Underground galleries with excavations in their sides for tombs or in which human bones are stacked. The term is derived from "catacomba," a compound of the Greek κατά and the Latin "comba" ("cumba"), and means "near the sepulchers." Originally it designated a definite place on the Via Appia near Rome, but since the ninth century it has been applied to all subterranean burial-places in Italy as well as in other countries. In the Middle Ages only Christian catacombs were known; in modern times, however, Jewish burial-places have been discovered resembling the Christian ones, and hence are also called catacombs.

In point of fact, the mode of burial followed in catacombs is undoubtedly of Jewish origin. Subterranean tombs were used in Palestine even in early times. While in the East corpses were usually put into the earth, in the West they were cremated. The earliest example of a subterranean tomb is the double cave of Machpelah, still preserved under the mosque built over it. Around Jerusalem there are so-called tombs of the Prophets—tombs of priests according to Sepp—that, in their labyrinthine arrangement, resemble the catacombs. Tombs of the judges—i.e., tombs of the sanhedrists—are also to be found throughout Palestine. The architect Schick found at Jerusalem a catacomb begun by Jews and continued by Christians. These tombs, which are hewn out of the rock, differ from the Roman catacombs only in that they are difficult of access, while the latter are arranged with a view to the frequent visits of the living (Swoboda, "Die Altpalästinischen Felsengräber und die Catacomben," in "Römische Quartalschrift für Christl. Altertumskunde," p. 321, Rome, 1890; compare also the word λατόμιον = "quarry," used in the sense of "cemetery," which recalls these rock-tombs).

Wherever the Jews went in the course of their wanderings, they endeavored to preserve this custom of their fathers as far as the nature of the ground permitted; and they did so at Rome, in lower Italy, Carthage, Cyrene, etc. The Talmud gives a detailed description of this kind of tomb, the chief characteristic of which is that the bodies were placed in niches (Talmud, ; Latin, "loculi") in the subterranean vaults. The Christian catacombs doubtless originated in imitation of this Jewish custom, although it would appear from the catacombs so far discovered at Rome that the Christian ones are older than the Jewish. Among Christians, moreover, Jesus' tomb in the rock must have been the model from the beginning.

Rome. Fragment of a Sarcophagus from the Vigna Randanini at Rome, Showing Jewish Symbols.(From Garrucci, "Cimitero Degli Antichi Ebrei.")Inscription on Gravestone in the Vigna Cimarra at Rome.
CYNA(ΓωΓ)HC EΛThe Synagogue of Elea.
IIHe Lived 70 Years.
KAΛωC KOIMOYPleasant is the sleep
META TωN ΛIKEof the righteous.

Jewish catacombs have been discovered at Rome as follows: (1) Before the Porta Portuensis; found in 1602 by Bosio under the Colle Rosato. This catacomb has since become inaccessible through the filling in of the neighborhood. Its arrangement was extremely simple and primitive, as it contained only two cubicula or burial-niches. It is evident, from its situation on the road leading to Porto, that it served as a cemetery for the Jews living in Trastevere. (2) In Porto itself, from which several Greek inscriptions of the first and second centuries have been preserved. These inscriptions throw much light on the history of the Jews at Rome. (3) In the Vigna Randanini on the Via Appia, discovered by Garrucci in 1862. He also found there two figured sarcophagiand gilded glasses of Jewish origin, which furnish proof of the interesting fact that the Jews also followed the higher arts. (4) In the Vigna Cimarra near the Via Appia, discovered by De Rossi in 1867. Among its inscriptions, which are also important, one mentions the synagogue of Elea. (5) In the Vigna Apolloni on the Via Labicana, discovered in 1882 by Marucchi; it is less important, and contains only a very few inscriptions, but is marked by easily recognizable Jewish symbols. (6) On the Via Appia Pignatelli, discovered in 1885 by Nicolaus Müller (see "Mitteilungen des Archäologischen Instituts," Roman section, 1886, i. 49-56).


According to F. X. Kraus's description, the Roman catacombs consist of an immense labyrinth of galleries excavated in the bowels of the earth and under the hills surrounding the city. The galleries are arranged in different stories ("piani"), often three or four of them one above the other, and crossing a number of times in the same story. The galleries are from one-half to one meter wide, hence generally very narrow; in height they vary with the nature of the rock out of which they are hewn. The walls on both sides are perforated by horizontal caves or niches like oblong ovens, each of which affords space for one or more bodies. The rows are broken at intervals by passageways leading into smaller chambers, the walls of which are also perforated by niches. There is little difference between the Christian and the Jewish catacombs; certain variations in construction being no greater than the differences among the several Christian catacombs themselves. There is the same arrangement of galleries and cubicula, the same method in the disposition of the graves, and the same decoration in colors and tints. It has been remarked, however, that the flags closing the niches on the outside are fitted better in the Jewish than in the Christian tombs; so that no one would suspect that tombs were behind these stones. The only real difference consists in the presence of Jewish formulas and symbols and in the absence of Christian ones.


The chief value of the Jewish catacombs at Rome lies in the numerous and multiform inscriptions that they furnish, which throw a strong light on the life of the Jews at Rome. A great number of names has been preserved thereby; and sometimes the titles of the offices and the status of those buried are given. Since about 110 of the inscriptions are in Greek and only about 40 in Latin, the former was probably the language of the Jews at Rome. The Greek inscriptions date from between the first and third centuries, from which time to the fourth century there are Latin inscriptions. A genuine Hebrew inscription has not yet been found, though the formulas ("Peace") and [sic!] ("Peace to Israel") have been noted in some instances. Where the inscription does not begin with the name of the deceased, the usual introductory formula is ENθAΔE KEITE (for κεῖϑαι): the Latin "Hic Jacet" (Here Lies) is seldom found. Eulogies recalling Biblical verses and idioms are used as final formulas; e.g., Isa. lvii. 2 or Ps. iv. 9. The frequent διὰ βὶον, taken to mean ("for life eternal"), must also be considered a pious wish. The Jewish inscriptions of the catacombs of Rome have been collected in the works of Berliner and of Vogelstein and Rieger.

Symbols. Inscription on a Sarcophagus in the Vigna Cimarra at Rome.
ZωNAΘAZonatha ( = Jonathan)
APXωNthe archon
ΘωN XVIIIaged eighteen years.
EN EIPHNHHe rests in peace.

The commonest symbol found in the Jewish catacombs is the seven-branched candlestick, doubtless in reference to the verse, "The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord" (Prov. xx. 27). It is an infallible sign that the tomb in question is Jewish, as it is not found on Christian tombs. Another symbol is a fruit from which an ear of grain sprouts, and which is interpreted as "lulab" (palm-branch) and "etrog" (citron). This interpretation is, however, not certain. An oil-vessel is also found on some stones, a symbol probably identical with the candlestick. Garrucci interpreted it as referring to Ḥanukkah, but this is inadmissible. It may be considered an artistic expression of the thought, "A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one's birth" (Eccl vii. 1). Thereis no reason to doubt that a curved horn signifies the shofar. It is intended to symbolize the resurrection of the dead, which shall precede the Messianic times to be announced by the shofar. A heart-shaped leaf is often found, as also on Christian stones: this signifies sorrow for the dead.

The symbols of the Christian tombs also, in so far as they are taken from the Old Testament, are interesting from a Jewish point of view. The chief types are: Noah in the Ark, the sacrifice of Isaac, the miraculous water produced by Moses in the desert, Israel's passage through the Red Sea, the ascension of Elijah, Jonah's deliverance, the three youths in the fiery furnace, and Daniel in the den of lions. All these pictures express the thought that there are comfort and deliverance from sorrow and trouble. Kaufmann explains the fact that these and not other scenes from the Old Testament were used, by the circumstance that this cycle was based on an old passage of the Jewish liturgy.

In some Jewish tombs gilded glasses were found, having drawings in gold-leaf executed on the flat bottoms of the vessels in such a way that the letters and figures were visible from the inside. An illustration given by Berliner shows, in addition to the candlestick, the palm-branch, the heart-shaped leaf, and a lion beside the open book of the Law. On one of the glasses there is even a representation of the Temple at Jerusalem. The gilded glasses are supposed to be the "ḳiddush" cups used on the Sabbath and at festivals. Berliner supposes them to refer to the "cup of consolation" that was offered to the mourners.

Doubtful Catacombs at Rome.

In addition to the six Jewish catacombs mentioned above, Rome has a few others that may be either Jewish or Christian. In the first decades of Christianity, baptized Jews probably used the existing Jewish catacombs as burial-places; thus, for example, the Hebrew inscription of one Shefael was found in the Catacomba Callisti. In the case of the large and well-known Catacomb of Domitilla (so called because the noble Domitilla, of the imperial Flavian house, is supposed to be buried there), its Jewish origin depends on the question whether Domitilla was a Jewish or a Christian proselyte. The architectural character of this catacomb points to Jewish origin, because one of its chambers contains only a single-trough tomb ("arcosolium"), with a bench in front. Since both of these, the single tomb as well as the flat bench, are specially characteristic of the Jewish rock-tombs in Palestine, it is possible that the Catacomba Domitillæ was originally laid out by Jews, although it was certainly finished by Christians. The architectural characteristics of this catacomb are so striking that even Müller admits Jewish influence, although he thinks that the Christian catacombs were constructed on pagan and not on Jewish patterns (Herzog-Hauck, "Real-Encyc." 3d ed., x. 863).

Venosa, Sicily, Carthage.

It is also impossible to determine whether certain catacombs in places other than Rome are Jewish or Christian, particularly as investigations have not yet been carried to the same extent as in Rome. This is especially the case at Naples and its vicinity, and, in general, throughout southern Italy. Aside from those near the little town of Matera, the catacombs of Venosa are a modern discovery, and none has been definitely recognized as Christian, while most of them are certainly Jewish. Discovered in 1853, these catacombs have been investigated and described by G. I. Ascoli, François Lenormant, and Nicolaus Müller. Notwithstanding the tufa, which tends to crumble easily, there are galleries here more than two meters wide; hence wider than those at Rome. In the subterranean main street the trough-tombs—i.e., those hollowed out in the form of a trough ("arcosolia")—are much more numerous than the niche-tombs ("loculi"); moreover, not only the walls, but also the floors, contain many tombs. The chief interest of the catacombs of Venosa lies in their inscriptions. These are written partly in Latin and partly in Greek, the language in both cases being incorrect and barbaric. It is most important to note that Hebrew occurs more frequently; for there are epitaphs written entirely in that language; and the characters used are remarkable for paleographic reasons. One of these epitaphs reads:

("Resting-place of Beta, son of Faustinus. Peace to his soul! May his spirit share in the life eternal!") An epitaph of which the second portion is Greek written in Hebrew characters is also noteworthy, and for that reason is given here, from a reproduction in Ascoli's "Iscrizioni Greche, Latine, Ebraiche di Antichi sepolcri Giudaici del Napolitano," No. 17.

("Peace to his resting-place.") (sic!) (Τάφος Σεκονδίνου Πρεσβυτέρου kappa;αὶ Ματηρίνα[ς] ἐτῶν ὀρδοῆντα.)

("Tomb of Secundinus [son of] Presbyterus and Materina, eighty years old.") Müller found a number of other catacombs at Venosa, in addition to those discovered in 1853. It has not yet been determined, however, whether they are of Jewish or Christian origin. The same symbols are found here, and in the places still to be mentioned, as are found at Rome.

The island of Sicily abounds in catacombs. These have not yet been thoroughly investigated, nor hastheir Jewish or Christian character been determined; but there certainly are Jewish catacombs at Syracuse (see Paolo Orsi, in "Römische Quartalschrift," 1897, pp. 475-495; ib. 1900, p. 190). The geological formation of the island was most favorable to the construction of rock-tombs, which were built by pagans, Jews, and Christians. There are more single than common tombs; and the bodies are placed not in niches, but in arcosolia. The Sicilian tombs must therefore be designated as hypogea—i.e., subterranean vaults—rather than as catacombs, and resemble more closely their Palestinian models. Jewish hypogea have also been found in recent times at Heliopolis in Phrygia (Humann, "Altertümer von Heliopolis," p. 46, Berlin, 1898).

In Africa the first Jewish graveyards to be noted are those of Carthage, in which Jewish catacombs are recognized (see Delattre, in "Revue Archéologique," 3d series, xiii. 178, Paris, 1889). The necropolis lies to the north of the city, on moderately high hills near the hill Gamart. It contains about 200 tombs, that resemble the Palestinian hypogea, although the loculi give it the character of catacombs. It has been found that the Talmudic regulations regarding the rock-tombs have been implicitly observed in this necropolis; and the fact that it is Jewish is fully determined by the fragments of Hebrew inscriptions that have been found and the frequent representation of the seven-branched candlestick, although most of the inscriptions are in Latin. The tombs contained no vessels except the lamps; but the walls were richly decorated in relief and fresco, indicating a certain degree of wealth among the Jews of Carthage ("Rev. Etudes Juives," xliv. 14).

Ground-Plan of the Jewish Catacombs at Venosa. A, B, entrance grottoes; C, entrance to catacombs; D, principal corridor; E-K, side corridors; L-P, corridors in ruins.(After Ascoli.)Egypt.

On closer investigation Jewish catacombs will befound among the many Christian ones in Cyrenaica and in its capital, Cyrene. In Lower Egypt, also, especially near Alexandria, there are pagan, Jewish, and Christian catacombs ("Am. Jour. of Archeology," pp. 145 et seq., Baltimore, 1887). In the Egyptian catacombs there are many cell-tombs; i.e., tombs in which the bodies are pushed forward into the niches. According to Schultze, this indicates that the tomb in question is Jewish. This assumption, however, is rightly criticized by other scholars, and a decision of the question must await further investigation. See Burial and Cemetery.

  • Bosio, Roma Sotterranea, ii. ch. 22, posthumous, Rome, 1632;
  • De Rossi, Bolletino, 1864, iv. 40;
  • idem, Roma Sotterranea, 1877, iii. 386;
  • Garrucci, Cimitero degli Antichi Ebrei . . . in Vigna Randanini, Rome, 1862;
  • Franz Xaver Kraus, Roma Sotterranea, pp. 489 et seq., Freiburg-in-Breisgau, 1873, 2d ed., 1879;
  • idem, in Real-Encyc. der Christl. Alterthümer, ib. 1883, s.v. Katakomben;
  • idem, Gesch. der Christl. Kunst, i. 55, ib. 1895;
  • Kaufmann, Sens et Origine des Symboles de l'Ancien Testament dans l'Art Chrétien Primitif, in Rev. Etudes Juives, xiv. 33, 217;
  • Ascoli, Iscrizioni Inedite o Mal Note, Greche, Latine, Ebraiche di Antichi Sepolcri Giudaici del Napolitano, Turin and Rome, 1880;
  • Lenormant, La Catacombe Juive de Venosa, in Rev. Etudes Juives, vi. 201-207;
  • Adolf von Engestrom, Om Judarne i Rom Under Aldre Tider och Deras Katakomber, Upsala, 1876;
  • Schürer, Die Gemeindeverfassung der Juden in Rom in der Kaiserzeit, Leipsic, 1879;
  • Berliner, Gesch. der Juden in Rom, i. 46-70, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1893;
  • Vogelstein and Rieger, Gesch. der Juden in Rom, i. 70 et seq.;
  • Nicolaus Müller, Koimeterien, in Herzog-Hauck, Real-Encyc. 3d ed., x. 794 et seq.;
  • Lowrie, Christian Art and Archeology, p. 42, New York, 1901.
E. C. S. Kr.