Catacombs are underground passages or rooms in which the dead were buried. Ancient catacombs have been found in many cities in Italy, including Milan and Naples, as well as throughout the Mediterranean region. The most famous catacombs are in Rome.
The Roman catacombs date from about the first century A.D. Since the Romans forbade the burying of bodies within city limits, the catacombs were located outside the city gates. Narrow passages—about three feet wide—were dug, and recesses were made in the walls for the bodies. Graves were easily dug in the soft rock, called tufa. When more space was needed, the passages were extended or new ones were dug beneath the existing ones. Some passages contained separate chambers called galleria, which were used as family vaults, or for the remains of a martyr*. These halls were sometimes adorned with frescoes*, some of which represent the earliest surviving Christian art.
The 40 catacombs surrounding the city of Rome eventually consisted of 350 miles of passages that lay 20 to 65 feet below the ground and covered 600 acres. Christians used the catacombs as hiding places during times of Roman persecution. After Christianity became the established religion of the Roman empire in the 300s A.D., the catacombs lost their usefulness, and by 400 A.D. they were largely abandoned. (See also Death and Burial.)
* martyr person who suffers or is put to death in defense of a religious belief
* fresco method of painting in which color is applied to moist plaster and becomes chemically bonded to the plaster as it dries; also refers to a painting done in this manner