebrews and early Christians between the 2nd and 5th centuries BCE. Commonly, a stairway would lead 10-15 metres below the surface. At this point numerous galleries would diverge, wide enough for two people carrying a bier to walk.

Dark, often damp, riddled with vermin, claustrophobically small in places and stacked with the corpses of previous inhabitants, the Catacombs were not a place where people would want to stay.

A procession in the Catacomb of Callixtus; painting by Alberto Pisa
A procession in the Catacomb of Callixtus; painting by Alberto Pisa

Escaped slaves would want to move on from there as soon as they could, and not just because of the grim conditions. In 71 BCE Rome crucified an escaped gladiator called Spartacus who was widely believed to be the ringleader of a group of escapees. He and his group had caused the Third Servile War, which raged for two years and resulted in Rome passing even harsher sentences against escaped slaves. Not wanting to be caught, slaves used the Catacombs only as a temporary hiding place on their way out of the city.

It was the religious cults that tended to stay in the underworld of the Catacombs. Romans were usually quite open-minded about gods who weren’t their own, but some religions – Judaism, Christianity and Bacchanalia – followed dangerous ideologies. Bacchanalia was a Greek religion that the Romans had adopted. Its followers celebrated their god Bacchus with drunken orgies, and it was rumoured that they would murder those who refused to participate. In 186 BCE a law was passed against Bacchanalia.

Catacombs of St Callixtus as they appear today
Catacombs of St Callixtus as they appear today

Jews and Christians, meanwhile, were criminalised in ancient Rome because they believed that there was only one god. During the Roman Republic, with its pantheon of gods, this was frowned upon, but by the time Rome became an Empire it was an active threat to national security. Rome’s last dictator, Julius Caesar, was deified when he died, his heir Augustus inherited the title ‘Divi Filius’ or ‘son of a god’. Judaism and Christianity threatened this idea of divine emperor, and their followers fled underground.

There’s remains evidence in the Catacombs of the life that these people lived. Often they would carve or paint their religious symbols onto the walls. Jews often painted images of themselves performing their rites, or of the menorah – the seven-branched candlestick that is often used to represent their faith.

Christians were different. Knowing that they were the most-hated religious criminals and that Rome’s riot police would sometimes pursue them even as far as the Catacombs, the Christians used a range of cryptic signs such as stylised fish, Chi Ro symbols and ‘sator squares’ – coded word games that secretly spelled out a prayer – rather than the obvious cross/crucifix.

These obscure symbols helped other criminals navigate the Catacombs, showing them which path to follow in the dark, vile labyrinth. The only reason they stayed so near to the city was that they believed they should spread their faith and that they would be rewarded for their sufferings in the afterlife.

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