Home > Apologetics, Christianity, Living, Quotations > On the tombs of the early Roman Christians

On the tombs of the early Roman Christians

It has been said that the lives of the early Christians consisted of “persecution above ground and prayer below ground.” Their lives are expressed by the Coliseum and the catacombs. Beneath Rome are the excavations which we call the catacombs, whivch were at once temples and tombs. The early Church of Rome might well be called the Church of the Catacombs. There are some sixty catacombs near Rome, in which some six hundred miles of galleries have been traced, and these are not all. These galleries are about eight feet high and from three to five feet wide, containing on either side several rows of long, low, horizontal recesses, one above another like berths in a ship. In these the dead bodies were placed and the front closed, either by a single marble slab or several great tiles laid in mortar. On these slabs or tiles, epitaphs or symbols are graved or painted. Both pagans and Christians buried their dead in these catacombs. When the Christian graves have been opened the skeletons tell their own terrible tale. Heads are found severed from the body, ribs and shoulder blades are broken, bones are often calcined from fire. But despite the awful story of persecution that we may read here, the inscriptions breathe forth peace and joy and triumph. Here are a few:

“Here lies Marcia, put to rest in a dream of peace.”

“Lawrence to his sweetest son, borne away of angels.”

“Victorious in peace and in Christ.”

“Being called away, he went in peace.”

Remember when reading these inscriptions the story the skeletons tell of persecution, of torture, and of fire.

But the full force of these epitaphs is seen when we contrast them with the pagan epitaphs, such as:

“Live for the present hour, since we are sure of nothing else.”

“I lift my hands against the gods who took me away at the age of twenty though I had done no harm.”

“Once I was not. Now I am not. I know nothing about it, and it is no concern of mine.”

“Traveler, curse me not as you pass, for I am in darkness and cannot answer.”

The most frequent Christian symbols on the walls of the catacombs, are, the good shepherd with the lamb on his shoulder, a ship under full sail, harps, anchors, crowns, vines, and above all the fish.

John Fox, Fox’s Book of Martyrs

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