Catacombs (Gr. kaтa, downward, and kvuβoς, a hollow place), subterraneous places for burying the dead. The catacombs of Egypt, from their vast extent and elaborate decorations, both of architecture and painting, are perhaps more remarkable than any others. The entire chain of mountains in the neighborhood of Thebes is mined by an immense number of these subterranean tombs. Those of the Theban kings, originally 47 in number, are the most ancient of all, some having been begun 4,000 years ago. Most of them have been defaced, but a few still exist to bear witness to their pristine magnificence. They occupy a deep ravine, flanked by the bed of a torrent in the centre of the mountain Libycus, and, lying some 0,000 to 7,000 paces from the banks of the Nile, were reached by an artificial passage. Proceeding along the valley, the visitor discovers openings in the ground, with a gateway in a simple square frame, each gateway being the mouth of a gallery leading to the royal sepulchre. Forty paces within is another gateway opening to a second gallery 24 ft. in length, and on each side of this are small chambers. A third gallery succeeds, communicating with a chamber 18 ft. square, and from this is an entrance to another gallery 64 paces in length.
This in its turn connects with several small apartments, beyond which lies a saloon 20 ft. square, containing the royal sarcophagus. The whole extent of excavation in this single tomb is upward of 225 paces. All the sarcophagi of the kings have long since been violated, and the bodies destroyed, doubtless for the sake of plunder; but M. Denon, the French traveller, found the fragments of a mummy in one of the royal tombs. Robbed as they have been, these tombs still preserve their wonderful paintings, after in some cases a lapse of 4,000 years. The more costly of the catacombs are covered in the whole extent of their interior by hieroglyphics and pictures, generally in fresco; and in all, unless wantonly injured by the Arabs, the colors are as fresh as if laid on but yesterday. The catacombs of the opulent Thebans were lower on the mountain than the royal sepulchres, and in proportion to the extent of their excavations they arc more or less richly decorated, the hues of the paintings are brilliant, and the sculptures elegantly defined. Innumerable subjects are displayed in these tombs, one chamber being devoted to warlike representations, and another to husbandry or agriculture. Every ordinary occupation or amusement is exhibited, hunting, fishing, feasting, etc.
Many of the figures are colored yellow on a blue ground, exhibiting homage paid to monarchs, executions, religious or funeral processions, and in short every phase of human life. In some of the scenes gangs of African negro slaves, colored black, and accurately drawn in all leading characteristics, such as thick lips and woolly hair, are represented. In a group of a double file of negroes and Nubians, bound, and driven before the chariot of Rameses IT., at Ipsam-bul, are delineated with perfect accuracy all the characteristics of the modern Ethiop. The paintings in the Egyptian catacombs also exhibit figures of colossal or pigmy size, as well as hawk-headed and fox-headed deities. The complete history of the ancient Egyptians may be read in these paintings, as every action of their lives is represented, with accompanying furniture, even down to the playthings of infants. "The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians," by Sir Gardner Wilkinson (5 vols., London, 1847), contains many hundreds of drawings and colored plates directly copied from these extraordinary frescoes, and makes the reader so intimately acquainted with the daily life of an extinct people, that he seems actually to dwell among them. The catacombs for the poor were limited in space, rude in construction, and unadorned.
In consequence, the mummies were packed together as closely as they could be laid, tier on tier, leaving a narrow passage between the Avails of bodies. - For nearly the whole period of the Christian era have the Roman catacombs attracted the interest of Christians, more especially during the last few centuries. Connected as they were with the trials of the early martyrs of the church, their exploration and history has ever proved one of the favorite branches of research. Many of them are of great antiquity, having been originally quarries hewn long before the Rome of Romulus and Remus was founded, and so extended in the course of time, that every one of the seven hills on which the city stood was perforated and honeycombed by passages, dark galleries, low corridors, and vaulted halls, where sunshine never enters. The light and soft nature of the material to be quarried greatly facilitated the work, and allowed the workmen to shape their shafts and galleries as they pleased; the excavations being made in the soft volcanic tufa and pozzolano, another volcanic substance even softer.
As the extent and wealth of the city increased, new quarries were continually opened, even miles from the banks of the Tiber, and continued to he sought through the reigns of the Ctesars, until the empire began to decline, and old edifices were resorted to as materials for new ones. None of the ancient writers have left any account of the uses of these recesses when they were no longer quarried; but Horace, speaking of the caverns under the Esquiline hill, says: "This was the common sepulchre of the miserable plebeians." During the time of the persecutions of the Christians, commencing with that under Nero, and followed by those of Domitian, Trajan, Hadrian, Sevcrus, Maximinus, to what is called the 10th and last persecution, which began in A. D. 303, under Diocletian, the catacombs were crowded with those for whom there was no safety in the face of day. It is conjectured that many of these sufferers were aided in obtaining secure hiding places by the workmen in these caverns, who were well acquainted with their intricacies, and who became themselves early converts to the new faith.
Some modern writers, however, maintain that though the quarries were used to some extent as sepulchres, it is yet evident that the greater part of the catacombs were originally constructed as places of interment for the dead. They are found in every direction outside the walls of the city, to the number of about 60 in all. They are mostly within a circuit of 3 m. from the Avails, the furthest, that of St. Alexander, being 6 m. distant. Each catacomb forms a network of passages or galleries, intersecting each other generally at right angles, but sometimes diverging from a centre. These galleries are usually 8 ft. high by 3 or 5 ft. wide. The graves are in tiers on the sides, and when undisturbed are found closed with marble slabs or tiles, on which are often inscriptions or Christian emblems. It is calculated that the entire length of the catacombs is not less than 530 m., and that they contain about 6,000,000 bodies. It was not until the year 1377, when the papal seat, which for nearly 70 years had been at Avignon, was restored to Rome, that the catacombs appear to have attracted any serious attention from the government or the clergy.
This was doubtless owing to the frightful state of society, which for some centuries after the extinction of the Western empire rendered Rome little better than a robbers' stronghold, and finally forced the pontiff to flee from the Tiber and seek an asylum on the banks of the Rhone. At this period the catacombs, from having been the habitations of persecuted Christians, were thronged with outlaws and assassins; but as the papal authorities acquired strength, many of them were driven out and the entrances to many of their retreats were closed. About 1535, under Pope Paul III., some few of the most remarkable of the crypts were explored, cleared, and lighted by lamps. A deep interest in subterranean Rome having thus been awakened, Father Bosio, a humble priest, but an enthusiastic antiquary, spent more than 30 years of his life in digging and groping in the catacombs; he cleared the way into some of the innermost recesses, which had been blocked up for centuries, and made drawings of the ancient monuments, inscriptions, paintings, sculptures, lamps, vases, etc., found underground, He did not live to see his work published, as he died (1629) while writing the last chapter; but it appeared in 1632, edited by Father Severani, and under the title of Roma sotterranea.
It was translated into Latin by Father Aringhi, and still forms the most important work on the Roman cata-combs. He was followed by Father Poldetti, who also spent more than 30 years in his subterranean research, and published in 1720 a folio volume, entitled "Observations on the Cemeteries of the Holy Martyrs and Ancient Christians of Rome," This work is exceedingly valuable. These two enthusiastic and meritorious priests have been succeeded by such investigators as Bottari, Marangoni, Lupi, Fabretti, Filippo, Buonarotti, Allegranza, etc. Seroux d'Aginconrt is one of the most distinguished authorities of modern times; he went to Rome in the latter part of the last century to study Christian archaeology and remain there for six months, but he became so interested in his inquiries that he stayed nearly 50 years. His great work, Histoirede Part par lesmonumens, depuis sa decadence au 4' siecle jusqu'a son re-nouvellement au, 16e, treats of the catacombs with profound learning and discrimination. Among more recent works is the magnificent one published at the expense of the French government, Les Catacombes de Rome, by Louis Ferret (Paris, 1853); and in English, those of the Rev. Spencer Northcote, "The Roman Catacombs" (London, 1859), and "Roma Sotterranea" (London, 1860). The distinguished Roman antiquary the chevalier de' Rossi is preparing for publication a complete collection of all the Christian inscriptions, amounting to upward of 11,000, of which one vol. folio appeared in 1861. The same author is engaged upon a general work under the title of Roma sotterranea Christiana, of which vol. i. appeared in 1866. Among other recent writers of importance on the Roman catacombs may be mentioned Maitland, " Church in the Catacombs;" Kip, "The Catacombs of Rome;" Schaff, Remusat, Jehan, Martigny, and Bouix. Under Pius IX. their exploration has been carried on with much intelligence and energy, and has resulted in many interesting and valuable discoveries.
A full statement of these researches since November, 1871, is given in De' Rossi's Bollettino di Archeologia, new series, No. IV. "When Bosio's discoveries were made known Pope Clement VIII. took the catacombs under his special protection, and decreed excommunication and severe corporal punishment against any one who should enter them without leave, or remove from them the least object whatsoever. So highly were the virtues of the Christian martyrs esteemed, that personages of the highest distinction were buried in the catacombs, and were happy if they thought that after their death such honor should be paid to their remains. Among illustrious men thus entombed were the popes Leo L, Gregory the Great, Gregory II. and III., and Leo IX.; and the emperors Honorius, Valentinian, and Otho II. - The catacombs of Naples have larger and higher chambers and galleries than those of Rome; they are excavated in the volcanic tufa in the face of the hill of Capodimonte, forming a long series of corridors and chambers, arranged in three stories communicating with each other by steps.
The only entrance now open is that of the church of San Gennaro. Their construction has given rise to many speculations among the antiquaries of Naples, but is now generally ascribed to the colonists from Greece. Subsequently they were used by the early Christians for purposes of sepulture as well as of worship. St. Januarius and other martyrs were interred here. In the middle of the 17th century they were made the burial place of the victims of the plague, and at the beginning of this century several bodies were found by Domenico Romanelli. - The catacombs of Svracuse form an immense subterranean town, with innumerable tombs cut out of the solid rock, containing the dead of all ages, nationalities, and creeds. They, also, were converted by the early Christians into places of refuge from persecution. The entrance to them is under the church of San Giovanni. The catacombs of Malta are of small extent, but in good preservation. They seem to have been used for a place of worship as well as of sepulture. - The so-called catacombs of Faris were never catacombs in the ancient sense of the word, and not devoted to sepulchral purposes until the year 1784, when the council of state issued a decree for clearing the cemetery of the Innocents, and for removing its contents, as well as those of other graveyards, into the quarries which had existed from a remote period beneath the southern part of Paris, and by which the observatory, the Luxembourg, the Odeon, the Val de Grace, the Pantheon, and the streets La Harpe, St. Jacques, Tournon, Vau-girard, and many others were completely undermined.
Some excavations having taken place, a special commission was appointed to direct such works as might be required. Engineers and workmen were immediately employed to examine the whole of the quarries, and prop the streets, roads, churches, palaces, and buildings of all kinds which were in danger of being engulfed. The plan of converting the quarries into catacombs originated with M. Lenoir, lieutenant general of the police, and every preparation was made by sinking a shaft, propping up the cavities, and walling off various portions for receiving their future contents. The ceremony of consecrating the catacombs was performed with great solemnity on April 7, 1786, and on the same day the removal from the cemeteries began. This work was always performed at night; the bones were brought in funeral cars, covered with a pall, and followed by priests chanting the service of the dead, and when they reached the catacombs the bones were shot down the shaft. Such tombstones, monuments, etc, as were not claimed by the families of the deceased, were arranged in a field near the entrance of the shaft, and among these relics was the leaden coffin of Mme, de Pompadour. As other cemeteries were suppressed, the bones from them were removed to this general deposit by order of the government.
The catacombs served also as convenient receptacles for those who perished in popular commotions or massacres. At first the bones were heaped up without any kind of order, except that those from each cemetery were kept separate; but in 1810 a regular system of arranging them was commenced, and the skulls and bones were built up along the wall. The principal entrance to the catacombs is near the barriere d'Enfer, but for some years past admission into them has been strictly interdicted, on account of the dangerous state of the roofs of the quarries. From the entrance a flight of 90 steps descends to the catacombs; a series of galleries are then seen branching in various directions, and several hundred yards from the steps is the vestibule, of octagonal form, and over the door is the following inscription: Has ultra metas re-quiescunt beatam spem spectantcs. The vestibule opens into a long gallery lined with bones from the floor to the roof; the arm, leg, and thigh bones are in front, closely and regularly piled together, and their uniformity is relieved by three rows of skulls at equal distances. Behind these are thrown the smaller bones. This gallery conducts to several rooms resembling chapels, lined with bones variously arranged.
One is called the "Tomb of the Revolution," another the "Tomb of Victims," and contain the bodies of those who perished either in the early period of the revolution, or in the massacres of September. Calculations differ as to the number of bones collected in this vast charnel house, but it is estimated to contain at least the remains of 3,000,000 human beings. A map of the catacombs and quarries under the city has been drawn up by the order of the municipal authorities. These excavations are 3,000,000 square metres in extent.
The Catacombs of Thebes, Egypt. (From a Photograph.).
Catacombs of St. Thraso and St. Saturninus, Rome.
The Catacombs of Paris.