From the second through the fifth century, Christians in Rome interred their dead deep under the city in vast networks of catacombs. Once the destination of pilgrims seeking contact with the bones of the early martyrs of their faith, these labyrinths were largely ignored after the eighth century, when the remains were reburied near churches according to the emerging Christian custom. They then lay forgotten for 700 years. It was only when workers in a vineyard north of Rome accidentally happened upon a catacomb in 1578 that they finally reemerged to the light of day. Many more were discovered in subsequent years, fueling the imaginations of Christian Europe.
This handsomely illustrated book outlines the archeology of the catacombs, and also provides insight into their sometimes contentious role in European scholarship. Opponents of the Protestant Reformation saw them, as one Catholic scholar of the day put it, as “arsenals from which to take the weapons to combat heretics, and in particular the iconoclasts, impugners of sacred images, of which the cemeteries are plenty.” Catholic scholars also pointed to the many images of Mary on the walls of the catacombs to defend against Protestant claims that veneration of the Virgin was a recent Church invention.
Rutgers also provides a descriptive guide to the catacombs for modern visitors, as well as an appendix on Rome’s Jewish catacombs.
Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide
(New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998), 464 pp., $19.95 (paperback)
Writers of guidebooks to the antiquities of Rome face a daunting task, Amanda Claridge writes. First there’s the city’s embarrassment of archaeological riches—and the astonishing amount of historical evidence relating to its 3,000 years of continuous occupation. Added to this is the complex way its “physical past has continued to be woven into the fabric of its present.” Claridge has organized a wealth of both archaeological and historical material to create this easy-to-use guide for the modern-day visitor. After an overview of Rome’s history and an introduction to its architecture and building techniques, Claridge divides the city into nine geographical areas. Each section begins with a map keyed to specific sites, which are then described extensively, with clear plans, drawings, photographs and reconstructions accompanying the text. Separate chapters also cover Rome’s museums and catacombs, and information on site admission charges and hours is included at the back.
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