The Roman Catacombs by Fr James Spencer Northcote, Sophia Institute Press, £12

This book, first published in 1877 by an early member of the Oratorians, has now been republished with minor revisions. It is well worth reading, as it throws light on “the history of the Christian city beneath pagan Rome”.

Apparently there are at least 40 or 50 catacombs in the hills around Rome. Some, like the catacomb of St Callixtus on the Via Appia, are well known. We learn that digging beneath the city for the burial of Christians, martyrs and others lasted 300 years, until the reign of Constantine, and that there was a designated group of diggers known as fossors, whose task it was to make the long, narrow galleries and small chambers comprising the catacombs.

The author explains that the “Roman government did not interfere with the catacombs before the middle of the 3rd century and not even then as places of burial – but only when they were used as places of worship and assembly”.

One moving passage relates that the Emperor Numerian buried Christians alive in a catacomb on the Via Salara after they had entered to celebrate Mass. Their skeletons were only discovered in AD 370 during the pontificate of Pope Damasus (who also relates the martyrdom of the boy saint, Tarcisius.)

St Cecilia’s tomb was discovered in the 9th century. A great 19th-century scholar, Giovanni de Rossi, worked on cataloguing the excavations and explaining the symbols, such as the fish, anchor, dove and Good Shepherd.

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