Thursday, June 28, 2007

Monday Morning in Rome: The Catacombs

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On Monday morning, we headed out early for the Appian Way and the famous catacombs. The Appian Way is an old road which led out of the city to the southeast. According to the apocryphal Acts of Peter, it was here that St Peter, as he was fleeing the persecution in Rome, had a vision of Christ, who was heading into the city. St Peter asked Christ: “Domine, quo vadis?” (Lord, where are you going?), to which Christ replied: “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” From this, St Peter understood that he was to return to Rome to face the persecution. He was crucified upside down. A church is built on the site of this vision.

Further down the Appian Way, there are miles and miles of catacombs. The bus dropped us off, and we started walking down this famous ancient road. (See the top photo.) Along the way, we saw several sites, including the above-ground mausoleum of a wealthy Roman woman, Cecilia Metella, and the ruins of the ancient church, St Nicholas de’ Caetani (see middle photo). Sadly, as we walked around these ruins, we noticed that this secluded area appears to be used for less-than-holy purposes – we found hypodermic needles tucked into a crevice in the wall. This was all the more odd because the area is very well-to-do, with massive, beautiful estates on either side of the road.

Finally, we made it down to the Catacombs of St Sebastian, one of three catacomb complexes in the area open to visitors. It stays a cool 60 degrees down there, so it was a great place to visit! This set of catacombs stretch for several miles and contained 100,000 bodies, with Christians and pagans buried together. During the persecution of the Emperor Vespasian (69-79 AD), the relics of Sts Peter and Paul were hidden here. To commemorate this, St Constantine erected a church on top of the catacombs to the memory of Sts Peter and Paul. It was later rededicated to St Sebastian, who was martyred in 287 (see bottom photo).

Afterwards, we walked on a little while to the Catacombs of St Callixtus, which are the largest and most famous catacombs with 20 km of tunnels. It was originally founded as a specifically Christian burial ground, and ended up housing 500,000 Christians, 100,000 of which were babies. (For more information on the Christians as a funerary association in the eyes of the Romans, check out this fascinating book by Robert Wilken.)

In one of the rooms we walked through, which once housed the tombs of 7 popes, one early pope, Pope St Sixtus II (257-258) was martyred along with four deacons during a service. Contrary to popular belief, we were told, the Romans did know that the Christians were meeting for services in the catacombs. Enforcement, however, was sporadic. On this occasion, Roman soldiers entered the catacombs, found Pope Sixtus II addressing the faithful, and martyred him and his four deacons. The faithful attending the service were allowed to live.

The catacombs were definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the catacombs.


Larry Edwards said...

I'm surprised you refer to "the pope" rather than the "bishop of Rome!"

Gregory said...

He's both. "Pope" is simply an honorary title, traditionally bestowed also on the Patriarch (or Pope) of Alexandria, which was the second city of the Roman Empire.