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Roman Catacombs and Christian Symbols


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A couple weeks ago we spent a few days visiting Rome and one of the most interesting visits we had was at St. Callixtus catacombs.

 

While ancient Roman pagans used to cremate their dead, Christians preferred to bury them. Since Roman laws forbade to bury any corpse inside the city, Christians adquired some lots of land outside the city walls and dug deep tunnels there. On each wall of the gallery they dug niches. Bodies were put in the niches, then the remaining space was filled with aromatic oils and herbs and the niche was sealed. When they ran out of niches, they just dug deeper. That way they managed to bury their dead without attracting the attention ofthe authorities, in a period where Christians were often persecuted.

 

After centuries of that practice, the catacombs became extremely complex multi-level labyrinths that extended underground for many miles. At St Callixtus some half million bodies are buried dating from the 2nd to the 5th centuries. Besides being burial grounds, some Christians hid inside the catacombs during times of dire persecution, and there are small rooms where underground (in all senses) religious services were held. The galleries we visited were from the oldest level which was dug around the year 200. Many tombs contain inscriptions or paintings, so they are a great way to learn details about Christians from the 3rd century.

 

Christians, or rather "Christians" from that time were already infiltrated with some pagan beliefs. Apparently many of them believed that Jesus was God and that good people go to heaven, although that last part is understandable since all true Christians at that time had the heavenly hope. The most common symbol found on those tombs is by far the "Good Shepherd", that is, a shepherd with a lamb on his shoulders. Other common symbols were a dove with an olive branch in its beak, a fish and an anchor.

 

Interestingly, I could not see any crosses, so I asked our guide (who was a Catholic priest as well as an archaeologist and a great teacher). He explained that primitive Christians did not use  any crosses. The cross was only adopted in the 4th century with the emperor Constantine. Of course I knew that already, but it was great to hear it coming from an expert who was also a Catholic priest!

 

The guide also explained that most of the tombs are now empty because they were sacked by the barbarians. The reason is that many of the bodies were buried together with their jewels or other valuable personal objects. Then he asked why would Christians bury their dead with personal objects, since the Christian teaching is that you cannot take anything to heaven. My wife gave the right answer: Those people may have become "Christians" but they mixed their pagan beliefs with Christian ideas. Again, it was great to hear a Catholic priest admitting that pagan beliefs and practices were mixed by the apostate church.

 

It certainly was a great visit and one I wholeheartedly recommend. Besides, the entrance is really cheap. On our way back to the city we walked on the Via Appia, the same road the apostle Paul used. At some points you can see the ancient big slabs that paved the old Roman way. If you visit Rome and are interested in history, you cannot miss the catacombs.

 

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9 minutes ago, hatcheckgirl said:

Really interesting, Carlos. That would have been on my to-do list, but others I was with were not interested and get claustrophobic unfortunately. I'll keep it in mind tho!

For clautrophobic people it's definitely not the best place to visit. :)

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13 hours ago, carlos said:
A couple weeks ago we spent a few days visiting Rome and one of the most interesting visits we had was at St. Callixtus catacombs.


Just wow! How I wish I had the opportunity and resources to do visits like this!

Sent from my TECNO DP7CPRO using Tapatalk
 

 

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11 hours ago, Gregexplore said:

I would love to see some photos Carlos !

Unfortunately taking pics is not allowed inside the catacomb. But there's a good number of pics if you search Google for "St Callixtus catacombs":

https://www.google.es/search?q=st+callixtus+catacombs&safe=off&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiI4fnywNnRAhXI1xQKHU7dBZgQ_AUICCgB&biw=1152&bih=699

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6 hours ago, Friends just call me Ross said:

They're a little 'holier' than I'd imagined.thumbs up wink.gif

The tombs were sacked in ancient times. When the archeologists rediscovered the place in 1854, all the bones where scattered on the ground. So they picked them all, put them together in some chambers and sealed them.

 

The place is dark and a bit gloomy but it's clean and there are no bones or human remains at sight.

 

 

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3 hours ago, carlos said:

The tombs were sacked in ancient times. When the archeologists rediscovered the place in 1854, all the bones where scattered on the ground. So they picked them all, put them together in some chambers and sealed them.

Several songs popped into my head that I imaged them singing as they worked....:D

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