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The True Users Of The Roman Catacombs

1979 words - 8 pages

When one usually thinks of the catacombs of ancient Rome, images of the dead lying on shelves and persecuted Christians often come to mind. Not to be confused with the Parisian catacombs that were created much later, Rome’s underground complex first appeared at the end of the second century, providing a place for the dead to be buried that was close to the borders of Rome. These burial chambers are often thought of as the final resting place for a great many of the early martyrs of the Church, and while that is often true, they were not the only ones to be buried in this place. Widely used by all, the catacombs were and remain a place full of rich history of the early Christian Church (Christian Catacombs). In this paper, I will be showing the true users of the ancient catacombs, and how the early Christians were not so different from the pagans who inhabited Rome at the time.
Prior to the issue of the Edict of Milan in 313, Rome was a very hostile place for the early Christians (Bishop 106). These Christians were living alongside pagans who were unsympathetic to their religious beliefs, and who were all too willing to serve as persecutors. Because of the illegality of their faith, they were forced underground – quite literally. While the underground burying of the dead was not unknown to the Romans, “with Christianity much more complex and larger burial hypogea originated in order to welcome the whole community in only one necropolis” (Christian Catacombs). In actuality, there were catacombs that were used by Christians, Jews, and pagans. The Roman catacombs were widely used between the second and fifth centuries, and were maintained until the ninth century. The catacombs would fall into disuse around the ninth century, and would not be rediscovered for many hundreds of years (Rome’s catacombs). While we consider the catacombs to be a very secretive place today, in actuality, they were very public at the time they were created; everyone in the low classes of Roman society was buried in such places (White, Crossan).
We tend to hold a very much romanticized view of the catacombs and how they were used at this time period. Christians huddled in dripping underground caverns, hiding from their persecutors and celebrating the Eucharist in secret remain popular images of the time. However, records of the time show us that the persecution of the Christians simply wasn’t that regular; these people did not have to hide in their homes with the shutters drawn out of constant fear of discovery. Today, we know of many large rooms in the complexes that appear to be built as a gathering space. While there were times that the Eucharist was celebrated in that area, it was not a regular practice, but there were many benches that lined the walls of the rooms, looking like they could hold a large congregation. In actuality, they were used for a very different purpose on a regular basis. Christians and pagans alike shared a common belief in having...

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