BMCR 2000.10.11

Subterranean Rome: In Search of the Roots of Christianity in the Catacombs of the Eternal City

, Subterranean Rome : in search of the roots of Christianity in the catacombs of the eternal city. Leuven: Peeters, 2000. 164 pages : illustrations (some color), maps (some color) ; 20 cm. ISBN 9042908572. 595 BEF; 15 EURO.

In a brilliant monograph on the Jewish catacombs published in 1995, Leonard Rutgers established himself as one of the leading authorities on the vast underground funerary complexes in and around the city of Rome.1 Now Rutgers brings his formidable skills to bear on the task of writing a guidebook to the Christian catacombs of Rome for the general reader who may be planning a tour of the city. The book succeeds marvelously well in this task. But its scope and content also make it an invaluable introductory study for art historians, early church historians, archaeologists, and other specialists seeking a balanced synthesis of the current state of research on the Christian catacombs.

A brief introduction points out the need for an academically reliable guide to the catacombs for the non-specialist (pp. 5-8). Specialists in various fields who are frustrated or amused by some of the pamphlets, brochures, and guidebooks available on location at many archaeological sites will sympathize with Rutgers as he explains the rationale behind his own book.

Chapter 1 provides an illuminating survey of the history of research on the catacombs. One of the major goals of this chapter is to sensitize the general reader to methodological difficulties encountered in previous interpretations of the catacombs. The point that emerges most clearly in this chapter is that until the 1970s research on the catacombs was motivated by the distorting lenses of apologetic interests in legitimating or denying the claim that Roman Catholicism epitomized and embodied the traditions of the earliest Christian communities of Rome.

Chapter 2 provides a basic introduction to the archaeology of the catacombs and describes the structural features of the catacombs in the context of a historical survey of their origin, growth, and abandonment. Rutgers convincingly dates the most important phase in the formation of the catacombs to the fourth century C.E. After the end of official Roman persecution of the church, the catacombs rapidly expanded as Christians sought to secure their prospects for the afterlife through burial near the older tombs of Christian martyrs, a practice that was given added impetus by church leaders (especially Pope Damasus, 366-384 C.E.) who embellished these tombs for the benefit of pilgrims. Interest in the catacombs declined with the transferal of the remains of the martyrs from the catacombs to churches in the eighth and ninth centuries.

Chapter 3 traces the emergence of Christian art in the catacombs through three major phases. First, Christian funerary art began to develop its own traditions in the second and third centuries by adding subtle details to the mass-produced stock of pagan artistic traditions. This radically altered the meaning of traditional pagan imagery without significantly affecting its overall form. Second, the increasingly unique direction taken by Christian funerary art was characterized by an “Old Testament phase” in the third century. This early Christian preference for imagery taken from the Hebrew Bible was motivated by an apologetic strategy of appropriating the heritage of biblical Israel to defend against the charge that Christianity did not have the respectable antiquity of older religions. Third, the new political freedom granted to Christians under Constantine inaugurated a “New Testament phase” that dominated the fourth and fifth centuries. Uniquely Christian themes derived from the New Testament were confidently incorporated into Christian funerary art, including the formerly embarrassing image of crucifixion.

Chapter 4 is of the most concrete value to the busy tourist. It includes a guide for touring each of the major catacombs, complete with practical details of addresses, phone and fax numbers, opening hours, details of directions and transportation to each of the catacombs (even including bus numbers), descriptions of the guided tours, warnings and recommendations about each tour derived from personal experience, and comments on the highlights of each catacomb. Rutgers has even helped to assure the currency of his information by including internet addresses that provide the interested reader with additional details and an excellent virtual tour of the catacombs; e.g., see

Chapter 5 is an Appendix with two parts. The first discusses the Jewish catacombs. Rutgers emphasizes that the Jewish catacombs show that the Jewish community in Rome was well integrated into late antique society at large and yet nonetheless distinct from the Christian community at Rome in iconographic preferences. The second part of the appendix briefly outlines the significance of the early Christian inscriptions found in the catacombs, such as their value in providing evidence for continuity between the early Roman Christians and their pagan heritage.

The book concludes with a glossary, a selected bibliography of specialized works (including titles in English, French, German, and Italian), and an index. The glossary unfortunately has in some cases functioned as a substitute for defining technical terms in the text itself (e.g., putti, pergola, refrigerium, nimbus; pp.86, 94, 123 caption, 125, 135). The reader might have been better served by providing a brief definition both in the text and the glossary. Otherwise, in most cases the book clearly explains specialized vocabulary and even helps the uninitiated reader to evaluate the relative importance of various points made in the course of each discussion.

Rutgers has been prevented by his intended audience from displaying the kind of technical rigor that one finds in his earlier tour de force on the Jewish catacombs. But he does not compromise on academic integrity. He alerts the reader to ambiguities in the evidence, refuses to oversimplify the difficulties involved in details of historical reconstruction, and yet keeps his focus on a clear and balanced presentation of points of major importance For example, he discusses the problems inherent in earlier efforts to explain the relative paucity of distinctly Christian motifs in the earliest Christian art without the tedium that often characterizes a survey of research (pp. 100-108). His own explanation, which emphasizes the effects of mass production on funerary art and the wider phenomenon of the Jewish biblical heritage, is offered with commendable restraint and consistent effort to direct the reader to the evidence that is most directly relevant to the specific question of why Christian art initially did not make a radical break from earlier artistic traditions.

The arguments and evidence presented in each chapter provide internally coherent treatments of individual problems in interpreting the catacombs. Nevertheless, the combined impact of these discussions is a consistently and clearly articulated thesis that helps to unify the book as a whole. Rutgers convincingly demonstrates that the structural development and artwork of the Christian catacombs must be viewed as logical extensions of processes that were already taking place in the pagan (not Jewish) context from which they emerged (pp.34-40, 53-64, 84-108, 114-15, 153-56). One of the points made in support of this thesis is that cultural developments in the Christian catacombs were not dependent on prior developments in the Jewish catacombs. Artistic styles and practices in the Jewish and the Christian catacombs emerged at the same time and from the same sources, but they independently evolved in different directions (pp.13-15, 24-28, 105-108, 116-17, 146-56). The result it that, whatever may be the origins of Christianity in Rome, Rutgers has successfully demonstrated that its earliest phases of cultural evolution must be understood more in terms of indigenous developments within its Roman context and less in terms of transplanted Jewish elements introduced from the outside by apostolic founders.

Future studies of both early Christianity and ancient Judaism would do well to follow the lead of Rutgers in grappling with the broader context of art history in antiquity when defining the continuities and discontinuities between the Greco-Roman world at large and specific local expressions of either Judaism or Christianity. Rutgers provides an exemplary model for navigating the many ways in which various features in the catacombs function as the epiphenomena of social developments such as changes in modes of interaction between Roman politics, Christian ideology, Jewish tradition, and pagan funerary practice (e.g., pp.64-76, 105-108). In sum, he has provided an excellent case study of the insights into Late Antiquity that are being generated by the modern synthesis of social history and anthropologically-informed archaeology.

The layout of the book generally serves its purpose well. The book includes a variety of illuminating diagrams, helpful site plans, and high-quality color photographs, all with descriptive captions. In the majority of cases these are well chosen to illustrate points in the text. But occasionally the choice to include a diagram seems to have been made almost at random. The most vivid example of this is in the otherwise well-conceived guide to the major catacombs in Chapter 4. Here the presence of a rather bare-bones (!) plan of one of the catacombs (fig.45) merely serves to highlight the surprising absence of any site plan at all for the other catacombs described in the chapter.2 The placement of some of the illustrations also could be improved. For example, the description of grave types on p.42 would have benefited from illustrations of the types in question. This could have been partly achieved by simply moving fig.24 (which pictures two of the types) from p.71 to p.42. Perhaps most problematic are the major maps and site plans. Some of these appear to be reproductions of large wall maps and diagrams from site reports reduced to miniscule size and introduced merely to provide additional illustration rather than to serve as truly functional guides for study or use in planning an actual tour. For example, the eye-straining print on the general map of Rome and its catacombs (fig.40) might deprive it of any utility at all for some readers.

I should emphasize that these weaknesses of presentation are rather minor. They do not significantly diminish the book’s great value or the impression that genuine artistic skill contributed to the editorial process. It remains an outstanding product on the part of both the author and the publisher. But given the probability that the book will become one of the standard tools for tour groups and tour guides, the addition of more and better maps and site plans is probably the one area in which some consideration should be given to making improvements in a second edition. Perhaps the insertion of a detailed and well-labeled fold-out plan of the catacombs in the back flap would meet the needs of future readers without necessitating any modification in the text at all.

This book may be highly recommended as a guidebook for travelers, a textbook for students, an introductory synthesis for the researcher, and fascinating reading for anyone at any level. The survey of research in Chapter 1 and the brief discussion of the Jewish catacombs in the appendix are heavily indebted to Rutgers’ earlier monograph on the Jewish community in Rome, so readers with specialized interests in these areas might consider going directly to this earlier study. But the present book deserves to be treated as a work of scholarship in its own right. It certainly should be given top priority by anyone with any interest at all in the catacombs.


1. Leonard Victor Rutgers, The Jews in Late Ancient Rome: Evidence of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Diaspora, RGRW 126; (Leiden: Brill, 1995).

2. An excellent reproduction of a printed site plan of one of the other catacombs does appear much earlier in Chapter 1, fig.3, but the context in Chapter 1 indicates that it was clearly not included for use in an actual tour of the catacomb. Its design and size limit the concrete usefulness it might have.