The Catacombs of St. Domitilla

Today I’ll have to blog in two sections, since I don’t know if I’ll have time tonight after “the Walk.”  Now it’s about 3:00 in the afternoon. 

Another sunny, beautiful day in Rome — our last day here before moving on to Florence.   Yet we started the day in the dark, humid catacombes of St. Domitilla.  The catacombs were early burial places; Rome once had 63 Christian and 6 Jewish catacomb sites, as those two faiths would bury their dead, while Roman pagans would cremate theirs.  The Romans knew about the catacombs and respected burial sites; contrary to popular belief they were not a place where Christians hid from persecution.   The catacombs of St. Domitilla are 11 miles wide, on four levels, and was the burial site of 150,000 people. 

Flavia Domitillia was related to the Emperor Domitian, and a member of the prestigious Flavian family.   She is a recognized Saint in the Orthodox church, but  in the Roman Catholic church, which once honored her day on May 12th, the tradition is ambiguous.  May 12th is also the day of Saints Nereus and Achilleus, who had been buried in these catacombs, but moved to a new church by Pope Leo III in the 9th Century.    Some claim she had converted to Judiasm, not Christianity, but the fact her grounds became a Christian burial place after she was banished suggest he likely had become Christian (the differences between the two faith were still confusing in late first Century, and her banishment came when both were being persecuted.)

It was amazing to see the detail of the underground labyrynth.  When these catacombs were discovered in the 16th century, the man who discovered them got lost in them for three days.  The time it took to excavate and care such a large burial ground is testament to the devotion and faith of those early Christians.  That also gives a sense of why it was that Christianity was able to grew in Imperial Rome to the point that it was finally legalized by Constantine at the start of the 4th Century, and later became the official religion of the Roman Empire.  And, while there were many so called mystery cults, where there was an initiation (it was baptism for Christianity) and secret meetings, Christianity appealled to the common folk — it offered a promise of an afterlife and in fact gave some meaning for life.  The wealthy enjoyed their Dionysis and other ‘entertainment’ cults which might have had a better party, but lacked the numbers and dedication to outlive the Empire.

I could envision the early Christians going down the sky lights into the catacombs, well mapped and traversed by those who took  care of the underground burial site.   Families could visit once a year, on the anniversary of the death of the individual, and would have to be guided to the spot by the caretakers.  So complex and impressive is this large site — again, one of over sixty — that it must have been a large and well supported operation.  When one wonders why Christianity of all faiths emerged from the Roman Empire and managed to persist, these catacombs provide a clue: they had a dedicated and committed core of believers.  The scope of these activities also shows that the Romans certainly knew of and tolerated Christian activity.  Yes, there were persecutions, but they were not the norm.  As long as Christians prayed in private quarters, they were able to practice and expand their faith.  No pictures, though, as these are burial grounds, and we must respect them.

Leaving the Catacombs we were back out in busy Rome, searching for the right bus, and enjoying a city that is a unique blend of ancient and modern.  A part of the old city wall next to a billboard for a cell phone.   Cars and buses cramming down alleyways built originally for carriages, and too narrow for the traffic that nonetheless uses it today.   The Rome of today stands on top of the Rome of the past, co-existing and linked.   What a city!  And, of course, a Doner Kebab for lunch — a mideastern delight now one of the most common fast foods in Europe.   The students headed mostly for the Colloseum, Sarah led a few to go to some churches near Piazza Nuvona to delight in some Caravaggios, and I bought tomorrow’s ticket to Florence, and am about to plan “the walk.”  In about a half hour we leave to walk through Rome at night and say goodbye to this city.  We’ll hit Campo di Fiori, the Jewish Ghetto, Trastevere, dinner, the Pantheon, Trevi, a number of churches and ending with gelato.

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  1. #1 by Katie Boucher on February 16, 2009 - 15:46

    Doner Kebab, Piazza Nuvona, Trevi – my favorite parts of Rome! Glad youre having a fantastic time, looks like I will have to hit up the catacombs on my next visit.

  2. #2 by Lee on February 16, 2009 - 19:25

    I am enjoying “seeing” the sites of Rome through your vivid prose. I am not well travelled–my Spanish class trip was supposed to be to Mexico City and was instead to Acapulco. Definately lacking in the cultural opportunities that your trip affords.

  3. #3 by henitsirk on February 16, 2009 - 22:56

    What a wonderful observation about the catacombs — a group truly persecuted would not have been able to create and maintain such huge structures. I had no idea they were so large and numerous!

  4. #4 by Scott Erb on February 16, 2009 - 23:27

    Henitsirk: I didn’t realize how extensive they were either until we decided to visit one and I started to research them. It really is amazing. Lee, thanks for the kind words! Katie — Bernini really rocks, doesn’t he? The fountains at Nuvona are amazing.

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