Imagine yourself wandering in the 4th story of a dark and humid underground labyrinth, with just a few oil lamps enlightening your way, surrounded by miles of tombs of dead people; some visitors here praying, some others, there, crying for the sadness of a loss but all with the faith and confidence of a new rebirth.
That is what you would experience as a Christian of 17 centuries ago when visiting your beloved buried in the catacombs.
These underground cemeteries originated in Rome between the end of the II and the beginning of the III century A.D. For the most part they are excavated in the local Roman tufa, the volcanic rock easily removable but solid, so as to create a negative architecture. The custom of burying the dead in underground areas was already known to the Etruscans, the Jews and the Romans, but with Christianity much larger burial hypogea originated in order to welcome the whole community that needed more space since the bodies were entombed and not cremated.
Everybody, even the poorest, could count on the community that would have provided him or her with a respectable funeral and a “loculo”, the humblest and most egalitarian burial system in order to respect the communal sense that animated the early Christians.
The ancient term to designate these landmarks is coemeterium, which derives from the Greek and means “dormitory”, thereby stressing the fact that for Christians, burial is just a temporary moment while they wait for the final resurrection. In antiquity, the term catacomb, now extended to all the Christian cemeteries, only defined the complex of St. Sebastian on the Appian Way.
Today the electricity brightens the passages, and most of the tombs are open, with no bones, and it is forbidden to get into the deepest galleries: nevertheless, these cemeteries still appeal visitors with their stories and tales of real life.
Moreover, with a guide leading you through the tunnels there is no risk to copy Antonio Bosio, the explorer who in 1593 entered the catacombs of Domitilla, walking for hours in the mud and mold and with the indoor smell of death. He got lost.
Sara Dicorato (Walks Inside Rome Guide)