The catacombs are the ancient underground cemeteries used by the Christians and the Jewish people in Rome. The Christian catacombs began in the second century and the hollowing out continued until the first half of the fifth century. In the beginning they were only burial places, but later they gathered to celebrate their funeral rites, and the anniversaries of the saints and of the dead. During the persecutions the catacombs were used as places of momentary refuge for the celebration of the Eucharist. After the persecutions they became real shrines of the saints and held centuries of relics of Christians from all over the empire.
In the first century, the Roman Christians did not have their own cemeteries. If they owned land then they would bury their relatives there, if they didn t they had to bury them in common cemeteries, the Pagans were also buried here. That is why Saint Peter was buried in the great public necropolis (city of the dead) on Vatican Hill, it was available to everybody. Saint Paul was also buried along the Via Ostiense, a section of the catacombs.
In the first half of the second century the Christians started burying their dead underground, this is a result of donations. That is how the catacombs were founded. Many of them began and developed around family tombs whose owners, newly converted Christians, did not reserve them to the members of the family. They did open them up to their fellow people, showing the faith. As time went on and room started to run out in the catacombs, the catacombs grew larger by gifts and by the purchase of new properties, sometimes by the Church itself.
With the edict of Milan announced by the emperors Constantine and Licinius in February 313, the Christians were no longer persecuted. They were free to practice their faith, to have places of worship, to build churches both inside and outside the city, and to buy plots of land without fear of seizure. Although the Christians had their freedom to worship any religion, the catacombs continued as regular cemeteries until the beginning of the fifth century. This is when the Church returned to burying only above ground or in the basilicas dedicated to important saints.
When the barbarians came down to Rome, they completely destroyed a lot of monuments and demolished many places, including the catacombs. Powerless towards the destruction, the Popes ordered to remove the relics of the saints to the city churches, for security reasons. When the transfer of the relics was completed the catacombs were no longer visited. They were totally abandoned, except for the tombs of Saint Sebastian, Saint Lawrence and of Saint Pancratius. Over the course of time, landslides, rock movement, and vegetation hid the entrances to the other catacombs. The very traces of their existence were lost. During the late Middle Ages they didn’t even know where they were.
The Christian religion developed rapidly in Rome and all over the world past the 1st century. This was because it was original and suitable for all mankind to believe in. It was also due to the testimony of fervour; this was that the Christians expressed brotherly love and charity to everybody. The Roman authorities were at first unconcerned about the new religion, but soon the people showed themselves hostile to the authorities because the Christians refused to worship the ancient pagan deities of Rome, and also the emperor. The Christians were accused of disloyalty to their fatherland, atheism, hatred towards mankind, and also hidden crimes such as incest, infanticide and ritual cannibalism. Because of this they were held responsible for all natural disasters such as plagues, floods, famines, etc.
The Christian religion was proclaimed strange and unlawful by most that s why it was outlawed and persecuted. It was considered the most dangerous enemy of Rome. The first three centuries constitute the age of Saints, which ended in 313 with the edict of Milan. At this time the emperors Constantine and Licinius gave freedom to the Church. The persecutions were not always continuous and universal, nor equally cruel and bloody. Periods of persecution were followed by periods of relative peace. Christians faced persecution with courage, a very large percentage with heroism, but they did not submit to it without resistance. They defended themselves with great strength by defeating the accusations of those crimes as being false and groundless and by producing the contents of their faith.
1.) Celebrating Sacraments
Translated by Leo Donald Advise
3.) The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity
4.) The Rise of Christianity