Using data collected in the early Christian catacombs of St. Callixtus on the Appian Way and comparing these with data from the Jewish catacombs of Villa Torlonia on the Via Nomentana, this article discusses what sort of labor the building of the early Christian catacombs of Rome entailed, what kind of investment this required, and how these expenses related to the costs incurred in other big architectural projects dating to the same general period. It then explores the significance of these expenses by historically contextualizing the evidence in reference to current debates on the issue of early Christian catacomb organization, early Christian social history, and managerial developments within the early church. The article concludes by highlighting how economic feasibility was a major factor that allowed the early Christian catacombs to develop into huge communal cemeteries and how this development, in turn, affected early Christian identity formation.
The catacombs of Rome are perhaps the single most remarkable ancient funerary monument to survive in the vast necropoleis that surround that city on all sides. Consisting of an endless maze of dark underground galleries, they offered a final resting place to at least half a million people, mostly during the third and fourth centuries C.E. Better than any plans or set of illustrations, this impressive figure indicates how large the catacombs of Rome really are. This point becomes especially clear when one realizes that the hypothesized number of 500,000 does not derive from an actual head count, which is not yet feasible at this moment in time. Rather it is an extrapolation that has at its core average grave densities as documented during fieldwork in the early Christian catacombs of Callixtus on the Via Appia and in the Jewish catacombs on the Villa Torlonia. This is a method that can be used profitably, provided one applies to the data Crude Date Rates that can be determined on the basis of the evidence collected in these same catacombs.2 Considering that more than one person could be buried in an individual grave, it follows that the actual number of deceased laid to rest in the catacombs of Rome must have been larger still. The suggestion that there were as many as six million is, however, an exaggeration that lacks substantiation and should be disregarded.3 Given the number of double, triple, and quadruple graves preserved in the catacombs of Callixtus, the total figure of burials in all of the catacombs of Rome can be hypothesized to have, in all likelihood, fallen somewhere in the range of 600,000-750,000 individuals. This number alone makes the catacombs of Rome one of the largest and most important historical and archaeological monuments of all time.
Catacombs were used for burial by Rome's early Christian and Jewish communities.4 There is a long scholarly tradition of considering Rome's early Christian community as the sole inventor of this type of burial and of wanting to write the Jewish catacombs out of history.5 Because we know that Jews arrived in Rome long before the advent of Christianity and because we may assume Jews always preferred inhumation to cremation, there are good historical reasons to suppose that Jews may have started burying in catacombs early on and thus may have played a pivotal role in bringing this particular type of inhumation into existence.6 Because the archaeological and epigraphic materials preserved in the Jewish catacombs date mostly to the same general period as those preserved in Rome's early Christian catacombs, it has been impossible until very recently to demonstrate that the Jewish catacombs held any primacy over the early Christian ones.7 Radiocarbon dating in the Jewish catacombs under Villa Torlonia on the Via Nomentana, however, now confirms what has long been suspected on historical grounds: that the practice may have been Jewish in origin after all.8 Inevitably, an early dating of Rome's Jewish catacombs has not been viewed favorably in all quarters. Yet criticisms seem to be especially popular with researchers who have an inadequate understanding of the principles on which radiocarbon dating is based.9 Nevertheless, more than a decade after they were first published, the results of the radiocarbon dating of the Jewish catacombs of Rome still stand their ground better than most other archaeological dating techniques currently in use.
Another remarkable feature of Rome's catacombs is that, in these subterranean places, there is very little pagan artistic and inscriptional evidence from the period when their construction was at its peak. Indeed, contrary to recent arguments, there is no evidence that the Christian catacombs of Rome were systematically shared with pagan users.10 I agree with those who argue that such a view is based on a selective interpretation of the available material evidence.11 This is not to deny that there is pagan evidence in the catacombs at all: Part of the problem with interpreting such evidence is that conversion involved a gradual process of socialization, meaning that early Christians were likely to have carried pagan traditions in their luggage.12 Furthermore we also know that early Christian art emerged out of existing non-Christian workshop practices and procedures.13 For those two reasons, the possibility must be considered that Christians were “hiding” behind such pagan materials in much the same way as did Jews, who also acquired their products from shared workshops.14 Finally, precise discussion of the respective topographical features is key, as is evident in the case the catacomb of Vibia, where some of the interconnected hypogea are the result of modern perforations and not of work done in antiquity.15
This is a difficult iconographical conundrum, in which Christian is always Christian and Jewish is always Jewish, but pagan is not always pagan, but can also be Jewish or early Christian. Whatever the answer, it seems clear for now that from a pagan perspective, catacombs were and remained, if anything, a highly unusual form of funerary monument. In their long history, the pagan inhabitants of Rome never ventured to develop cemeteries that were geared towards the burial of larger groups of people, let alone entire communities. Those who could afford it preferred instead smaller tombs destined for the nuclear and extended family. During the period that directly preceded that of the catacombs, this is evidenced by the architecture of classical Roman cemeteries such as the pagan necropolis under St. Peter's basilica or the one on Isola Sacra, as well as by numerous inscriptions that specify tomb size.16 Even when the catacombs came into use, pagans still continued to bury in the fashion to which they had long been accustomed. The famous underground complex on the Via Latina/Via Dino Compagni, which dates to the fourth century C.E. and which contains magnificent pagan and early Christian wall paintings side by side, provides us with a prime illustration of this burial conservatism: while testifying to the gradual process of conversion from paganism to Christianity that would slowly yet inexorably transform the religious allegiance of Rome's upper classes during the second half of the fourth century C.E., the Via Latina complex is not a catacomb in the proper sense of the word. It is rather a series of interconnected underground burial chambers that continues to encapsulate the older Roman tradition of accommodating only one's relatives and a few select others.17
It hardly needs stressing that the catacombs of Rome differ fundamentally from such earlier pagan funerary traditions. That they were collective in nature—that is, that they were places where the faithful rested bound together to await a general resurrection of the dead at the end of time—follows not just from the massive size of these catacombs, but also from the fact that that both the rich and poor equally, including quite a few of the early popes, found their final resting place here, as indicated by archaeological remains preserved in them. Christian literary sources often mention rich patrons who donated their land for the specific purpose of providing communities with the necessary space to begin constructing catacombs. These references provide us with further evidence to suggest that a strong sense of group solidarity guided the organization of early Christian burial practice from the very start. The most important literary passage pointing in that direction is a passing remark in the writings of Hippolytus. It relates how at the turn of the third century C.E. pope Zephyrinus instructed his deacon (and pope-to-be) Callixtus to begin the construction of a cemetery for the burial of the Christian poor.18 Archaeologists have used the passage to argue in favor of a community-oriented agenda and ecclesiastical involvement as the main driving forces behind catacomb construction and development from the very start.19
In general, such a thesis dovetails nicely with what we now know about more generic changes that significantly transformed Roman social relations during this period. These resulted, amongst other things, in the rich starting to pour large sums of money into the coffers of the church for charitable purposes, instead of into building projects that were meant to satisfy the city's pride as well as their own. Thus arose a new, non-reciprocal culture of giving that represented a fundamental change or, better still, a “new departure” from the way in which late Roman society had previously displayed generosity: money now went to the poor.20 From the perspective of Greco-Roman euergetism, it was a novel approach indeed, one that carried the additional benefit of “laying up treasure in heaven”—that is, of providing a means to bring about the expiation of sins in the world to come.21 These broader developments and transformations are the proper historical context for Hippolytus' description of how the church began paying for the burial of those who were destitute, of whom there must have been many: according to a recent study, as many as 55% of early Christians survived at a subsistence level and another 25% lived “in extreme fragile suspension above subsistence level.”22
Archaeologists, for their part, have long tried to locate Zephyrinus' cemetery for the poor, attempting to connect the evidence that survives in the catacombs of Rome with the information contained in Hippolytus' statement. They have now identified the so-called Area I region in the Callixtus catacomb on the Via Appia as the site of this earliest church-sponsored subterranean cemetery in Rome (Fig. 1). The formal characteristics of that particular area make it plausible: the regularly-carved and carefully-interspaced loculi in this early part of the catacomb suggest that a philosophy of egalitarianism was the driving principle in the construction of this subterranean cemetery. These tombs do display a monumentality that one does not encounter in later catacomb galleries, where workers carved as many tombs as technically feasible into the walls, creating an impression that the people here were even less well-off. Such an impression is, however, mistaken. The formal difference between this early section and later parts should rather be seen as a function of the workmen of Area I experimenting with a formula that was new to them. They therefore still lacked the dexterity that later catacomb workers so clearly possessed. The fact that Area I is located near to the famous third-century Crypt of the Popes also supports the argument that we are on ecclesiastical territory here. All in all, Area I is very much a cemetery the communal nature of which is unmistakable from an architectural perspective, with graves embedded into a set of interconnected galleries that essentially all look the same.23
Scholars acknowledge that in addition to views about the need to love thy (poor) neighbor as thyself, the church's organizational skills, theology, and newly-won financial means likely played a role in facilitating burial in the gigantic cavernous subterranean city of the dead that the catacombs of late antique Rome represent. Even so, modern scholarship has abandoned the idea that the church was solely responsible for these sites—their construction, administration, or both.24 The reason for this is twofold. First, the literary evidence is far too fractured and inconclusive to prove that such a comprehensive level of church involvement and control ever existed. And second, the archaeological and inscriptional evidence itself suggests a multiplicity of scenarios developing alongside one another, with private initiatives continuing to co-exist side-by-side with ecclesiastical ones, well into the fourth century.25 For that reason archaeologists now prefer to use the word “collective” rather than “communal” when referring to the mass of graves in the more egalitarian corridors that characterize and, in fact, predominate large sections of the underground architecture from the very start of early Christian catacomb construction.26
Also pertinent in this respect is the evidence that has survived in the form of inscriptions left behind by the fossores, who were responsible for the digging of the catacombs as well as nearly everything else that involved the proper burial and commemoration of the early Christian dead.27 During their long career in Rome's subterranean hollows, we see their role evolve from low-level ecclesiastical employees in the early fourth century (at the latest) to entrepreneurs in the later fourth and early fifth centuries. It was at this point that they were gradually being phased out by other church officials such as the praepositi, the mansionarii and the cubicularii. The fact that we see original fossores involved in the selling of tombs, starting perhaps as early as 337 C.E., has led Jean Guyon to conclude that, even when the church was involved in the construction of the catacombs, on the whole they were not run, either exclusively or even primarily, as one big ecclesiastical charitable enterprise that was doling out graves for free. Archaeological circles long ago accepted Guyon's observation that “la vente était sans doute la règle et l' inhumation gratuite l'exception réservée aux indigents,” and it fits neatly with relevant literary sources such as Hippolytus' Apostolic Tradition.28
Guyon's work also explains why a recent attempt to further deconstruct the traditional view on church involvement and possible ecclesiastical ownership by sifting critically through all the relevant literary sources has met with little enthusiasm in archeological circles. Archaeologists feel there was little left to deconstruct in the first place, and they are convinced that ascribing the emergence of the catacombs to the private initiative of individual families or of collegia alone fails to do justice to either the archaeological evidence in all of its complexity or to the larger historical developments at play.29
Even though there now seems to be a consensus about the larger developments that fueled the usage of the early Christian catacombs of Rome, it is still remarkable that little thought has gone into the economics behind the construction of these remarkable sites. In this article I propose to explore the mechanisms and technologies needed to construct these underground cemeteries and to investigage the kinds of investments that were necessary to bring them about. I try to quantify catacomb construction by using new data acquired through archaeological fieldwork and show how this data allows us to determine what sort of work the building of the early Christian catacombs of Rome entailed, what kind of investment this required, and how these expenses related to the costs incurred in other building projects dating to the same general period. To conclude I explore the larger historical implications of these investigations in relation to the central question of early Christian catacomb organization and funerary management; I assert that the construction of catacombs was a highly cost-effective way of burying the departed and that this enabled the early church to translate its ideology of caring for the early Christian dead into actual practice.
Note that throughout these discussions I use the term Christian in a general sense. This is not because I am unaware of the many heterodox Christian groups in Rome for which we have good literary evidence.30 It is rather because we cannot recognize such groups in the surviving archaeological materials, and so we cannot meaningfully enter them into the equation here.31
THE CATACOMBS OF ANCIENT ROME: A QUANTITATIVE APPROACH
Considering the current state of affairs in catacomb archaeology, a quantitative approach to the catacombs of Rome is possible only by means of case-studies, from which one can then extrapolate in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of the larger patterns that are likely to have shaped catacomb burial more generally. To include an analysis of the full data-sets from all forty full-sized catacombs presently known is impossible, simply because even today the huge Roman catacombs have not been sufficiently excavated, documented, and studied.
The calculations and extrapolations presented here derive from fieldwork carried out in the so-called Liberian region of the catacombs of Callixtus on the Via Appia. This region of the catacomb represents a time when catacomb construction was at its peak, offering a perfect mix of the different types of graves and burial complexes typically encountered in catacombs when that sort of burial custom was at its most popular (Fig. 2). Although the name of the area under study refers to pope Liberius (352–366 AD), this nomenclature should not be taken to mean that this part of the catacomb owed its origin to papal intervention. This designation is a modern attribution originating with one of the great explorers of the Callixtus catacomb complex, G.B. de Rossi (1822–1894). Considering the early Christian catacombs of Rome as the very incarnation not just of early Christianity but of Catholic theology, de Rossi used the chronology of the inscriptional materials he discovered in this area of the Callixtus catacombs as a pretext for linking it to one of the famous figures in the history of the early church.32
The Liberian complex is dominated by a central corridor that can be accessed by way of a rather monumental staircase leading down steeply from the surface. Along this main axis and a second one that intersects it at right angles is a series of strikingly monumental cubicula. Several of these have been plastered over with white stucco and are connected to the surface by means of large perpendicular shafts that have, in turn, been linked to lucernaria or light shafts located over the central gallery (Fig. 3). As a result of this, these impressive burial chambers, while located well below the surface, were originally flooded with light that bounced off the whitewashed walls on all sides.
Even though such deluxe rooms are, therefore, a particularly noteworthy characteristic in this part of the catacomb, they are not the only feature that determines the topographical layout of the Liberian region. Around the central gallery is an elaborate network of simpler galleries that, in many ways, is characteristic of what catacombs typically look like: a set of long, winding, and, at times, very tall corridors that are filled to perfection with loculi graves of a much simpler variety (Fig. 4). One such gallery was so jam-packed with burial slots of all shapes and sizes that during our fieldwork, we began to refer it colloquially as “the panic gallery.” We assumed the jumble tumble of the tombs indicated a situation in which the original workmen were perhaps facing the grim realities of some sort of epidemic, with too many dead bodies coming in and piling up during too short a period of time.
It is clear that the Liberian region in Callixtus provides us with a perfect point of departure to begin reflecting on the dynamics of catacomb construction when this kind of underground burial was in full swing. As we just saw, it contains monumental evidence pointing towards wealthier elements within the urban population of Rome. It also, however, includes sections representative of the poorer segments of that population, as indicated by the crowded nature of the galleries in which the common people had been buried and by the simple and often crude way in which their graves had been sealed. The eating habits of those interred here also hint at poverty, as suggested by the results of a stable isotopic analysis we performed on some of their skeletal remains.33 Such evidence shows that the Liberian region of Callixtus presents us with a near-perfect cross-section of the different sorts of people that together made up Rome's early Christian community during the fourth century C.E.
DETERMINING THE NECESSARY MAN-POWER
As a first step, we drew up a reliable plan of the catacomb's Liberian region, made cross sections and measured galleries, and completed a full database documentation of all the graves encountered there, a total of 4,894 tombs.34 On the basis of all this evidence it is now possible to conclude that in order to bring the Liberian region into existence, workmen had to remove as much as 4,950 m3 of tufa, the volcanic rock into which the catacombs of Rome have been excavated.35
In order to determine how much man-power was needed to remove all this material, we considered three factors: a) the amount of material workmen could extract during a typical working day; b) the number of work days during the year; and c) the timeframe within which they completed all this work.
There is both very limited ancient and good quality modern proxy data concerning the quantity of tufa an experienced worker could extract during a typical workday (Fig. 5). During his many years of archaeological fieldwork in the catacombs of Rome, U.M. Fasola observed that his workers usually extracted around 1 m3 of detritus from already existing galleries.36 Ethnographic evidence bearing on workers quarrying tufa suggests that perhaps as much as three times that amount of material could be removed during a typical working day.37 Building an underground gallery and excavating the original graves in a catacomb is, of course, different than removing accumulated dirt from an existing catacomb or chipping away rocky soil in a quarry. Even so, an average production capacity of 1 m3 per person per day seems reasonable considering that tufa is a relatively easy to work volcanic rock. Moreover, we have also to factor in the removal of the resulting debris. To do this, the muscle and stamina of a second able person would have been necessary, so that in order to reach an average speed of 1 m3 per diem we must assume that not one but two workmen were required, one for digging and one for carting off the resulting tuffaceous rubble.38
The ancient data supports this estimate. Several graffiti from the Callixtus catacombs survive that were left there by a fossor by the name of Iconius. In one of these, which dates to the second half of the fourth century, Iconius relates that it took him ten days to excavate a burial chamber.39 Significantly, that figure is very close to the average amount of time it would have taken a fossor to excavate one of the many burial rooms along the main corridors of the Liberian region, if we apply the estimated 1 m3 per diem rate, namely an average of 6.4 days, with two people toiling away at this, or 12.8 days for a single person doing everything alone.
We may assume a figure of around 300 work days during a typical year. Such a figure is based on the idea that the fossores, who dug the catacombs and who were ecclesiastical functionaries, did not work on Sundays or during Christian holidays.40 Being true Romans, they probably occasionally took several more days a year besides, perhaps to attend the ever-popular races at the Circus Maximus. In fact, we have documentation showing that several of them associated, around the middle of the fourth century, with some of the more unsavory elements that hung around those horse tracks.41 In the end, their yearly regimen may have been roughly equal to the number of workdays that has been hypothesized for pagan Rome, around 290.42
Finally, we need to establish the timeframe during which most of the work in the Liberian region was carried out. This we are able to do thanks to a series of dated inscriptions and the results of radiocarbon dating carried out on site. Inscriptions found in situ date from 365 to 408 C.E. (Fig. 6). Those no longer in situ (but from the same general area) cover a longer period stretching from 276 to 428 C.E.43 Radiocarbon dating we performed throughout the Liberian region confirms what the inscriptions suggest: work started there as early as the early fourth century.44 Even so, the increase in dated inscriptions suggests that burial in this part of the Callixtus catacombs must have picked up considerable speed during the second half of the fourth century.45 Finally, the 408 date is surprisingly close to the Sack of Rome of 410, which is normally seen as an event that greatly interrupted burial in the catacombs. All in all, this evidence can be taken to mean that it may have taken somewhere between 50–100 years for the Liberian region to have been fully excavated, with construction activities intensifying during the second half of this period.
Having established these parameters, we can now begin to determine how much work went into “building” the Liberian region. To be able to extract a total of 4950 m3 of tufa over a period of a hundred years, an average of 49.5 m3 of tufa had to be removed annually. With two people able to remove roughly 1 m3 per day and working 300 days per year, it follows that workers could extract the annual average within two months. If they kept on working steadily throughout the year, they could excavate and cart off as much as six times the annual amount of tufa necessary to bring the Liberian region into existence. Put differently, with an average production capacity of 300 m3 per year, it would have taken our diligent workers a mere 16.5 years to excavate the Liberian region in its entirety. And if most of the work was concentrated in the second half of the fourth century, it still took only two workmen to dig out the entire Liberian region within a period of a mere 30 years.
In light of the monumentality of the Liberian region, the impression that the sheer size of this subterranean cemetery makes upon the visitor, these results come as a complete surprise. This new insight, of course, continues to hold if we extrapolate these results and project them onto the Callixtus catacombs as a whole. To do so is revealing because the catacombs of Callixtus are among the largest early Christian catacombs in Rome.46 With the Liberian region representing about one fifth of the entire catacomb complex at Callixtus (cf. Fig. 1), it follows that in order for these catacombs to be constructed in their entirety, one needed a crew of but two people, who had to work there for only five months a year, as long as two people worked in such a way across two centuries. That amount of labor was all that was necessary to bring the entirety of the enormous Callixtus catacomb complex into being. We would never anticipate this conclusion if we took our cue from the cemetery's monumentality instead of the calculations presented above.
And yet, upon closer consideration, these calculations fit rather neatly with what the ancient data have been telling us. Take, for example, a famous inscription from an early Christian catacomb that commemorates a certain fossor named Debestes Montanarius.47 In this inscription, Debestus relates how, during a career spent in the darkness of the subterranean depths, he worked all over the Maius catacomb—a complex known by that name already in antiquity, and appropriately so, considering the cemetery's enormous size. In light of the calculations put forward earlier, it is fair to conclude that there was nothing odd or inflated about Debestes' claims. Given the amount of work small teams of workmen could accomplish, Debestes is indeed likely to have worked all over the Maius catacomb as the person who was responsible for excavating many a gallery in that grand underground complex.
There is, however, still another, more conclusive argument that the results of the calculations presented here are credible: they are fully confirmed by the data we collected in another catacomb complex, the Jewish catacombs under Villa Torlonia. This additional data is presented shortly in the context of our attempt to work out a cost analysis for the catacombs, which is the topic to which we now turn.
DETERMINING PRODUCTION COSTS
In order to estimate the cost of the catacombs, it is necessary to determine several further factors. First, it is useful to break the total amount of work down to the level of the individual grave. As we have seen before, it took two workmen about 16.5 years to dig out the entire Liberian region in the Callixtus catacomb, including the 4,894 tombs that this region contains. Considering that the number of years indicated correspond to 4,950 working days, it follows that it took these two workmen on average roughly a day to produce a single tomb.
It is important to note that this figure is an average that includes the entire production process, meaning the excavation of the gallery into the walls of which the tombs were placed, as well as the hollowing out of the individual tomb. Cutting out a tomb once the gallery was in existence required much less work, of course, but in order to determine overall costs, we need to include all of the work necessary to produce the final product, including galleries, light shafts, and access areas. Again, not all tombs were the same: arcosolia or arched graves, of which there are only 44 in the Liberian region, required more work, and not all loculi are of the same size either, with examples of full-sized adult versions, adolescent and child graves, and those for infants. We discuss the implications of different tomb sizes shortly.
Another consideration is the worker's pay. Here Diocletian's Edictum de pretiis can serve as a rough guide, even though this source can serve only as a very rough proxy rather than as an indication of the real economy; we must also acknowledge the fact that fragments of it have as yet been found only in the East. As is well known, the Edictum tried to put a cap on prices, which included specifying maximum reimbursements for different sorts of specialized and less specialized work, the fossor profession unfortunately not being one of them.48 Wages run from 25 denarii plus maintenance for unskilled work to 50 denarii plus maintenance for skilled labor.49 Daily pay may be hypothesized to have amounted to a total of 36.1 and 61.1 denarii per day.50 The work typically performed by the fossores seems to fall into both ranges, with the actual cutting and constructing of catacombs probably being at the higher end of the scale and the removing of rubble at the lower.
It is not particularly difficult to determine how such evidence impinges on the production costs of tombs in the catacombs. If it took a workforce of two men a single day to manufacture the average loculus tomb, such a tomb must have cost anything between 72.2 (2 × 36.1) and 122.2 (2 × 61.1) denarii in wages to produce. If we account for the different tomb sizes, we can break down this number even further.51 Adult loculi, the largest variety, would have cost between 83 and 140 denarii to excavate. Loculi of intermediate size ranged from 55 to 93 denarii. And loculi for infants could cost as little as 29 to 49 denarii a piece. Tombs for newborn or stillborn babies would have been cheaper still. Putting these average costs in context means that the average total production cost of a regular adult loculus tomb represents an amount of money equal to a maximum of three and a half days of work for a person paid at the lower end of the scale (122:36=3.4). If you were better paid, however, you needed to work for two days only to be able to afford such a tomb (122:61.1=1.9). And if you were well-paid and you had to buy a grave of the smallest variety the number of days you had to work for it obviously went down even further (29:61.1=0.47 days).
To ensure that these estimated production costs are not too low, there is a way to independently check their reliability. A set of two interconnected Jewish catacombs survives on the Via Nomentana (Fig. 7).52 Except for the fact that they were used by Jews, as indicated by the wall paintings, inscriptions, and the iconographic materials they contain, these catacombs are identical with the early Christian ones: they contain an identical network of underground galleries and are packed with loculus-type tombs. Even though burial chambers in these Jewish catacombs appear much less frequently than in their early Christian counterparts, the formal and topographical features of Jewish and early Christian catacombs in Rome are nearly interchangeable.
During fieldwork performed in the Jewish catacombs under the Villa Torlonia, we produced exactly the same sort of data as we did in the Liberian region in Callixtus. We measured the entire catacomb and recorded 3,734 tombs (Fig. 8).53 The size of the galleries and the number of tombs combined allow us to conclude that a total amount of 3,940 m3 of tufa that needed to be removed in order to create both Jewish catacombs in their entirety, including all the tombs they contain.54 If we apply the same figures as before, with two men removing 1 m3 a day for 300 days a year, it follows that it took roughly 13 years of continuous work, or 3,940 working hours, to excavate both underground cemeteries in their entirety. During this time these two men produced 3,734 graves, which equals out, on average, to about one tomb per day. That is the same sort of production time and, therefore, the same sort of production costs, as in the Callixtus catacombs. Because these results mutually reinforce one another, we may conclude that the work and production costs proposed here are indeed a reliable indicator of the manpower it took to produce the average loculus grave throughout the catacombs of ancient Rome.
Additional costs were likely incurred which exceeded those of merely digging the graves. Fossores needed tools, such as the dolabra (Fig. 9), that we see them wielding with confidence on painted and incised representations, and they also needed baskets, ropes, lighting equipment, and ladders.55 While a ladder of 30 rungs may have cost as much as 150 denarii, it is likely that these additional expenses were incidentals that had little effect in the long run: our own experience in the catacombs has shown that a sturdy ladder, once in place, can be used for many years in a row.56
There is, however, another more important factor that needs to be taken into consideration here: the tufa. As we have already seen, a large quantity of tufa was removed while digging the catacombs. We do not know what happened to all that volcanic rock once it had been broken into pieces and extracted. Here, as in other cases, the fossores were probably as pragmatic as they could be. In the catacomb of the coemeterium Jordanorum, for example, they dumped the excavated debris in an existing cave nearby.57 Considering that in post-Roman times catacombs were sometimes reused as tufa quarries, it is conceivable that during Roman times too at least some of the tufa may also have been utilized, namely, it may have been sold for profit.58 This is a possibility, considering that the Romans employed tufa systematically and in significant quantities as an ingredient for their caementa and in the construction of their opus vittatum mixtum walls.59 Some of it was also used to seal off the more modest graves in the catacombs themselves. It seems reasonable to assume, all arguments considered, that the need to dispose of extracted tufa did not, overall, significantly lead to higher production costs.
Something similar is likely to hold true for the lands under which the catacombs were constructed. While it is true that if one wanted to build a tomb in ancient Rome, including a subterranean one, it was necessary to own the land on or under which construction took place, it is not clear how much the price of the plot itself affected the overall price of such funerary monuments. As observed earlier, rich donors frequently gave land to the early Christian community. In addition, catacombs often emerged out of and under open-air cemeteries that had been in use for decades, if not centuries. This certainly was the case in the Liberian region of the Callixtus catacombs.60 It is virtually impossible to determine land prices in the area where the catacombs came to be. Even so, if we use the sparse data available, and then divide these costs over the total number of tombs inside the catacombs, it follows that land prices would have increased the production costs of such tombs by a negligible amount at best.61
One final element must be taken into account: supervision. In light of comparative data, we may assume that such overhead affected production costs by about 10%.62 If we factor that element in, it would mean that the most expensive type of adult loculus was slightly pricier than hypothesized before. It would have cost, on average, some 134.2 denarii to produce.
It hardly needs stressing that production costs do not equal market value, nor have we established the actual price at which tombs were being sold. While the inscriptional evidence of catacomb tomb pricing is too isolated to support more general conclusions, the available data nevertheless suggests that, on occasion, buyers of catacomb tombs may have needed deep pockets. Sellers, for their part, were sometimes in a position to make a great deal of money.63
Further expenses beyond the creation of the tomb were required in order to bury a person properly. The dead body had to be prepared, at which time it was typically wrapped in a shroud and then transported several miles outside the city center to the catacombs for burial. Inhumation sometimes included the deposition of grave gifts and the pouring of oil. Finally, the grave had to be sealed.64 Some people had expensive and exquisitely carved marble inscriptions installed, ordered wall paintings (Fig. 10) and, occasionally, even squeezed an expensive marble sarcophagus into the catacombs' otherwise narrow spaces.65
There were also cheaper options. For example, survivors could choose not to decorate the tomb (one noteworthy aspect of the catacombs is the relative lack of wall-paintings when measured against the total number of people buried there).66 Many graves were sealed in the simplest of ways, using reused tiles and bricks, as evidenced by the brick stamps they carry.67 If you were really poor, inhumation could be done inexpensively: the family could prepare the corpse, carry it to the catacombs, and have it deposited in the same clothes the person wore while still alive (Fig. 11). Money still had to be spent, but in the case of the poor, it did not have to be much.
If we reflect on the larger mechanisms at play in the construction of the catacombs, however, none of these considerations of additional costs are as important as the question of how much effort and how much money was minimally necessary to bring these places into existence in the first place. If we consider that the catacombs of Rome offered a final resting place to some 500,000 people, it follows that in order to produce that many graves, over a period of roughly 200 years, on average 2,500 graves were dug per year. With two men creating one grave every single day, whoever was in charge of this project would have needed a permanent staff of only 16.6 people to make all of this possible. If we factor in a little supervision and planning along the lines indicated previously, the annual labor of fewer than 20 people would have been necessary to create the catacombs of Rome in their entirety.68 And if we add to this the 8.3 fossores necessary, on average, to bury the departed, we still end up with a group of fewer than 30 people necessary on an annual basis to accomplish most of the essential operations in the catacombs.69 Even if we consider this as a single enterprise, employing a mere 30 people cannot have been beyond the capacity of many late antique entrepreneurs, especially since in this society urban labor was cheap and slavery was still widespread (although not necessarily inexpensive).70
Looking at all the catacomb evidence comprehensively from the perspective of cost is, finally, also worth our while. If there were 500,000 people requiring burial, and if 134.2 denarii was the maximum amount of money needed, in terms of wages, to produce the largest and most expensive kind of loculus grave, it follows that, over period of 200 years, these inhumations resulted in an average annual expenditure of 335,500 denarii. In reality, this amount must have been lower, however, because a) on average about one third of the loculi in the catacombs are not of the adult, but of the smaller child and adolescent variety; and b) not all workers are likely to have been paid at the higher end of the scale.71
Let us, however, for argument's sake, stick to the maximum figure of 335,500 denarii, and use this figure to examine how this sort of capital compares to the amount necessary to complete other major public building projects. Diocletian's Edict allows us to do so, as it enables us to translate the proposed production costs of the catacombs into corn prices, thus permitting us to compare these production costs with other kinds of projects and expenses. If we express denarii in kastrenses modii (KM) at 100 denarii per 1 KM, it follows that 3,355 KM were needed to pay the workers of the catacombs on a yearly basis.72
There are several relevant comparanda, such as the amount of money spent by the Emperor on the dole. Under Septimius Severus, for example, about 7 million KM was spent annually on the annona, thus providing some 175,000 people in the city of Rome with their yearly state-provided corn ratios. The amount of money that had to be spent on the annona was, therefore, more than 2,000 times the amount needed to build the catacombs. Along similar lines, the expenses necessary for building the monumental baths of Caracalla (211–215 C.E.), where annual building expenses ran so high that they could only be financed through the imperial purse, were on average more than 600 times as high as what was required to build the catacombs.73 Finally, if we assume that the lands in which rich Romans typically invested their money produced an income of around 6%, the richest would have at their disposal returns in the amount of 3 to 4 million KM—900 times as much as necessary to employ the catacomb workers, even before selling tombs and making a profit.74
We are finally also in a position to measure the expenses necessary for constructing the catacombs of Rome against the overall budget available to the early church. Unfortunately, our documentation concerning ecclesiastical property and the church's financial situation is not well-attested during the earliest centuries. Even so, what little data we have supports the picture I have just sketched. If indeed the Roman church under Constantine had an income of 30,000 solidi a year, then the annual expenses needed to build the catacombs amounted to slightly over 1% of the church's total annual income.75
No less pertinent here is the evidence provided by a well-known passage from Eusebius' Church History, where he writes that by the time of the Roman bishop Cornelius, around the middle of the third century, the Roman church supported 1,500 widows and people in need, as well as 46 presbyters, 7 deacons, 7 sub-deacons, 42 acolytes, and 52 excorcists, lectors, and doorkeepers.76 We do not know whether Eusebius, who spent all of his working life in the eastern Mediterranean, had reliable sources at his disposal from which he derived this particular kind of information. In light of the possible size of Rome's early Christian population, the number of 1,500 widows seems high enough, but perhaps that was exactly Eusebius' point.77 If an organization like the early church could support 1,500 widows and other poor, in addition to a set of further dignitaries and ecclesiastical workers, it seems reasonable to suppose that they could afford the additional 20 workers necessary to dig the catacombs, even if they paid these widows and other unfortunates only a fraction of the wages paid to the workmen underground. In fact, if we assume that the church did not actually pay their widows and their poor, but merely allotted to them the same sort of food allowances as those received by the workers we encountered in Diocletian's Edict (11.1 denarii p.p.p.d.), maintaining this small army of needy people would have cost the church more than 6 million denarii per year, 18 times the sum necessary to maintain work in the catacombs.
From the perspective of the richest donors within the early church, the yearly sum required to keep work in the catacombs going was so small as to be wholly negligible. When Melania the Younger gave away most of her earthly possessions in 405 C.E., her yearly income amounted to 120,000 solidi per year.78 If such money would have been used to finance annual labor in the catacombs, the work would have taken up a mere 0.28% of Melania's total budget. And if Melania's money would have gone into financing the construction of all of the catacombs of Rome over a period of 200 years—which, of course, never happened—there would still be 45% of Melania's total yearly sum left when all was said and done.
In sum these calculations indicate that the catacombs of Rome were a relatively minor undertaking in terms of costs. The project was well within the reach of a small- or medium-sized enterprise, especially if such an enterprise was not geared just towards making ends meet but was designed to make a reasonable, or even a sizeable, profit. Even if it is difficult, for lack of reliable data, to determine precise profit margins, the data points we do have suggest that, in selling tombs, the fossores of the catacombs stood to make a decent profit.79
The catacombs of ancient Rome are among the most ingenious forms of funerary architecture ever developed. Replacing a system where one had to bury the dead in crowded urban cemeteries, where the construction of one grave almost inevitably resulted in compromising another, the catacombs offered burial spaces capable of ensuring the integrity of the departed body.80 Just because catacombs were located underground and also because they were carved out of a type of volcanic rock that was simple to work, extra galleries, and even entire extra levels, could be added easily so as to address quickly, effectively, and respectfully any problem with capacity. Moreover from the perspective of cost effectiveness and the technical and organizational skills they required, the catacombs were also a very practical way of entombing the dead, as this article has demonstrated. All in all, it is not surprising that starting from their rather innocuous beginnings, quite possibly among the Jews of ancient Rome, the catacombs of the city evolved into the immense underground city of the dead that continues to deeply impress visitors to this very day.
The catacombs of Rome were, moreover, more than just a smart solution to a set of interconnected practical problems. They were also very much collective burial grounds. As such they provided the users with a space in which they could articulate and strengthen their sense of communal self-identity. It was exactly this that the pagan emperor Julian (361–363 C.E.) had in mind when he famously remarked that the care with which Christians surrounded their dead represented one of the main appeals of the new religion they professed, one that their pagan contemporaries had never practiced in that form, but, given its effectiveness, they would, in Julian's view, be wise to start copying.81 Indeed, from the perspective of taking care properly of one's dead, the catacombs of Rome, once in full swing, represented the kind of cemetery that was nothing short of brilliant in terms of offering a decent resting place to all alike. Rich and poor, young and old, men and women, ecclesiastical and lay, all would rest in these places equally and side by side, as one big community of believers. What enveloped them were cemeteries where inscriptions and artwork spoke the same overarching cultural language. Especially once Pope Damasus (366–384 C.E.) identified and monumentalized the graves of early Christian martyrs—at which point such graves became a major pole of attraction for Christians, who then wanted to be buried as closely as topographically feasible to these special dead—the catacombs became the sort of place that had a unique capacity to unite Christians as a community and help them reaffirm their sense of belonging and shared cultural distinctiveness (Fig. 12).82 This expression of in-group solidarity, as Julian rightly saw, was something that far transcended traditional pagan Roman traditions and conceptions about death and the treatment of the departed.
As for the managerial side of burial in Rome's early Christian catacombs, nothing we currently know about the archaeology of these sites, especially where it concerns the gestation period of this mode of funerary practice, supports the old idea that the early church exclusively owned and developed these places. These insights have given rise, already some time ago, to the sensible suggestion that, even the case of the cemetery of the poor developed in the Callixtus catacombs through pope Zephyrinus' initiative, might well be an enterprise resulting from the use of private funds by someone who also happened to be bishop of Rome at that time.83 Archaeological evidence shows, in any case, that even when our sources speak of “the” cemetery in reference to Zephyrinus' project, a set of other similar catacombs seemingly unrelated to Zephyrinus' efforts—and therefore quite possibly beyond his direct control and perhaps even interest—were coming into existence rather rapidly at different sites all around the ancient city.84
The workmen in all of these early catacombs found themselves in the fortunate position of having created a new type of cemetery that could easily keep pace, and even stay abreast, of the numerical growth of the early Christian community exactly at a time when early Christian writers began developing an ideology that highlighted the importance of burying the Christian dead properly as members of one big Christian family.85 That this is how things went can still be seen at different places in the catacombs of Rome, including in Zephyrinus' own cemetery of the poor. There the original nucleus was soon expanded by means of a whole set of further graves and additional galleries that all took full advantage of the very efficient building and entombing practices that had now emerged. Hardly less than two decades after its foundation, in around 230, the number of loculi tombs in that particular part of the catacombs of St. Callixtus had already risen to 1,200.86 During the same general period, similar developments can be seen in the Calepodius, Domitilla, and Praetextatus catacombs and in those of Novatianus. There too we are no longer dealing with small and isolated underground complexes consisting of one or more interconnected hypogea, but of a systematically planned network made up of long interconnected galleries.87 These were decked out with an endless succession of simple loculus graves that, if they carry inscriptions at all, display formulations that are equally simple and that can best be characterized as extremely terse.
Even as such efforts to extend the earliest sections of the catacombs picked up considerable speed as a result of this new and utterly pragmatic way of constructing large-capacity cemeteries, we should still keep in mind that variation remained a key feature in how funerary practices were organized in the Christian catacombs of Rome. In the beginning, private rather than ecclesiastical initiatives seem to have been the norm in this area, with people buying tombs when they were still alive, as indicated by such well-known and time-worn inscriptional phraseologies as se vivo fecit.88 In due course, the role of church personnel began to increase, as evidenced by the fact that from the fourth century onwards we see ecclesiastics known as fossores at work all over these subterranean cemeteries.89 In addition, from this period on there is evidence for episcopal activity.90 Since the clergy generally drew its members from the class of wealthy plebeians who knew how to handle money and get things done, this development is hardly surprising.91 Along similar lines, the fact that in the second half of the fourth century, the clergy also developed into a separate, powerful group, also helped speed things along, as this generic development provided the necessary framework for ever increasing ecclesiastical involvement.92
And yet, even after this shift towards a greater degree of church involvement manifested itself, there still remained an opportunity for early Christian groups representing different urban ecclesiastical districts to run their own show in certain parts of the larger catacombs dating to the fourth century.93 There was still room for wealthy representatives of the senatorial Faltonia family to bestow a whole stretch of cemetery upon the members of the early Christian community in the nearby town of Velletri.94 Christian workmen who were mensores frumentarii could still orchestrate their own arrangements in the catacombs.95 Christian families could still determine how to set up their burials, meaning that they could commission delineated spaces in the catacombs. The result of such large scale family involvement can best be seen in the Liberian region of St. Callixtus. The appearance of burial chambers that flank the central corridors of named regions (Fig. 13) cannot but strike keen observers as a more or less direct continuation of the Roman family tomb traditions of old.
While such an arrangement calls into question the notion that in the early Christian catacombs of Rome we find an overall dissolution of the traditional social and hierarchical boundaries, the topographical arrangements of the Liberian region indicate that these burial chambers subverted those traditions by virtue of the fact that many of them were no longer independent structures. Rather, they were now spaces that could only be accessed via the galleries of the catacombs, of which they formed an integral part.96 Besides, the distinction between monumental burial chambers on the one hand, and run-of-the mill galleries on the other, tended to be fluid, inasmuch as burial chambers often contain loculus graves that are as egalitarian in appearance as the ones encountered in the regular galleries. Thus, it is surely no coincidence that these more monumental burial rooms can finally also be shown to contain the remains of people whose diets differed little from that of those buried in the poorer section of the Callixtus cemetery.97 Such topographical features show that the catacombs of Rome do indeed document the countercultural atmosphere of the relaxed hierarchy that characterizes the transformation of social relations within Rome's early Christian community over the course of the fourth century.98
Whatever the precise considerations may have been that led to the construction of these cubicula in the Liberian region of the Callixtus catacombs, the co-existence of the variety of scenarios listed in the previous paragraphs helps us to understand, in any case, that the question of church involvement in the construction and the administration of the catacombs of Rome is not an either/or question. It was rather an issue that involved, at one and the same time, different sorts of players who seem to have operated contemporaneously and side-by-side in a great many different subterranean places. The archaeology of the catacombs suggests that all of this happened in a fairly seamless and organic manner.
Even if the Christian catacombs of Rome were therefore never controlled by the early church, it was nonetheless inevitable for the influence of the church on these subterranean cemeteries to increase over time. This explains why the evidence for fossores begins to abound exactly in the same general period that the catacombs begin to expand markedly as a result of Christianity's numerical growth and the parallel development of the church establishing itself ever more firmly as a major force in society at large.99 From the early fourth century onwards, there is hardly a catacomb in Rome where there is no evidence, either in epigraphic or pictorial form, testifying to the presence of these diligent clerical diggers.
In light of an early Christian theology that placed emphasis on the proper burial of the dead and on the duty to take care of the corpses of the poorer members also, the office of the fossor was the perfect invention, as this institution helped concentrate all matters in this particular area into the hands of a single, governable body. After all, being representatives of the church while at the same time being under the control of higher-ranked church officials, the fossores were the workers who took care of all practical funerary matters relating to the burial of early Christian dead, from start to finish. Thus, they were fully equipped to properly construct early Christian cemeteries for the community as a whole, as places where they would proceed to sell the graves they dug but where they also were at liberty to entomb people free of charge if the circumstances required. In a society haunted by frightfully high mortality figures and made up of large groups of people living near or under the subsistence level—a society, moreover, in which the dead had typically been taken care of properly only when they had enough money to spare, or the right family connections to call upon—the comprehensive and highly adaptable system of the catacombs as developed by these fossores may very well have been yet another factor that contributed significantly to the rise of Christianity.100 It certainly also contributed to the financial well-being of the church, or at least to that of the fossores themselves, as good money could be made on graves that were being sold at a profit, as indicated previously. This then is the background against which we should understand the commercialization of early Christian burial practices highlighted by recent scholarship.101
All of this activity was still possible, however, only because of one further crucial and constitutive factor: the whole system of building the catacombs and burying people within them was characterized by financial feasibility as well as economic sustainability in the long run. It was the perfect system from the perspective of a church that wanted to bury its poor for free or as cheaply as economically viable, because it had imposed on itself the moral obligation to do so. In fact, the model that emerged under the guise of the catacombs appears to have been so sustainable that over the course of the fourth century the church was technically in a position to bury all the Christian dead in Rome free of charge, if desired. While the evidence indicates that this latter scenario never materialized, the calculations above nevertheless help explain how it was possible for the catacombs of Rome to quickly develop into huge underground cemeteries.
Their sustainability as well as their effectiveness in expressing in-group solidarity also helps explain how the system established in these catacombs helped to set the stage for the next phase of early Christian funerary practice in Rome, in which the dead were laid to rest under the floors of the grand funerary basilicas of the fifth century and beyond, of which at least 15 still survive.102 Here the community of believers was united in a single liturgical space, in tombs that had been arranged even more tightly than had been the case in the catacombs. In light of similar such churches that were constructed elsewhere, throughout much of the later Roman Empire as a whole, it was a formula that soon gained enormous popularity, even when it did so under the form of different shapes and varieties that varied from place to place and from region to region.103 As is evident from more generic changes in the larger historical context that fueled these further developments—such as very wealthy Christians now entering the stage as patrons who spent part of their assets on the building of churches specifically, or the church itself streamlining gift-giving to the poor—we are steadily moving away from the much more variegated and decidedly more fractured economic and organizational realities that helped the catacombs of Rome to come into existence.104 All the same, it was in these early Christian catacombs, now superfluous, that the idea for such an arrangement had first emerged and been brought to perfection, both in practical as well as in ideological terms. In this gigantic underground city of the dead, Rome's early Christian community could experiment with developing a distinct communal identity; here the concept of family was first redefined, rather than in the funerary basilicas that came later.105 In this article I have tried to show how the catacombs could come into existence at a time when the financial means of churchgoers and church authorities were still limited. The practice was possible due to one simple fact alone: tombs in the catacombs were very affordable indeed.