CATACOMBS, deep, subterranean tunnels, intended for the most part for the burial of the dead. The name is derived from the late Latin catacumba (etymology uncertain) and originally indicated a particular cave, "ad Catacumbas," on the Appian Way outside Rome. Since the ninth century C.E., however, it has been used to designate any subterranean place intended for the burial of the dead. The catacombs of the Christians were already known in the Middle Ages; those of the Jews have come to light only in relatively modern times.
Six Jewish catacombs have been found in Rome, mainly along the Appian Way: (1) Monteverde, near the ancient Via Portuensis, which was discovered in 1602 and reopened between 1740 and 1745, contains a wealth of inscriptions in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew (A. Bosio, Roma sotterranea, 2 (Rome, 1632), ch. 2; N. Mueller and N.A. Bees, Die Inschriften der juedischen Katacombe am Monteverde zu Rom (1919); Frey, Corpus, 1 (1936), 206–359); (2) Vigna Randanini, discovered in 1859 near the Appian Way, contains Greek and Latin inscriptions (R. Garrucci, Dissertazioni archeologiche di vario argomento, 2 (1865), 150–2; Frey, Corpus, 1 (1936), 53–145); (3) Vigna Cimarra was discovered in 1866 in the vicinity of the preceding catacomb, but all traces of it have been lost (Frey, Corpus, 1 (1936), 194–7); (4) Catacomb of Via Labicana, in the vicinity of Porta Maggiore, was discovered in 1882, but all traces of it have also been lost (Frey, Corpus, 1 (1936), 46–50); (5) Catacomb of Via Appia Pignatelli, discovered in 1885, is small and not easily accessible today (Frey, Corpus, 1 (1936), 50–53); and
(6) Villa Torlonia, on the Via Nomentana, is both extensive and well preserved and contains remarkable decorations (H.W. Beyer and H. Lietzmann, Die juedische Katacombe der Villa Tolornia in Rom (1930); Frey, Corpus, 1 (1936), 9–46).
The Roman catacombs consist of a great labyrinth of tunnels dug deep into the earth under the hills surrounding the city. The construction of the Jewish and Christian catacombs is similar: the tunnels are placed at different levels, frequently as many as four or five, one upon the other, and they cross several times on the same level. The main tunnels, about one meter wide and three to four meters high, are themselves connected by smaller tunnels whose walls contain horizontal graves or burial niches (loculi) in which the corpses were placed. Unlike the Christian catacombs, the Jewish ones do not contain large rooms for gatherings or religious celebrations, since Judaism was a permitted religion in the Roman Empire, and public worship was permitted. The little open spaces which are found in the Jewish catacombs may have served for the washing of the corpses before burial or for family graves. In order to explain the use by the Jews of Rome of catacombs it has been suggested that the practice was adopted by those Jews who were averse to following the Roman and Greek custom of cremation (as some, in fact did) but who were reluctant to perform their burials openly. The use of catacombs is permitted in Jewish tradition and can even be considered as a return to the early traditions of Ereẓ Israel (cf. the Cave of *Machpelah , see Gen 23; Isa. 22:16). The modest nature of the tombs has been attributed to the great poverty of the community, but it should be noted that ostentatious tombs were condemned by Jewish tradition (cf. Gen. 3:19). Although the
tombstones have few identifying data they constitute a valuable source for reconstructing the history of the Roman Jews in the classical period.
The inscriptions date from the period between the first and fourth centuries C.E. The predominating language dating from the first to third centuries is Greek (76%). There are also some Latin inscriptions, written however in the Greek alphabet. From the third century on, the use of Latin in the Latin script becomes usual (23%). There is also one epigraph written in Greek with Latin letters. There are a few words in Hebrew:שאלים על ישראל, שלום (sic, with the א mater lectionis which is found sometimes also in Venosa; H.J. Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome (1960), ch. 4). The names are for the most part foreign: Latin (46%) and Greek (31%). The Semitic names (13%) include Astar, Benjamin, Eli, Gadias, Jacob, Jonathan, Judas (twice), Mara-Maria-Marta, Rebekah, and Sarah. That there are many double names is explained by the fact that most of the Roman Jews were freedmen, who on emancipation adopted the surname of their former master. The inscriptions are useful both for giving a picture of the intimacy of family life, and for attempting to reconstruct the life of the community and its organization.
The seven-branched candelabrum ( *menorah ) is almost always found among the symbols which surround the inscriptions. Although the use of the menorah symbolically was widespread throughout the entire Jewish world, it may be assumed that in Rome its use was particularly common because of its prominent representation on the Arch of Titus (Kaufmann). Among the other objects represented are the Sefer Torah, the shofar, the lulav and etrog, a palm branch, the circumcision knife, the pomegranate, and an ampula for oil. Of the various scholars who have viewed these objects as symbols, Goodenough (Goodenough, Symbols, 4 (1954), 209) asserts that "the cult objects which the Jews of the Greco-Roman period depicted on their synagogues and tombs have gone far to confirm the surmise that they were Jewish substitutes for pagan symbols similarly used." However, the opinion of those who see in these representations merely a sign of an attachment to the Torah and to its precepts is more probable. Representations of birds and animals, hens, roosters, sheep, bulls, rams, peacocks, eagles, and lions, are also found, as well as representations of trees, flowers, fruit, of the sun and stars, and rather frequently of the heart. Some pagan mythological representations have also been found (Victory crowning a nude youth, the goddess Fortuna, etc.).
A small town in Apulia, southern Italy, some Jewish catacombs were found between 1853 and 1935. The tombs, dug into the pavement of volcanic tufa, were found open and empty. The tunnels are wider (two meters) than those in Rome and the arcosolia (arched niches in the catacombs) are on the top with a column of burial niches underneath; they probably date from the fourth to the seventh or eighth centuries. Their major interest lies in the numerous inscriptions in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Hebrew is used much more extensively in Venosa than at Rome. In addition to שלום על משכבו, שלום על ישראל־אמן ,שלוםthere also occur invocations with the name of the deceased שלום על בני ריקיאנו and even a short Hebrew epitaph inserted in the middle of the Latin text. In another, the Hebrew text precedes the Latin translation, while one is only in Hebrew משכבו של ביטה בן פווסטינו־נוח נפש נשמתו לחיי(י) עולם. Finally, another epitaph is in Greek transcribed in Hebrew characters, with the invocations in Hebrew שלום על משכבו־טפוס סהקונדינו פרסביטרו אטון אגדואנטא קימיסי אן יראנא (τάφος Σεκουνδίνου πρεσβυτέρου ὲτῶν ὸγδοῆντα κοίμησις ὲν εὶρήνῃ).
In one inscription, surmounted by a seven-branched menorah, is the invocation "God give rest to his soul with the righteous of Paradise until he leads them into the House of Sanctuary and he will be placed among all those who are inscribed for life in Jerusalem."
On the island of Sardinia, a Jewish catacomb was discovered in S. Antioco (Sulcis). This consisted of a large room with only eight burial niches, dating from the Roman period. In the Latin inscriptions some conventional Hebrew words may be read; one of these is written from right to left. On the island of Sicily, whose terrain is suited to the construction of tombs excavated into the rock, many catacombs have been found, but it is impossible to determine whether they are Jewish or Christian. There is, for example, an arcosolium without an inscription, with only a menorah, in the middle of a group of little Christian catacombs. However it appears certain that there are Jewish catacombs at Syracuse and inscriptions which are definitely Jewish have been found also in Catania. Jewish catacombs have been found on the island of *Malta . Jewish catacombs have been found also in Alexandria, Egypt (where the excavations have not produced enough material for any definitive conclusions), at Cyrene in Libya, and at Carthage. Of the Jewish catacombs found in various other parts of the Mediterranean world, those in Ereẓ Israel have particular importance.
General and Rome: H.J. Leon, The Jews of Ancient Rome (1960), includes bibliography; A. Berliner, Geschichte der Juden in Rom (1893); Frey, Corpus; Goodenough, Symbols; Baron, Social2, index; Milano, Bibliotheca, S.V. Roma; V. Colorni, in: Annali di Storia del Diritto, 8 (1964). CATACOMBS OF VENOSA: F. Luzzatto, in: rmi, 10 (1935/36), 203–5; H.J. Leon; in: JQR, 44 (1953/54), 267ff.; E. Lauridia, Guida di Venosa (19592); D. Colombo, in: RMI, 26 (1960), 446f.; L. Levi, ibid., 28 (1962), 132–53 (Scritti F. Luzzato); G.I. Ascoli, Iscrizioni inedite… Napolitano (1880). CATACOMBS OF SARDINIA: A. Taramelli, Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità (1908), 150ff; Good-enough, Symbols, 2 (1953), 56. CATACOMBS OF SICILY: P. Orsi, in: Roemische Quartalschrift…, 14 (1900), 190ff.; Goodenough, Symbols, 2 (1953), 56. CATACOMBS OF MALTA: Goodenough, loc. cit.; E. Becker, Malta Sotterranea (Ger., 1913); CATACOMBS OF CYRENE: Goodenough, op. cit., 57. CATACOMBS OF CARTHAGE: Goodenough, op. cit., 63–69.
[Alfredo Mordechai Rabello]
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.