Ancient Roman law prohibited burial within the city, so catacombs were established in the soft volcanic rock outside the city walls. These Roman catacombs, which feature about a half-million tombs interred in a complex underground network of narrow passageways and dark galleries, contain the largest body of archaeological evidence on the early Christian and Jewish communities of ancient Rome.
The use of catacombs for Jewish burial dates back to the earliest biblical times as, for example, the Torah’s lengthy description of Abraham’s purchase of Mearat HaMachpelah (the Cave of the Patriarchs) from Ephron the son of Tzochar for 400 shekels of silver to bury Sarah (see Genesis 23). Jewish tradition teaches that Adam and Eve were buried there, and all the Patriarchs and Matriarchs (except for Rachel, who is buried in Bethlehem) were subsequently entombed there.
Intriguingly, contemporary radiocarbon dating suggests that Jewish catacombs may have preceded Christian catacombs and that their use may have actually been of Jewish origin, as Jewish immigrants from the Middle East brought their traditional burial practices to Rome and influenced the Romans to abandon their customary cremation funerary practices. Indeed, according to Leonard Rutgers, an archaeologist for Utrecht University and an expert in Roman Jewish catacombs, radiocarbon analysis by atomic-mass spectroscopy shows that Jewish catacombs predate their Christian counterparts by at least a century. An unsolved mystery, however, is where Jews – who are known to have been living in Rome at least as early as the first century BCE – buried their dead before the initial construction of the Jewish catacombs around the late first to third centuries CE.
It is well known that the ancient Romans buried their dead outside the city near where they lived and, as such, the existence of the Jewish catacombs proves that Roman Jews of antiquity did not live together in a single neighborhood. Historians generally agree that there were about 40,000-50,000 Jews in Rome comprising about five to six percent of the general population. The inscriptions found in the catacombs show that there were at least twelve synagogal congregations which varied by neighborhood and the geographic origins of the worshippers. Archaeological and other experts believe that small open spaces in Jewish catacombs were used to ritually wash the corpses before burial, and many attribute the humble tombs to community poverty, although Jewish tradition strongly disapproves of grand and extravagant tombs.
The existence of Jewish catacombs in Rome was entirely unknown until 1602, when Antonio Bosio (1575-1629), the first systematic explorer of subterranean Rome, known as the “Columbus of the Catacombs,” found a Jewish cemetery at Monteverde in a vineyard on a hill about a mile from Porta Portese. Since then, five others have been found in Rome, mainly along the Appian Way, including the Vigna Randanini, which was discovered in 1859; the Vigna Cimarra, discovered in 1866, and the Catacomb of Via Labicana, discovered in 1882, all traces of which have been lost; the Catacomb of Via Appia Pignatelli, discovered in 1885, which is not easily accessible; and Villa Torlonia, which I will discuss in some detail below.
The renowned Benjamin of Tudela had visited Rome about 1160 and reported seeing a quarry used for burial on a hill on the western bank of the Tiber River. At a boundary of the vineyard in this area, Bosio found a narrow opening to a cavern that led down into a catacomb featuring tombs cut into walls. Unlike the Christian catacombs, however, this one did not contain large rooms for visitation, religious celebrations, and worship and, finding no sign of Christianity, he determined that the graves were Jewish. His interest in Jewish catacombs, however, was far from purely academically altruistic; evidencing the contempt for Jews so common among Christians of his era, Bosio relegated his discussion of the Jewish catacomb to an entirely separate chapter of his manuscript to make clear that “our [Christian] cemeteries have never been profaned or contaminated by the bodies of Hebrews . . .”
In 1748, Gaetano Migliore visited the catacombs and claimed that he saw “representations of Jewish symbols” but, fearing the possibility of the collapse of the cave, he quickly withdrew. Over the next century, even the location of the catacomb was forgotten until October 1904, when laborers blasting near the site happened upon some ancient tombs. Archaeologist Nikolaus Muller, who was dispatched to investigate the discovery, confirmed that these were the very catacombs that had originally been discovered by Bosio. With financial support from the Berlin Society for the Advancement of Knowledge of Judaism, Muller directed the excavation of the site for a few months in 1904-1905 and later in 1906, but the excavation was abandoned in 1909, and Muller died three years later before he could publish a detailed account of his work and findings. However, some 207 Jewish inscriptions had been found before the total collapse of the catacombs on October 14, 1928, rendered further excavation impossible.
In contrast, the Villa Torlonia catacombs, which contain just under 4,000 burial niches spanning about 150,000 square feet and remain both intact and visitable, boast characteristic iconographic Jewish symbols that constitute a treasure trove of information about Jewish life a few centuries after the birth of Christianity in Rome two millennia ago. It was discovered by chance in 1919 during construction work on the estate at the site, where the general area had been known through the Middle Ages as Campo dei Giudey (“Field of Dreams”), and its first exploratory campaign was directed by Roberto Pariben of the Royal Superintendency of Archaeological Excavations and Museums who, much to his chagrin, discovered that most the tombs had already been looted.
In 1925, Prince Giovanni Torlonia offered the use of his stately Rome estate, which included a villa and substantial gardens sitting atop the Torlonia catacombs, to Benito Mussolini, who accepted the offer and lived there for 18 years. It was from this villa that Il Duce announced his racial laws stripping Jews of their citizenship and barring them from the professions. One reason for his closing the site to visitors may have been because of his designation of the catacombs as a conveniently accessible underground bunker in the event that he had to protect himself and his family. (Rather than hide in the catacombs, however, he attempted an escape and was caught by an Italian partisan in northern Italy, who summarily executed him on April 28, 1945.)
Prince Torlonia died heirless in 1938, and after the Allies used the villa as their headquarters from 1945 to 1947, the property fell into neglect until 1973, when Father Umberto Fasola, secretary of the Pontifical Commission and a scholar with special knowledge of catacombs who had spent many years excavating them, commenced an extensive investigation of the site. In 1976, he published an excavation report in which he laid out the construction of the catacombs in detail, including his discovery of a stairway to an upper catacomb, and he dated the earliest sections to the second century CE.
Fasola, whose 1976 report is still the gold standard for the restoration of the Torlonia catacombs, determined that the upper and lower catacombs were originally designed as separate chambers and he theorized that the upper chamber, which featured larger arced chapels carved in stone, was used for burial of the elite and the wealthiest members of the Jewish community. This upper chamber, dubbed “the catacomb of paintings,” contains most of the decorative illustrations which, typical of the paintings in the second to third centuries, helped the experts to date the catacombs through iconography and epigraphy.
Pursuant to the Concordat of 1929, which addressed the Roman Catholic Church’s ecclesiastical relations with the fascist Italian state, responsibility for the excavation and preservation of all Italian catacombs had been entrusted to the Vatican, with the administration of the sites assigned to the Pontifical Commission on Sacred Archaeology. However, on February 18, 1984, the Concordat was revised to transfer responsibility for the Jewish Catacombs to the Italian government, and the Archaeological Superintendent of Rome took over the management of the Torlonia site in 1988.
Caring for the dead and their remains, even centuries after burial, is a Torah imperative that supersedes most other mitzvot in most circumstances and, as such, the excavations raised difficult halachic questions, including the high duty to not excavate human remains (except for limited purposes, including reinternment in Eretz Yisrael) or to otherwise disturb Jewish graves. The issue was particularly emotional for Torah true Jews because of the very real possibility that Torlonia remains included Jews who had seen the Second Temple and partaken in the Pascal sacrifices there.
On March 8, 1989, Law 101 was enacted which generally described in detail the rights of Italian Jews and, in particular, established a joint Commission of the government and the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI) to determine the best means for the Union to participate in the conservation and management of the Jewish catacombs and to assure that Jewish law would be respected. The representative of the UCEI, a national organization founded in 1911 to protect the religious interests of Italian Jews and to promote the preservation of Jewish traditions and cultural heritage, was Rabbi Riccardo Shmuel Di Segni, a medical doctor specializing in diagnostic radiology elected chief rabbi of Rome in 2001.
Seeking expertise in meeting the sometimes-contradictory interests of halacha, archaeology, engineering and tourism, Rabbi Di Segni consulted with Israeli conservator Amir Genach who, with his company, Genach Amir Ancient Conservation Society and Mosaic Works Ltd., had participated in several notable archaeological projects throughout Israel. Genach’s work, which began in 1922 with conservation work on the Caesarea aqueduct, included work at the Jewish cemetery at Beit Shearim in the Galilee, which dated to about the same time as the Villa Torlonia catacombs.
When Genach first visited the catacombs, he found that centuries of neglect, looting, and vandalism, had left its mark: human remains had been appropriated by grave robbers; many thousands of tombs had been opened, leaving human remains exposed; walls containing tombs excavated in the walls had collapsed; and inscriptions and drawings were disfigured by graffiti. However, he found not only loculi (kokhim in Hebrew), long narrow shafts carved into rock face in which the deceased were placed for burial, but also many cavities and passageways featuring stunning frescoes on the walls and vaulted ceilings, many incredibly well preserved, that illustrate a variety of Jewish ritual objects. These include shofars, matzot, lulavim and etrogim, circumcision knives, scrolls, pomegranates, an oil ampulla (a flask for holy oil), a Holy Ark, and what some believe to be a representation of the façade of the second Beit HaMikdash, which was destroyed by Titus in 70 CE.
In particular, menorah figures were ubiquitous in the Torlonia catacombs, perhaps because after its infamous depiction on the Arch of Titus (see exhibit), the menorah was used as a symbol of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. There are only about ten menorah depictions in Israel that predate the Roman destruction of the Temple and, much as the original menorah itself was concealed within the Temple where only the Kohanim could use it, these few illustrations are generally found in inconspicuous locations within a context related to the Kohanim. Some archaeologists conclude that the takeaway from all this is that the use of the menorah as a national symbol for the Jewish people originated in Rome rather than in Eretz Yisrael.
The catacombs also include beautiful illustrations of animals, which include birds, peacocks, ducks, and eagles; bulls, sheep and rams; and hens and roosters; as well as flowers and fruit trees, many of which may symbolize paradise. (All of the photographs exhibited here, except the photograph of the lone Hebrew inscription found at Torlonia, were taken by the author during a memorable descent into the Torlonia catacombs a few years ago.) Consistent with the Orthodox Jewish belief that depictions of humans are prohibited by the Second Commandment as graven images, there are no such illustrations of the Torlonia catacombs, and the combination of sacred ritual Jewish objects with non-Jewish designs effectively refutes the long-popular idea that Jewish artifacts were never decorated with Graeco-Roman motifs.
After completing his initial survey of the site, Genach presented the findings to the Italian Culture Ministry and, following the lead of Rabbi Di Segni – who maintained that Jews did not, and could not, view the remains at the site as simple archaeological finds but, rather, as the burial site of our holy Jewish ancestors – he explained that he was speaking on behalf of the beloved forefathers of the Jewish community buried there. His passionate request that the tombs remain closed and the bones undisturbed was well received by the Ministry, which approved a 1.4 million-Euro restoration project and authorized an excavation at Torlonia.
The Atra Kadisha (“Holy Place,” in Aramaic), which was established in 1959 by Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik at the behest of R. Yosef Teitelbaum (the Satmar Rebbe) in response to the Israeli excavations at Beit Shearim National Park in Israel, is a small charedi group dedicated to preventing the desecration of Jewish graves worldwide. The government authorized the Atra Kadisha and its president, Rabbi Chizkiya Kalmanovitch, to collect all the human remains and to reseal them in the loculi. However, archaeological experts were enraged by the government’s elevating the concerns of what they characterized as a small radical group of Jewish religious extremists over the great scientific need to conduct important and comprehensive research on the Jewish remains. They petitioned the Culture Ministry to rescind its authorization for the Jewish remains to be reburied and sealed, but the appeal failed.
Genach, proceeding with the blessing of the government, began work with a 20-person team under the watch of Rabbi Kalmanovitch on what became a yearlong effort to clear the entire length of the catacombs of all human remains and to seal them for all eternity to ensure that the Jewish bones would never be disturbed again. It was only after this work was completed that restorers could begin their conservation work of the frescoes on the walls and ceilings.
The only Hebrew inscription found at Torlonia to date was discovered by a rabbi working at the site. The fragment spells out “Clod (short for Clodius, or Claudius) shalom shalom,” believed to be a “rest in peace” blessing for a man named Clodius. Some experts suggest that this finding supports the proposition that at least some of the Jews at the time had Latin names, and underscores the extent of the intermingling between the Jewish and Roman communities.
The grounds of the estate were reopened as a public park and some of the buildings (including Mussolini’s bedroom on the second floor) were restored and opened to the public in 1993, and the catacombs were only recently opened to the public on a very limited basis.