Calder Classics

Outside the Ancient Roman Walls: The Catacombs of Saint Agnes

Rome 2014Calder ClassicsComment

By Ben Lang, Rome '14

Today on our trip we first visited the Basilica of Saint Agnes, which was first created in the seventh century CE but underwent modifications from the 600s all the way to present day. The story of Saint Agnes herself claims that she was a 13-year old virgin who refused to marry a pagan Roman prefect. Upon the rejection, the man ordered her to the Stadium of Domitian to be publicly burned as punishment for her defiance. When the flames began to grow around her, they deflected off of her body as one of God’s miracles. However, she was then ordered to be decapitated…. and it worked.

The basilica itself was built atop vast catacombs that spanned miles underground and contained thousands of graves! Christians were buried there from the third century to the fifth century CE.  In fact, tombstones make up 75% of the inscriptions from ancient Rome. A common myth about the catacombs was the Christians during the time or prosecution would hide within, however, this was proven to be highly illogical as the catacombs were public for all. While the Catacombs of Saint Agnes are some of the most famous, the largest were the Catacombs of Saint Callisto which cover 12 miles- over three times longer than Saint Agnes!

When we entered the catacombs themselves, we learned that ancient Roman loculi were relatively small as the average height of humans has increased since then. Burials were carved into the walls, where bodies were placed, wrapped in linen. Inscriptions were etched into various materials and placed over the burials, usually granite or marble to pay further respect to the family or individual. Some of these inscriptions were written in Greek, which happens to be the original language of Christians- who later adopted Latin. We also learned about the Roman Emperor Constantine who was the first large political figure to adopt Christianity and end the persecution of the Christians. 

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