Friday, 15 June 2012

The Cemeteries of Priscilla and Domitilla.

Church in Rome in the First Century
Author: Edmundson, George (1849-1930)
During the first century of our era the Romans almost universally practised cremation for the disposal of their dead.

The law of the XII Tables supposes inhumation as well as cremation to be in use; but cremation gradually became the vogue and it was not until the age of the Antonines that, largely through the influence of Christianity and other Oriental cults, a reversion to the practice of inhumation began to take place. The early Christians from the first adopted the Jewish custom of burial, and their tombs were, whenever circumstances permitted, fashioned after the likeness of those in Palestine, sepulchres like that of the Lord Jesus Christ. No burials were permitted within the city of Rome; but the beds of soft volcanic tufa which lay beneath the soil of the suburban area afforded easy facilities for the excavation of subterranean galleries, vaults, and crypts in which to lay the dead. Hence gradually in the course of the first four centuries came into existence that vast underground city of the dead, often incorrectly spoken of as the Roman Catacombs. The word Catacombs strictly applies to one small cemetery only, the locus ad catacumbas.

The meaning of the term is uncertain. De Rossi gives it a hybrid derivation from κατά and cubitorium, but this is very doubtful. where the bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul in 258 A.D. found a temporary resting-place. The first Christian cemeteries differed in no way from those of the Jewish community, three of which have been discovered and explored. There has been much written on the subject of the Roman Catacombs which does not need consideration here. The cemeteries of the first century, whatever may have been the case later, were the property of private persons of rank and wealth, and were intended in the first place for the use of the family to which the owners belonged, also for that of their clients, freedmen and slaves, and by permission  for other poor persons belonging to the Christian brotherhood. As yet there was no question of the formation of Collegia funeratica or Burial Guilds, though it is regarded as highly probable that such organisations with their collective ownership and special privileges did exist in the third century; indeed it is known that the several cemeteries were each attached to a titulus—or parish church. But this was not the case in the period with which we are dealing, when the places of assembly for congregational worship were still private houses—ecclesiae domesticae. 

Saxon Church with
tombs under
© Godric Godricson

The most ancient parts of the cemeteries of Priscilla and DomitilIa and the crypt of Lucina, which date from Apostolic times, were family vaults constructed beneath the property of the person after whose name they are called, and granted by that person, as a ‘locus sacer’ placed under the protection of the Roman Law (lex monumenti). Henceforward the tomb was held inviolable, whatever might be the religion of those interred in it. The plot of ground (area) was often enclosed by walls, or its dimensions were engraved on boundary stones. Sometimes the inscription is found ‘Sibi suisque, libertis libertabusque posterisque eorum,’ sometimes the letters H.M.H.N.S.—‘hoc monumentum haeredem non sequitur.’ The administration of the leges monumentorum lay within the jurisdiction of the pontifices, who were thus the legal guardians of the inviolability of the burial-places thus granted, and their leave was required for the deposition of the bodies in the tombs or their translation, or indeed for the holding of anniversary festivals or rites or for any changes in the construction or character of the monuments. These powers do not seem to have been arbitrarily or vexatiously used, but it must always be remembered that they did exist and that the catacombs were in no sense secret and unknown hiding-places of the early Christians, but, with the exception perhaps of a few small subterranean crypts carefully concealed, like the Platonic chamber in which the bodies of the Apostles for awhile were laid, were registered and thus known to the magistrates.

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