CATACOMBS, the underground cavities used for the burial of the dead. This peculiar mode of caring for dead bodies was practiced by people of great antiquity. While the existence of vast catacombs has long been known, they were apparently forgotten by the great mass of writers until Father Bosio spent thirty years in exploring them. A descriptive account of his investigations was first published in 1632. Attention was again attracted to them by the celebrated work of De Rossi in 1864-67.
Among the celebrated catacombs are those of Egypt, Syria, Persia, Asia Minor, Palermo, and Syracuse. Many catacombs are of wonderful extent and still in a good state of preservation. In many of them are frescoes and paintings still as fresh and beautiful as if recently touched by the brush of the artist. At Milo a hill is fairly honeycombed with vaulted labyrinths in which thousands of bodies are stored. In the catacombs of Peru, South America; many remarkable relics have been found dating long prior to the Christian era. In Paris are similar burying places, but these have been used mainly as charnal houses for criminals and victims of pestilence and insurrections.
The most important catacombs are located near Rome, especially in the vicinity of the Appian Way. These crypts are believed to have been the places of worship of the early Christians at the time when the new worship was forbidden and the followers of Christ were generally persecuted. The earliest of these belong to the year 111 A. D., and the newest date from the time immediately previous to the period when Constantine began his reign. In these subterranean burial places are about 6,000,000 tombs. They are constructed in the form of galleries five feet wide and eight feet high, from which branches lead in all directions. Galleries lie above galleries, forming several stories and constituting a perfect honeycomb of rooms and departments. A vast number of them contain slabs on which Christian inscriptions and symbols are found, among them such as an anchor, a palm branch, or a dove. It is quite certain that these tombs were constructed by the Christians, principally by those possessing riches, and that they remained for some time under the control of the church. Later they passed to the ownership of church communities, but with the beginning of Constantine's reign they ceased to be used for burying purposes. The Goths and Lombards ravished divers of these tombs in the 6th and 8th centuries, and later the popes removed the remains of many saints and martyrs to the churches for burial.