May 31, 2012

The Accidental Discovery of Roman Catacombs on May 31, 1578

By Dan Graves

Forbidden to bury their dead in regular burial grounds, the Christians of Rome interred them in underground vaults used by the poor. Called catacombs, these were built outside the city and subject to severe building codes for fear they might collapse. So many martyrs found their final rest in these sites that Christians began to hold special memorial services in them. Except during the worst persecutions, Christians were allowed control of their own catacombs. Widespread use of catacombs for Christian burial seems to have dated from the 3rd century.

Christianity has transformed whatever it touched. It transformed even these gloomy crypts. On their walls Christians painted events from the Old and New Testaments. Christ and the apostles, Daniel's friends in the furnace, Christ as the Good Shepherd, the discovery of Moses in the bulrushes -- these are a few of the subjects rendered upon the rock-hard clay.

On this day, May 31, 1578, an entrance into the catacombs north of Rome, on the Via Salaria, was accidentally discovered. The import of the find was not then recognized. The man who would first understand its import was hardly two years old that day.

When he was just eighteen, Antonio Bosio committed himself to the lifelong study of archaeology. It was he who first recognized the significance of the entrance on the Via Salaria. In December 1593, before he turned twenty, Bosio explored the catacombs. Gradually he found links between them, for narrow passageways led from one to another. Some passages were blocked. Using his own eyes and questioning peasants, he sought additional entrances and found thirty. During one dry period, however, from 1600 to 1618, he found only two. What tenacity to keep the search alive for so long in face of so little fruit!

Twenty seven years after his first descent, he completed a book on the catacombs. Roma Sotterranea, he named it. Beginning with the Vatican cemetery, he worked in a counterclockwise direction around Rome, describing each of the many catacombs he had visited (by no means all). Colleagues prepared prints for it. It was not published, however, until five years after he died.

Like every good archaeologist, Bosio added historical detail to his findings. He wrote, for instance, of the 4,000 Christians martyred by Hadrian on the Via Appia rather than deny the Christ who redeemed them. Unfortunately, not everyone who entered the catacombs had as lofty motives as Bosio. Fortune hunters came to plunder the graves for relics to resell with spurious stories.

To an accidental discovery and Antonio Bosio's quick wit, we owe a chapter of Christianity which otherwise might have been lost. Some of the catacombs he explored have since been destroyed.


"Bosio, Antonio." New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Thomson, Gale, 2002.

"Bosio, Antonio." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Goodyear, W.H. Roman and Medieval Art. (Meadville, Pennsylvania: Flood and Vincent, 1893).

Stevenson, James. The Catacombs: rediscovered monuments of early Christianity. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978, especially p. 50ff.

Various encyclopedia articles on Bosio, and catacombs.