« PreviousContinue »
Marchi. Marchi’s works, though in some points conjectural, and not always happily conjectural, yet showed clearly the right way, on which he has been followed by his as ingenious and more discerning disciple. To all the intermediate inquirers M. de Rossi does fair and ample justice ; having ourselves investigated the subject with some care, we can bear witness to his impartiality. He also distributes in general sound and judicious praise, or otherwise, to the more recent writers on the Catacombs. The whole of this section, however (our lessening space admonishes us), we must pass over, yet not without reluctance. We should like to have dwelt on the very curious fact, proved beyond doubt by M. de Rossi, that the first explorers of the Catacombs, the first whose names, written in modern times, appear upon the walls, were neither industrious antiquaries nor the zealous Faithful, eager to show their reverence for the hallowed remains of their Christian ancestors. They were some of those half-Paganising philosophers, somewhat Epicurean we fear, a certain Pompeius Lætus with his disciples, who endeavoured to blend the newly awakening ancient philosophy with Christianity, and Christianity rather receding from than maintaining its endangered ascendancy. Where the Christians used to seek refuge from their heathen persecutors, these heathenising Christians concealed their bold speculative discussions, perhaps certain feastings not less illsuited to the place, from the jealous vigilance of the Christian authorities.
Nor can we follow our author in his singularly ingenious elucidation of the site, the names, the topography of the cemeteries, which lie hid near or under every one of the Roman roads. For this purpose he has searched, with unwearied industry, the martyrologies, the lists of the Popes, the ritualistic books, down to the Pilgrimages, which border on, if they
? We cannot but be amused with the struggle between M. de Rossi's candour and his courtesy when writing on the splendid French work on the Catacombs, that of M. Perret-a beautiful book, so beautiful as to be utterly worthless to the archæologist or historian: it wants only two things, truth and fidelity.
do not belong to, the Middle Ages. We might demur to the use of these very questionable and suspicious authorities, where history or even art is concerned; but for the traditions of the names by which the cemeteries were known, the saints or martyrs from which they were commonly called, the shrines or churches which were built over them, and by which their ancient names were preserved, this legendary lore may be trusted if used with discretion and discrimination.
But we must hasten back to the Appian Way, the scene of M. de Rossi's own extraordinary discoveries. We must confine ourselves to the three great cemeteries on either side of this road; and as we have rapidly, with M. Canina, surveyed the monuments of Roman greatness, in its Pagan days, above the earth, so descend with M. de Rossi under the earth, to the memorials of her no less wonderful greatness when gradually becoming Christianized or entirely Christian. The Christians indeed did not raise the stupendous mounds, the mountains, as it were, of marble, encircled with countless statues, the stately and harmonious and the graceful, if humbler tombs, which lined the whole road from Aricia to the Capenian Gate. But assuredly there is something not less stupendous (we use the word advisedly) in the immense and intricate wilderness of galleries, ambulacra, arched alcoves with their layers of sarcophagi one above another, their lucernaria for light or ventilation, their stairs, straight or winding; and all this not on one level only, but floor beneath floor, one, two, four, five, hewn out on a labyrinthine yet harmonious and economic plan. And all this was designed and executed from reverence and from love of the brethren, to preserve their sacred bodies, as far as might be, whole, undisturbed, inviolate, for the day of resurrection. Let the reader examine the ground-plot of the great cemetery of Callistus, among the plates to M. de Rossi's work. It represents the several floors, distinguished by lines of different colours, with all the passages, galleries, alcoves, or wider areas in each. Network is perhaps a feeble description of this vast and intricate maze; a spider's web seen through the glass of a
naturalist, or rather four or five spider-webs, one within the other, would seem a more fitting illustration; all the threads spun out with infinite perplexity, yet with a certain unity, and converging as it were to one common entrance.
The two subjects, however, to which we would confine ourselves, are the history and the archæology of the Catacombs. Their origin, extension, and use, singularly coincide, we rejoice to observe, with the views which we have long formed of the growth, progress, and development of Christianity in Rome. Out of that growth and development they grew and developed themselves naturally and of necessity.
Of the first preaching of Christianity in Rome, and the sudden interruption of that preaching, by the Neronian persecution, the Catacombs, then unformed, can of course give no record. If there be truth in the tradition of the preaching and martyrdom of St. Peter at Rome, the secret of his first burialplace on the Vatican lies beneath the mighty monument to his memory, the ponderous and unmovable dome of St. Peter's. The burial-place of St. Paul, of whose martyrdom there can be no doubt, is assigned, by probable tradition, to the Ostian road, near that spot where that noble old church S. Paolo fuori delle Mura stood, which has risen from its ashes in our days in such majestic splendour. There are indeed obdurate sceptics who, from the silence of St. Paul's Epistles and other not despicable arguments, still doubt whether St. Peter ever was at Rome. That there should be such persons may perhaps be heard in Rome with a contemptuous or compassionate smile incredulity, such as good St. Augustine wore when men talked of the Antipodes; yet these are men too who believe themselves to be good Christians, and persuade others that they are so by the not untrustworthy evidence of their Christian lives. But even the hardest of these Pyrrhonists will scarcely doubt that in the latter half of the second century (as shown by the letter of Dionysius in Eusebius and the passage, in mutilated Latin, of Irenæus) the belief in the foundation of the Roman Church by St. Peter and St. Paul had become a tenet generally
received in the West. Nor can there be any reasonable question
But from the accession of Nerva the Church of Rome was in long and undisturbed peace. And here we must protest against the extraordinary and utterly unwarranted language used by many who know no better, by many who must know better, but who with one voice, from mistaken devotion, or indulgence in poetic phrases, we hope not from wilful deception, write and speak of the history of the Christians as one long persecution; who describe the Catacombs not as their place of repose after death, but of their actual living; as their only dwelling-places, their only churches ; who call them for two or three continuous centuries lucifugo, as if always shrouding themselves in darkness from the face of their enemies,as a people constantly and habitually under the earth. We might have supposed that Old Dodwell's unanswered and unanswerable essay, 'De Paucitate Martyrum,' had never been written. Poor Dodwell! his fate has been hard, but we fear that he was the author of his own fate. The honest old Nonjuror frightened even the most faithful of the Faithful by his wild paradox, that the immortality of the soul depended entirely on baptism-we suspect orthodox baptism. And the Nonjuror unhappily lay in the way of Lord Macaulay, who,
scanning with his searching eye this and his other absurdities, has devoted to him a page or two of withering and undying scorn. Yet if Lord Macaulay, who read almost everything, had read the · Dissertations on Irenæus and Cyprian,' especially the treatise • De Paucitate,' he would not have been content with a few extenuating phrases on Dodwell's undoubted sincerity and erudition ; he would have hailed him as perhaps the first who, before Mosheim, let in the light of historic truth into the thick jungle of legend, which darkened and bewildered the early Christian annals. Dodwell's treatise was refuted, as it was said, by the learned Benedictine, Dom Ruinart. But the refutation was the best confirmation of Dodwell's views. The Sincera Acta Martyrum' might have taken the title, as compared with the Bollandists and other martyrologies, of · De Paucitate Martyrum.'
During all this long period, from Nerva to the middle of the reign of Marcus Aurelius (from 96 to about 166), and so onward to the great persecution under Decius (A.D. 249, 250), the Christians, if exposed here and there, and at times, to local persecutions, were growing in unchecked and still expanding numbers :
In the following times (the year after the accession of Nerva), during which many good emperors held the sceptre and the sway, the Church having endured no assault from her enemies, stretched out her hands to the East and to the West.
..The long peace was broken, and after this arose that execrable creature Decius, who plagued the Church.
These are no words of ours; they are the words of Lactantius. Can any one read the defiant and boastful “ Apology’of Tertullian, written probably in the reign of Severus, making all allowance for the vehemence of the orator, the passionate character of the man, or the African fire of his diction, “we fill your cities, islands, castles, municipalities, councils, even your camps, your tribes, your demesnes, your palaces, your senate, your forum. We leave you only your temples '(he might have added your burial-places), c. 37, and suppose the Christians