The Debunker: What Were the Christians Doing in Rome's Catacombs?

by Ken Jennings

September begins that time of the year when the months are all screwed up. Sept- means "seven," even though September is the ninth month. Ditto for Oct-ober (not the eighth), Nov-ember (not even close to the ninth) and Dec-ember (yada yada tenth month). It's all the Romans' fault, since they're the ones who threw off the count by adding January and February to the calendar around 150 BC. Ken Jennings sticks it to those toga-wearing troublemakers by debunking four bits of persistent malarkey about the Roman empire. Are you not entertained?!?

The Debunker: Did Christians Hide from Persecution in Rome’s Catacombs?

In last week’s Debunker, we learned that Emperor Nero did not, in fact, fiddle while Rome burned. He did, however, seek to deflect responsibility for the fire by blaming it on a brand-new Roman religious cult: the Christians. In the years following the fire, Nero became the first great persecutor of the new faith, ordering many of its followers crucified, fed to dogs, or even (according to Tacitus) burned at Nero’s palace "to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired." Yikes.

During the Renaissance, Italian archaeologists rediscovered a vast complex of underground catacombs beneath Rome. The oldest of these had been dug by second-century Christians in the soft volcanic soil just outside the old city walls. When writers and artists of the Romantic period read that items like eating utensils had been found there, they imagined a hardy band of persecuted Christians hiding out in these dark tunnels, sustained only by the light of their faith. Sigh, so dreamy. Like the Wolverines in Red Dawn, but with more Eucharists and stuff.

Unfortunately, scholars now understand that Christians dug their catacombs for one reason alone: to bury their dead. Land was scarce and expensive in Rome, and the pagan practice of cremation wasn’t an option for early Christians. Occasionally, meals were held in the burial chambers on the anniversaries of a loved one’s death (a popular Roman custom of the day) but there’s no evidence that other religious rites were ever held there. In fact, by the second century, the intermittent persecution of Rome’s Christians was beginning to tail off. On those occasions when Christians did need to disappear, that wasn’t hard in the world’s busiest city. (Rome had a population of over one million at the time.) So secret passageways just weren’t necessary. Less than a hundred years later, the Roman emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity, and the once-outlawed cult became the empire’s official state religion.

Quick Quiz: The Christian catacombs were decorated with many important examples of what mural technique, in which paint is applied directly to wet plaster?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.