Note:  Do not rely on this information. It is very old.


Catacombs, from Gk, kata and kumbe (cf. combe, denoting a hollow, as Ilfracombe, Pyecombe, etc.), used to denote subterranean galleries such as are found beneath Paris and in the neighbourhood of Rome. It is these latter which are par excellence usually spoken of as The Catacombs. Of these there are some forty around Rome. They may be generally described as underground cemeteries, worked in the volcanic soil, which is sufficiently soft to be easy of excavation and yet hard enough to support the overlying soil. The Christians seem at an early period to have utilised these burial-places not only as burial vaults, but as places to carry on their forbidden worship. A decree of the Emperor Valerian in 253 forbade the Christians to assemble in their cemeteries. This edict was in the next year revoked, but in the third century the cemeteries were confiscated, though they were afterwards restored. But before the end of the fifth century the practice of burial in them had been generally abandoned. They had in the latter part of this period been greatly beautified by sculpture and other ornamentation, and the fact that they were ransacked by the Goths in 557, and at a later date by the Lombards in 756, shows that a mysterious and exaggerated value had been attributed to their contents by tradition. After this they appear to have been neglected and to have well-nigh passed out of remembrance until a landslip in 1578 brought them once more to public notice. They were explored, and in 1632 Antonio Bosio published an account of them which still remains in many respects an authority. But the best work upon them is that of De Rossi (1864-77), which has established a chronological arrangement and shows the progress of Christian art as exhibited in the catacombs from the earliest period. The earliest and most simple mode of burial was to place a slab before the niche containing the body -- the slab sometimes being a Pagan slab with Pagan symbols or inscription reversed - and to put upon it the name of the dead accompanied by some prayer or pious wish. In connection with some tombs vessels with the remains of a red fluid have been found. This was formerly supposed to be blood and to mark the resting-place of martyrs, but later opinions are that it was wine, sacramental or other. The early inscriptions were often half Pagan in character, but later symbols are more distinctly Christian. The vine, fish, anchor, dove, and olive branch were among the earliest, but later ornament was of a much more elaborate nature, and whole scenes and episodes from Scripture history were portrayed. The more elaborate tombs are all of a later date, when Christianity was no longer a persecuted religion. The catacombs of Paris - unlike those of Rome - were simply subterranean quarries, and were not excavated with any view of burial.