« PreviousContinue »
On every side darkness seemed gathering over Rome. The Marcomannian war on the Danube, the Eastern war on the Euphrates, and, far worse than the war, the terrible plague, brought back by the triumphant legions of Rome, had raised a mad panic throughout the Empire. Victims must be found to appease the angry, the insulted, the deserted gods. The Christians to the lions!' was the general cry; and to this period belong the martyrdom of Polycarp and the martyrs of Lyons, of which the pathetic description seems so authentic, and is so well known; perhaps the fate of Justin Martyr in Rome. It is curious that, as far as we observe, perhaps somewhat hastily, we find no record of the Martyr Philosopher in any part of the catacombs. Were any of the catacomb churches built in his honour, or consecrated by his name? These perilous times passed away. Christian brotherly love did not shame or restrain the fratricidal jealousy of Caracalla, though he was said to have had a Christian nurse. There seem to have been some strictly local persecutions under Septimius Severus. The brutal Commodus, we know from the authority of the Philosophumena, had a Christian mistress. Alexander Severus placed Christ in his gallery of Sages; and in other respects this Emperor's reign is a marked era. His grant of a litigated piece of land for a Christian church seems to us to prove that this was not an innovation—not an unexampled precedent; but that Christian churches, public edifices for Christian worship, were already common; and, if Christian churches, no doubt Christian cemeteries. This brings us to the years A.D. 222–234. The Emperor Philip, who ruled between Alexander Severus and Decius, is reported to have been a Christian : this report may have arisen from some favour shown to the Christians as contrasted with the internecine hostility of Decius. The truth is, that the Christians were really lucifugo, at the utmost, during the reigns of Decius and Valerian, A.D. 249–260; and under Diocletian, for a year or two beginning A.D. 303.
During all this period of more than a century and a half the Christians were multiplying in Rome, no doubt from every class, station, and order. As the living Christians increased in number, so would the number of the Christian dead. We have already dwelt on their profound religious reverence for their dead; and shown how their feelings revolted from the heathen usage of cremation. The absolute necessity for secure and capacious cemeteries, which would admit of continual enlargement, became more and more pressing and inevitable. At the commencement of these operations, it may be not improbably supposed that, after all, the arenaria—deserted arenaria—may have suggested thoughts of subterranean sepulture. M. de Rossi speaks of one catacomb within an ancient arenarium ; he judges of its antiquity by its construction, and from the superior style of art in the ornaments, sculptures, and paintings, which degenerate with the growing degeneracy of the arts during the decline of the Empire. The oldest sarcophagi too are manifestly from the hands of heathen workmen; and it is curious that the inscriptions, at first hardly more than names, then gradually the simplest expressions of Christian faith and affection, are at first more generally Greek, then Greek mingled with Latin, till Latin assumes its predominance. The earlier tombs too are without those distinctive titles, which on the heathen monuments discriminate the noble from the plebeian, the master, the Libertus, the Libertinus, the slave. M. de Rossi, as well as his brother, enters with almost unnecessary copiousness and minuteness into the legal tenure by which these subterranean possessions were held. We apprehend that they would at first be guarded by that general, almost legal, sanctity, by which parcels of ground, devoted to purposes of burial, were secured as sacred, and did not follow the rest of the inheritance; and the jealousy of the heathen would hardly, except in the exciting times of persecution, care to invade those deep and hidden chambers, which provoked no notice, and seemed as it were to withdraw into modest obscurity.
• M. de Rossi repudiates the notion maintained by Raoul Rochette, and most earlier antiquarians, of Heathen ornaments and emblems in the Christian Catacombs. We cannot enter into the controversy; but it seems to us that M. de Rossi has undertaken a difficult task.
They would not rigidly inquire whether they were the property of some single wealthy Christian, under his garden or vineyard; or held in common property by the Church or by separate churches, just as places of sepulture above ground were held by heathen burial clubs or cemetery companies. More especially when public feeling began, as we suspect it did earlier than is commonly supposed, to endure buildings set apart for Christian worship in the publicity of open day. This feeling would be less suspicious of these hidden and to them inaccessible vaults, deep in the bosom of the earth.
We must return, however, to our Appian Way, and to the great discovery of M. de Rossi, the true but long lost catacomb of Callistus. We read in the newly recovered Philosophumena, that Zephyrinus, Bishop of Rome (A.D. 197–217), appointed Callistus, his future successor, after the very singular adventures which he had undergone, to the care of a cemetery on the Appian Way. But there was clearly more than one cemetery in this quarter. One near the Church of S. Sebastian was long believed to be the cemetery of Callistus. It was the one in former days visited by strangers (above forty years have passed since our descent). By a most felicitous divination, or rather a most sagacious induction from traditions scattered in various documents, M. de Rossi not only detected the error wbich had so long prevailed, but clearly ascertained the site of the two other catacombs, some half mile or more beyond S. Sebastian's, one called that of Prætextatus on the left, the other that of Callistus on the right of the road. With the energy and self-confidence of an experienced gold-digger in California or Australia, he obtained permission from the proprietor of the soil, and set to work in search of his not less highly valued antiquarian and Christian treasures. He knew that in this catacomb, famous of old, many bishops of Rome had been buried. At his bidding the ancient grave revealed its secrets. We can conceive no triumph greater, no satisfaction more intense, to a man of M. de Rossi's temperament, and one so wrapped up in his peculiar studies, than when he stood
before a niche with several sarcophagi, on which stood out in distinct letters (some hardly mutilated) the names of Anteros, a pope who ruled scarcely more than a month, and of his successor Fabianus, the Martyr Pope in the persecution of Decius. The two other names were those of Popes Lucius and Eutychianus. This discovery determined at once and for ever the site of the cemetery of Callistus, and was an important revelation of true Christian history, unobscured, unmystified by legend. Here was the tomb of an undoubted martyr, the first martyr pope since St. Peter. It is a curious point that the letters of these inscriptions differ. Those of Anteros are more elegant and finely cut; those of Eutychianus coarser and more rude. M. de Rossi has no doubt that they were the primitive epigraphs inscribed after the death of each Pope. The monogram, M, martyr, after the name of Fabianus, de Rossi ingenuously observes, is of a later date, by another hand, and less deeply cut. Yet it is not less clearly ancient, and not of, what we venture to call, the martyr-making period. (See page 256.) In the gap after Lucius was probably Episcopus, the first four letters of which follow the name of Eutychianus. Lucius was Bishop of Rome, A.D. 254: Eutychianus, A.D. 275–283. But where was interred the more celebrated (at least in extant writings) successor of Fabianus ? Cornelius is by some said to have been banished to Civita Vecchia by the Emperor Gallus (who continued to some extent the persecution of Decius), and to have died there. The evidences for his martyrdom are not so conclusive as for that of Fabianus. Conflicting authorities connected his name with the cemetery of Callistus; others seemed to throw doubt upon his burial there. By a singular accident, for which M. de Rossi accounts with great ingenuity (and we see nothing impossible in his theory, too long for us to explain), cropped out, if we may use the expression, a broken stone, evidently part of a monumental stone, with the letters
NELIUS MARTYR. With infinite pains and labour M. de Rossi forced his way into the subjacent cemetery, and in an obscure nook, as if it were intentionally secluded, he found the tomb with the rest of the epigraph. This crypt turned out to be that called after S. Lucina, bordering upon, if we may say so, an offset, rather than an integral part, of the Callistian catacomb. Later legend had indissolubly connected the names of Pope Cornelius and Cyprian of Carthage. Their names are mingled up together with the famous Novatian controversy. Though Cornelius, if a martyr, as we can hardly doubt, died and was buried at Rome, and Cyprian several years later at Carthage, two figures, representing the two saints, manifestly of more recent date and of inferior art, appear in situ on a wall of this remarkable crypt. An inscription was also found in this crypt which may show the singular felicity of M. de Rossi in conjectural emendations, or rather in filling up of imperfect inscriptions. Here too appears his perfect honesty, which is rarely misguided even by the inextinguishable prejudices which haunt Rome,-part, alas ! of the religio loci ; and which throw reasonable suspicion on much of Roman antiquarian lore. There was sore temptation here to find allusions to the strife of Cornelius with the Novatians, which might perhaps have furnished plausible grounds for the higher antiquity of the inscription. M. de Rossi resisted the spell, and read off the inscription, in our opinion convincingly, into commemorative verses by Pope Damasus, according to our severer judgment the spoiler and violator-according to Roman tradition, the restorer, adorner —of the Catacombs, who laid them more open to the light of day, crowded them with churches and chapels, and allured and encouraged hosts of pilgrims to do homage to martyrs, multiplying as fast as piety could demand or legend invent. We give the epigraph as read by M. de Rossi :