Today we visited the famous Roman catacombs. Our guide was a history professor with a PhD in linguistics so we got lots of extra insights.
For instance he explained that “catacomb” comes from the Latin for “at the caves” because that’s what the catacombs were. They were made-made caves carved out of the same semi-volcanic rock we saw in the underground city in Turkey- tuffa. This rock is obviously very well-suited to tunnelling!
There are about 23 known catacombs in Rome, and none of them are fully explored yet. They are huge! Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the catacombs so I’ll have to describe them with words.
The tunnels were far less cramped than the passageways we scrambled through in Cappadocia, mainly because the idea was to move around easily, not fight invaders. The tunnel was maybe half a metre to a metre wide and 2-3 metres tall, and on the sides there were niches carved out of the wall for the bodies. The niches were much smaller than our modern coffins, and once the body was placed there the niche would be sealed off. I guess there was no need for ornamentation, and people were slightly smaller in those days. There were also extra-small niches for infants and decomposed bodies moved to make way for fresh corpses. We also saw a small enclave used by Christians to hold communion services.
There is an urban legend that the catatacombs were built by the Christians as secret passageways to help them escape Roman patrols, like in the Storytellers videos I watched as a kid.
The catacombs were not secret, and they were not passageways. They were graveyards used by non-Roman citizens and other political outcasts, like Christians (and members of other banned religions), because they weren’t allowed to use anywhere else. It is true that Christians held worship services there, but that’s because it was an out-of-the-way spot, not a secret one.
Our guide explained to us very clearly why the Christians were persecuted at all. To the Romans religion was a celebration of the Roman community. To participate in the Roman religion was to be a part of what made the Roman community a community. It was more worship of the society than worship of gods per se. So if you didn’t participate, you were seen as an anarchist, a rebel, subverting and threatening the social order.
When Constantine became Emperor, he simply made all religions legal, and made decisions and appointments that heavily favoured Christianity. Christianity didn’t become the state religion until 50 years after Constantine’s death. He was no saint but maybe he got the church and state balance better than we usually give him credit for.
Walking through this famous part of church history and listening to our professor guide I realised history is not simple. Constantine’s legacy is not simplistic. The reasons for the persecution were complex. The early Christians’ own lives weren’t simple either.
They had no Christian traditions of art or religious expression like we do. They weren’t really Jews and they weren’t really pagans. They were a new creation and they had to create a whole new religious culture to match. So maybe it was inevitable that they reinvented the pagan culture to suit Christianity. They reinvented pagan symbols in their art, converted pagan festivals into Christian holidays and pagan temples into churches.
But walking around the buildings the early Christians lived in and the catacombs they were buried in gave me a new appreciation of where they were coming from. This was their background, their traditions, the paradigm they had grown up with. They had to make sense of Christianity with terms and surroundings that they were familiar with.
I think we do the same thing today. Church administration is based on secular business models that we’ve encountered in the secular world. The pastor is CEO and the elders are board members. Christian music is simply rap, pop or rock music with Christian words.
Walking in the catacombs I realised that just like the early Christians, we create “Christian” traditions based not just on the Bible, but also the outside world we grew up in. It helped me understand why they used “pagan” things a little better.