The Catacomb of Priscilla


presents Simon LeVay's new novel, The Donation of Constantine

A tale of intrigue, passion, and the struggle for control of medieval Europe

The Catacomb of Priscilla

A key scene in The Donation of Constantine takes place in the Catacomb of Priscilla, one of the catacombs of Rome. This isn’t the most famous catacomb, but it’s well worth a visit. It’s located on the Via Salaria, a short distance outside of the city’s Aurelian Wall.

If you’ve visited the catacombs of Paris, you’ll have a completely wrong idea of what the Roman catacombs are like. The Paris catacombs are essentially modern storage areas for millions of bones removed from old city cemeteries. They’re a bit tasteless, in my opinion.

The Roman catacombs, on the other hand, are the real deal. They were excavated by early Christians, starting in the second century, and they served for the interment of martyrs and well as Christians who died naturally. They excavated the catacombs out of the easily-worked volcanic deposit (tuff) that underlies much of Rome.

The original motive for interring bodies in catacombs rather than in surface cemeteries was probably to save money, as conventional gravesites had to be purchased—and Christians belonged largely to the poorer classes. But the presence of the martyrs’ bones (“relics”) sanctified the catacombs, so that Christians continued to be buried in them in later centuries, even when they could afford regular gravesites. The custom continued until about the fifth century.

partial map of a Roman catacomb

The narrow passageways of the catacombs extended for long distances—hundreds of feet—with many twists and turns and cross-connections between passageways. There were up to four levels of passageways, connected by stairwells. It must have been very easy to get lost, and this would have been quite an adventure because the catacombs were pitch dark, except for occasional places where vertical air shafts let some faint light into the lower levels. People entering the catacombs had to bring lamps or torches.

To inter bodies, workers cut horizontal shelves called loculi into the sides of the passageways. After a body was placed in a loculus it was sealed and marked with a simple memorial plaque or tablet. Apparently the seals were not airtight, because the catacombs are said to have smelled strongly of decomposing bodies. A few bodies of prominent individuals such as early popes or prominent martyrs were interred in freestanding sarcophagi that were housed in little crypts or chapels cut into the tuff. Some of these chapels were decorated with frescoes showing religious scenes or symbols such as doves, and these frescoes are still visible.

After the catacombs ceased being used for interments they served as important sites for religious ceremonies. They were also visited by the innumerable pilgrims who came to Rome to venerate the martyrs. This custom hasn’t completely died out: when we visited the Catacomb of Priscilla we met a young man who had walked all the way from Croatia to pray at the site of one particular martyr’s interment. In early medieval times certain entrepreneurs produced guides that indicated the supposed resting places of the most celebrated martyrs. These guides may have resembled the maps to the stars’ homes that are hawked in Hollywood today.

In the Catacomb of Priscilla, as in most of the Roman catacombs, most of the loculi now lie open and empty of human remains. (We saw just one bone during our visit.) Some loculi were opened by graverobbers or invaders looking for valuables or for the relics of martyrs, which were thought to have curative powers. This vandalism was facilitated by the location of the catacombs outside the city walls, meaning that they could not be protected during a siege. To prevent this, or to honor the relics, many were moved to surface locations within the city such as Christian basilicas. This practice (“translation”) was common between about the sixth and tenth centuries.

After the tenth century the catacombs were abandoned and forgotten. The Catacomb of Priscilla was the first catacomb to be rediscovered, in the late sixteenth century. The scholar Antonio Bosio explored and mapped the catacombs, and his book Roma Sotterranea (1632) made them famous. Subsequent visitors stole any remaining items of value.

Little is known about Priscilla herself, except that she is thought to have been a martyr who was interred in the catacomb that bears her name. Another martyr interred in the catacombs was Petronilla, the supposed daughter of St. Peter, who I’ll write about in a separate entry. Her body was interred at the Catacomb of Domitilla, but for the convenience of my novel I place her in the Catacomb of Priscilla—in a sarcophagus in a side-chapel. Some very improper snogging takes place in that chapel.

"Nicella, a virgin with God, who lived about ('P[lus] M[inus]') thirty-five years, laid here on the 17th of April ('15 days before the Kalends of May' -- year unstated), well-deserving, in peace."

Because the loculi are now empty, the memorial plaques are no longer in place in the catacomb. One place where one can view them is at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Transtevere, where numerous examples have been cemented into the front wall of the church. The plaques often give the person’s exact age at death (in years, months, and days) but don’t usually state their dates of birth or death. What’s striking is how many of the dead were young children, and this is also made obvious by the large number of child-sized loculi in the catacombs. These days we think it unusual if a person dies before his or her parents, but back then most people probably did, because they died in infancy or childhood.

The translation of the relics of known martyrs or popes was carried out with great ceremony. In my novel, for example, the relics of Pope (and Saint) Sylvester are moved in an elaborate procession from the Catacomb of Priscilla into the city, heading for St. Peter’s, but an unexpected event cuts the procession short. Although Sylvester died 400 years before the events of my novel, he is in effect a central character, because it was he who supposedly received the all-important Donation from the emperor Constantine the Great. He was indeed interred at the Catacomb of Priscilla, though whether in the catacomb itself or in the overlying church is not known for sure.

Recently Google Maps held a press conference in the Catacomb of Priscilla. The purpose was to publicize the fact that Google is mapping the catacomb. Only a tiny, unrepresentative portion of the catacomb is viewable online at present, however—perhaps on account of the inadequate lighting. To really get a feeling for the catacomb you have to walk its passageways in person. Just don’t get lost.