A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
New discoveries in the catacombs of San Pietro and Marcellinus
When a sinkhole opened up after a pipe broke underneath the convent and school of the Instituto Sacra Famiglia on Rome's Via Casilina, the sisters there received a surprise--about 1,200 surprises, in fact. The partial collapse of the building's foundation revealed five large chambers in which the remains of more than a thousand individuals had been interred almost simultaneously sometime at the beginning of the third century A.D.
Perhaps equally surprising is the location in which they were found. The convent under which the burial chambers are located sits atop the vast catacomb complex of San Pietro and Marcellinus. With three distinct gallery levels, the deepest of which is 36 feet (11m) below the surface, it is one of the largest such burial complexes in the city.
But the newly discovered burial chambers pre-date the extensive catacomb complex, which was believed to have been used by Christians from the mid-third century A.D. with permission from the emperor Gallienus who was anxious to make peace with them after the savage persecution they suffered at the hands his father, Valerian. And although the famed archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi explored and recorded the catacomb at the end of the nineteenth century, there is no indication that he ever even knew of the presence of these chambers.
Given that these catacombs were thoroughly explored and mapped by De Rossi, how is it possible that these chambers were overlooked? "We're not entirely sure," says Raffaella Giuliani, an archaeologist and the Inspector of Catacombs for the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology in Rome, "but it is very likely that he and his team simply did not have the resources to shore up the site in order to prevent the collapse of the convent structure directly above it in order to pursue systematic excavation. The building's foundations come directly down into this area of the catacombs, and we had a great deal of work to do in order to reinforce the structure above us before we could excavate after the development of the sinkhole. It was a long and expensive process, even by today's standards."
It is not even certain that the newly discovered remains are of Christians, despite the fact that they are firmly ensconced within one of the most important Christian catacomb sites of ancient Rome. According to Giuliani, "there is at the moment no conclusive proof that can exclude the possibility that these may in fact be pagan burials." Which begs the question: What would pagan burials be doing in the middle of a Christian catacomb?
The answer may lie with the history of the land in which the catacombs are located. The property was originally the site of the barracks and training grounds of the equites singulares Augusti, a private corps of mounted Imperial bodyguards thought to have been formed by the emperor Trajan at the end of the first century A.D. At the beginning of the fourth century, they found themselves on the losing side of the war between Constantine and Maxentius, and were subsequently disbanded by the victorious Constantine after the battle of the Milvian Bridge in A.D. 312. At this point, the land--already in use by them underground--was turned over to the Christians. It was considered so sacred to the Christian community that the mausoleum of Constantine's mother, St. Helena, was constructed there.
During the period of use by the equites, however, this site was also used as a cemetery for the soldiers who served here. So the presence of pagan burials would not be as surprising as one might think. But more than a thousand of them interred almost at the same time? Giuliani explains that "it is very possible that what we are seeing here is the occurrence of some sort of plague or epidemic, perhaps a recurrence of the famous Antonine plague that took almost 1,200 lives a day during the reign of Antoninus Pius [A.D. 138-161]. The bodies are layered very carefully, one on top of the other, without lavish ceremony but nevertheless with great care. It seems as if these individuals were all interred within a short period--perhaps a few months at the most. Initially there was a great deal of excitement that these could perhaps represent martyrdoms [Christians executed for adhering to their faith], but this now appears unlikely as the Carbon 14 evidence and coins found among the remains date the burials to a period of relative peace between the Christian community and the Imperial government."
Further evidence that these may in fact be soldier burials is found in a close examination of the remains. Between the shrouds, a layer of gesso (a type of chalky plaster) covers each body. "This is a rather inexpensive and simple way to attempt to conserve the body, like a crude sort of mummification. We see this in soldier burials of the Roman period at times, particularly up in the northern parts of the Empire," says Giuliani, "and yet while we have found bits of amber and a limited amount of jewelry buried with the remains, we do not as yet have any conclusive proof one way or another as to whether or not these were Christian or pagan individuals. The fact that there are many women and several children present within these chambers does not necessarily preclude the fact that that these are the remains of the soldier of the equites it's possible and even probable that the soldiers would have had their families with them here on this property."
To date, approximately 100 skeletons have been excavated by a team of anthropologists from the University of Bordeaux whose specialty is the study of epidemic burials. They are currently studying the osteological remains for indications of trauma, which would perhaps point to a mass persecution rather than disease, but have found no such evidence. "So far,' explains Giuliani, "it would seem as if we are not dealing with victims of a persecution, but rather of a plague or epidemic of some sort. However, we still have a great deal more to excavate and study, for the moment we can make no conclusive statements as to who these individuals were or how they died." One thing that we can be certain of, however, is that the dark catacombs of Rome still have light to shed on our understanding of ancient history.
Sarah Yeomans is a journalist and archaeologist based in Rome and Washington, D.C. For more about Rome's catacombs, see Yeomans' "City of the Dead" in our July/August issue.