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Christian Catacombs of Rome

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The catacombs of Rome were a subterranean burial place mostly for Christians. Several were built for Jews also. The catacombs were used for both memorial services and internment of the dead. All catacombs were outside the walls of the city, as there was a law forbidding the burial of bodies within the precincts of Rome. Prior to the Empire's acceptance of Christianity, pagan Romans practiced cremation. The sixty known principal Christian catacombs, can be found mainly along the Appian Way. The Roman catacombs date from the end of the second to the early fifth century A.D.. This word "catacomb" is derived from the Greek meaning “within the quarries.” Catacombs are underground cemeteries consisting of intricate labyrinths or tunnels with recesses for burial chambers. The Jewish catacombs may predate Christian catacombs by about 100 years.

The catacombs of St. Callixtus are among the greatest and most important of Rome. They originated about the middle of the second century and are part of a cemeterial complex which occupies an area of 90 acres, with a network of galleries about 12 miles long, in four levels, more than twenty meters deep.

In it were buried tens of martyrs, 16 popes and very many Christians.

They are named after the deacon Callixtus who, at the beginning of the third century, was appointed by pope Zephyrinus as the administrator of the cemetery and so the catacombs of St. Callixtus became the official cemetery of the Church of Rome.

On four tombstones, near the name of the pope, there is the title of "bishop", since the Pope was regarded as the head of the Church of Rome, and on two of them there is the Greek abbreviation of MPT for "Martyr".  A number of epitaphs of the early popes (Pontianus, Anterus, Fabianus, Cornelius, Lucius, Eutychianus. Caius) were found in the "Papal Crypt" in the Catacomb of St. Callixtus.

Here are the names of the five popes: Pontianus, Antherus, Fabian, Lucius and Eutichian. In the front wall was laid to rest Pope Sixtus II, a victim of emperor Valerian's persecution.

The Christian religion developed rapidly in Rome and all over the world since the 1st century, owing to its being original and suitable for all mankind; but this was also due to the testimony of fervour, of brotherly love and of charity shown by the Christians towards everybody.


The Roman authorities were at first indifferent to the new religion, yet very soon, incited also by the people showed themselves hostile to it, because the Christians refused to worship the ancient pagan deities of Rome, as well as the emperor. The Christians were accused of disloyalty to their fatherland, of atheism, of hatred towards mankind, of hidden crimes, such as incest, infanticide and ritual cannibalism; likewise they were held responsible for all natural calamities, such as plagues, floods, famines, etc.

The Christian religion was proclaimed "strana et illicita - strange and unlawful" (Senatorial decree of the year 35); "exitialis - deadly"(Tacitus); "prava et immodica - wicked and unbridled" (Plinius); "nova et malefica - new and harmful" (Svetonius); "tenebrosa et lucifuga - mysterious and opposed to light" (from "Octavius" by Minucius); "detestabilis- hateful" (Tacitus); therefore it was outlawed and persecuted, because it was considered the most dangerous enemy of the power of Rome, which was based upon the ancient national religion and on the emperor's worship.

The first three centuries constitute the age of Martyrs, which ended in 313 with the edict of Milan, by which the emperors Constantine and Licinius gave freedom to the Church. The persecution was not always continuous and universal, nor equally cruel and bloody. Periods of persecution were followed by periods of relative peace.

Christians faced persecution with courage, a very large percentage with heroism, but they did not submit to it without opposition. They defended themselves with great strength by confuting the accusations of those crimes as being false and groundless and by producing the contents of their faith ( What we believe) and describing their identity (What we are).

In the "Apologies" ("defences"), prepared by the Christian writers of the time, and often addressed to the emperors, the Christians protested vigorously against their being condemned unjustly, without being known and without being convicted. According to the Apologies, the principle of the senatorial law "Non licet vos esse- you have no right to exist" is unjustifiable and unlawful, because Christians are honest citizens, respectful of laws, loyal to the emperor, hard-working and exemplary both in their private and public life.

In the catacombs we can check the evidence of the wonderful life of Christians, as it is described by the Apologists. We have included below some passages of their defence.

Nero Era

Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus recorded information pertaining to Jesus, thus removing the only supporting source for His existence as being in the New Testament. In 115 A.D., Tactius wrote about the great fire in Rome; "Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberious at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths, Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed."

The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas


Saints Perpetua and Felicitas (Felicity)

Perpetua was beheaded after being mauled by wild beasts
.

This is the prison diary of an extraordinary young woman martyered in Carthage in 202 or 203 AD. The beginning and ending are related by an editor/narrator; the central text contains the words of Perpetua herself.

A number of young catechumens were arrested, Revocatus and his fellow slave Felicitas, Saturninus and Secundulus, and with them Vibia Perpetua, a newly married woman of good family and upbringing. Her mother and father were still alive and one of her two brothers was a catechumen like herself. She was about twenty-two years old and had an infant son at the breast. 

Now from this point on the entire account of her ordeal is her own, according to her own ideas and in the way that she herself wrote it down.

While we were still under arrest (she said) my father out of love for me was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution. 'Father,' said I, 'do you see this vase here, for example, or waterpot or whatever?' 'Yes, I do', said he. And I told him: 'Could it be called by any other name than what it is?' And he said: 'No.' 'Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.' At this my father was so angered by the word 'Christian' that he moved towards me as though he would pluck my eyes out. But he left it at that and departed, vanquished along with his diabolical arguments.

For a few days afterwards I gave thanks to the Lord that I was separated from my father, and I was comforted by his absence. During these few days I was baptized, and I was inspired by the Spirit not to ask for any other favour after the water but simply the perseverance of the flesh. A few days later we were lodged in the prison; and I was terrified, as I had never before been in such a dark hole. What a difficult time it was! With the crowd the heat was stifling; then there was the extortion of the soldiers; and to crown all, I was tortured with worry for my baby there.

Then Tertius and Pomponius, those blessed deacons who tried to take care of us, bribed the soldiers to allow us to go to a better part of the prison to refresh ourselves for a few hours. Everyone then left that dungeon and shifted for himself. I nursed my baby, who was faint from hunger. In my anxiety I spoke to my mother about the child, I tried to comfort my brother, and I gave the child in their charge. I was in pain because I saw them suffering out of pity for me. These were the trials I had to endure for many days. Then I got permission for my baby to stay with me in prison. At once I recovered my health, relieved as I was of my worry and anxiety over the child. My prison had suddenly become a palace, so that I wanted to be there rather than anywhere else.

Then my brother said to me: 'Dear sister, you are greatly privileged; surely you might ask for a vision to discover whether you are to be condemned or freed.' Faithfully I promised that I would, for I knew that I could speak with the Lord, whose great blessings I had come to experience. And so I said: 'I shall tell you tomorrow.' Then I made my request and this was the vision I had.

I saw a ladder of tremendous height made of bronze, reaching all the way to the heavens, but it was so narrow that only one person could climb up at a time. To the sides of the ladder were attached all sorts of metal weapons: there were swords, spears, hooks, daggers, and spikes; so that if anyone tried to climb up carelessly or without paying attention, he would be mangled and his flesh would adhere to the weapons.

At the foot of the ladder lay a dragon of enormous size, and it would attack those who tried to climb up and try to terrify them from doing so. And Saturus was the first to go up, he who was later to give himself up of his own accord. He had been the builder of our strength, although he was not present when we were arrested. And he arrived at the top of the staircase and he looked back and said to me: 'Perpetua, I am waiting for you. But take care; do not let the dragon bite you.' 'He will not harm me,' I said, 'in the name of Christ Jesus.' Slowly, as though he were afraid of me, the dragon stuck his head out from underneath the ladder. Then, using it as my first step, I trod on his head and went up.

Then I saw an immense garden, and in it a gray-haired man sat in shepherd's garb; tall he was, and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said: 'I am glad you have come, my child.' He called me over to him and gave me, as it were, a mouthful Of the milk he was drawing; and I took it into my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around said: 'Amen!' At the sound of this word I came to, with the taste of something sweet still in my mouth. I at once told this to my brother, and we realized that we would have to suffer, and that from now on we would no longer have any hope in this life.

A few days later there was a rumour that we were going to be given a hearing. My father also arrived from the city, worn with worry, and he came to see me with the idea of persuading me. 'Daughter,' he said, 'have pity on my grey head--have pity on me your father, if I deserve to be called your father, if I have favoured you above all your brothers, if I have raised you to reach this prime of your life. Do not abandon me to be the reproach of men. Think of your brothers, think of your mother and your aunt, think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride! You will destroy all of us! None of us will ever be able to speak freely again if anything happens to you.' This was the way my father spoke out of love for me, kissing my hands and throwing himself down before me. With tears in his eyes he no longer addressed me as his daughter but as a woman. I was sorry for my father's sake, because he alone of all my kin would be unhappy to see me suffer. I tried to comfort him saying: 'It will all happen in the prisoner's dock as God wills; for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power.' And he left me in great sorrow.

One day while we were eating breakfast we were suddenly hurried off for a hearing. We arrived at the forum, and straight away the story went about the neighbourhood near the forum and a huge crowd gathered. We walked up to the prisoner's dock. All the others when questioned admitted their guilt. Then, when it came my turn, my father appeared with my son, dragged me from the step, and said: 'Perform the sacrifice--have pity on your baby!' Hilarianus the governor, who had received his judicial powers as the successor of the late proconsul Minucius Timinianus, said to me: 'Have pity on your father's grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.' 'I will not', I retorted. 'Are you a Christian?' said Hilarianus. And I said: 'Yes, I am.' When my father persisted in trying to dissuade me, Hilarianus ordered him to be thrown to the ground and beaten with a rod. I felt sorry for father, just as if I myself had been beaten. I felt sorry for his pathetic old age. Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us: we were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits. But my baby had got used to being nursed at the breast and to staying with me in prison. So I sent the deacon Pomponius straight away to my father to ask for the baby. But father refused to give him over. But as God willed, the baby had no further desire for the breast, nor did I suffer any inflammation; and so I was relieved of any anxiety for my child and of any discomfort in my breasts.

Some days later, an adjutant named Pudens, who was in charge of the prison, began to show us great honour, realizing that we possessed some great power within us. And he began to allow many visitors to see us for our mutual comfort.

Now the day of the contest was approaching, and my father came to see me overwhelmed with sorrow. He started tearing the hairs from his beard and threw them on the ground; he then threw himself on the ground and began to curse his old age and to say such words as would move all creation. I felt sorry for his unhappy old age.

The day before we were to fight with the beasts I saw the following vision. Pomponius the deacon came to the prison gates and began to knock violently. I went out and opened the gate for him. He was dressed in an unbelted white tunic, wearing elaborate sandals. And he said to me: 'Perpetua, come; we are waiting for you.' Then he took my hand and we began to walk through rough and broken country. At last we came to the amphitheatre out of breath, and he led me into the centre of the arena. Then he told me: 'Do not be afraid. I am here, struggling with you.' Then he left. I looked at the enormous crowd who watched in astonishment. I was surprised that no beasts were let loose on me; for I knew that I was condemned to die by the beasts. Then out came an Egyptian against me, of vicious appearance, together with his seconds, to fight with me. There also came up to me some handsome young men to be my seconds and assistants. My clothes were stripped off, and suddenly I was a man. My seconds began to rub me down with oil (as they are wont to do before a contest). Then I saw the Egyptian on the other side rolling in the dust. Next there came forth a man of marvelous stature, such that he rose above the top of the amphitheatre. He was clad in a beltless purple tunic with two stripes (one on either side) running down the middle of his chest. He wore sandals that were wondrously made of gold and silver, and he carried a wand like an athletic trainer and a green branch on which there were golden apples. And he asked for silence and said: 'If this Egyptian defeats her he will slay her with the sword. But if she defeats him, she will receive this branch.' Then he withdrew. We drew close to one another and began to let our fists fly. My opponent tried to get hold of my feet, but I kept striking him in the face with the heels of my feet. Then I was raised up into the air and I began to pummel him without as it were touching the ground. Then when I noticed there was a lull, I put my two hands together linking the fingers of one hand with those of the other and thus I got hold of his head. He fell flat on his face and I stepped on his head. The crowd began to shout and my assistants started to sing psalms. Then I walked up to the trainer and took the branch. He kissed me and said to me: 'Peace be with you, my daughter!' I began to walk in triumph towards the Gate of Life. Then I awoke. I realized that it was not with wild animals that I would fight but with the Devil, but I knew that I would win the victory. So much for what I did up until the eve of the contest. About what happened at the contest itself, let him write of it who will.

[Here Saturus tells the story of a vision he had of Perpetua and himself, after they were killed, being carried by four angels into heaven where they were reunited with other martyrs killed in the same persecution.] [Here the editor/narrator begins to relate the story]:

Such were the remarkable visions of these martyrs, Saturus and Perpetua, written by themselves. As for Secundulus, God called him from this world earlier than the others while he was still in prison, by a special grace that he might not have to face the animals. Yet his flesh, if not his spirit, knew the sword.

As for Felicitas, she too enjoyed the Lord's favour in this wise. She had been pregnant when she was arrested, and was now in her eighth month. As the day of the spectacle drew near she was very distressed that her martyrdom would be postponed because of her pregnancy; for it is against the law for women with child to be executed. Thus she might have to shed her holy, innocent blood afterwards along with others who were common criminals. Her comrades in martyrdom were also saddened; for they were afraid that they would have to leave behind so fine a companion to travel alone on the same road to hope. And so, two days before the contest, they poured forth a prayer to the Lord in one torrent of common grief. And immediately after their prayer the birth pains came upon her. She suffered a good deal in her labour because of the natural difficulty of an eight months' delivery.

Hence one of the assistants of the prison guards said to her: 'You suffer so much now--what will you do when you are tossed to the beasts? Little did you think of them when you refused to sacrifice.' 'What I am suffering now', she replied, 'I suffer by myself. But then another will be inside me who will suffer for me, just as I shall be suffering for him.' And she gave birth to a girl; and one of the sisters brought her up as her own daughter.

Therefore, since the Holy Spirit has permitted the story of this contest to be written down and by so permitting has willed it, we shall carry out the command or, indeed, the commission of the most saintly Perpetua, however unworthy I might be to add anything to this glorious story. At the same time I shall add one example of her perseverance and nobility of soul.

The military tribune had treated them with extraordinary severity because on the information of certain very foolish people he became afraid that they would be spirited out of the prison by magical spells. Perpetua spoke to him directly. 'Why can you not even allow us to refresh ourselves properly? For we are the most distinguished of the condemned prisoners, seeing that we belong to the emperor; we are to fight on his very birthday. Would it not be to your credit if we were brought forth on the day in a healthier condition?' The officer became disturbed and grew red. So it was that he gave the order that they were to be more humanely treated; and he allowed her brothers and other persons to visit, so that the prisoners could dine in their company. By this time the adjutant who was head of the gaol was himself a Christian.

On the day before, when they had their last meal, which is called the free banquet, they celebrated not a banquet but rather a love feast. They spoke to the mob with the same steadfastness, warned them of God's judgement, stressing the joy they would have in their suffering, and ridiculing the curiosity of those that came to see them. Saturus said: 'Will not tomorrow be enough for you? Why are you so eager to see something that you dislike? Our friends today will be our enemies on the morrow. But take careful note of what we look like so that you will recognize us on the day.' Thus everyone would depart from the prison in amazement, and many of them began to believe.

The day of their victory dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheatre joyfully as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone's stare by her own intense gaze. With them also was Felicitas, glad that she had safely given birth so that now she could fight the beasts, going from one blood bath to another, from the midwife to the gladiator, ready to wash after childbirth in a second baptism.

They were then led up to the gates and the men were forced to put on the robes of priests of Saturn, the women the dress of the priestesses of Ceres. But the noble Perpetua strenuously resisted this to the end. 'We came to this of our own free will, that our freedom should not be violated. We agreed to pledge our lives provided that we would do no such thing. You agreed with us to do this.' Even injustice recognized justice. The military tribune agreed. They were to be brought into the arena just as they were. Perpetua then began to sing a psalm: she was already treading on the head of the Egyptian. Revocatus, Saturninus, and Saturus began to warn the on looking mob. Then when they came within sight of Hilarianus, they suggested by their motions and gestures: 'You have condemned us, but God will condemn you' was what they were saying.

At this the crowds became enraged and demanded that they be scourged before a line of gladiators. And they rejoiced at this that they had obtained a share in the Lord's sufferings.

But he who said, Ask and you shall receive, answered their prayer by giving each one the death he had asked for. For whenever they would discuss among themselves their desire for martyrdom, Saturninus indeed insisted that he wanted to be exposed to all the different beasts, that his crown might be all the more glorious. And so at the outset of the contest he and Revocatus were matched with a leopard, and then while in the stocks they were attacked by a bear. As for Saturus, he dreaded nothing more than a bear, and he counted on being killed by one bite of a leopard. Then he was matched with a wild boar; but the gladiator who had tied him to the animal was gored by the boar and died a few days after the contest, whereas Saturus was only dragged along. Then when he was bound in the stocks awaiting the bear, the animal refused to come out of the cages, so that Saturus was called back once more unhurt.

For the young women, however, the Devil had prepared a mad heifer. This was an unusual animal, but it was chosen that their sex might be matched with that of the beast. So they were stripped naked, placed in nets and thus brought out into the arena. Even the crowd was horrified when they saw that one was a delicate young girl and the other was a woman fresh from childbirth with the milk still dripping from her breasts. And so they were brought back again and dressed in unbelted tunics.

First the heifer tossed Perpetua and she fell on her back. Then sitting up she pulled down the tunic that was ripped along the side so that it covered her thighs, thinking more of her modesty than of her pain. Next she asked for a pin to fasten her untidy hair: for it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning in her hour of triumph.

Then she got up. And seeing that Felicitas had been crushed to the ground, she went over to her, gave her hand, and lifted her up. Then the two stood side by side. But the cruelty of the mob was by now appeased, and so they were called back through the Gate of Life.

There Perpetua was held up by a man named Rusticus who was at the time a catechumen and kept close to her. She awoke from a kind of sleep (so absorbed had she been in ecstasy in the Spirit) and she began to look about her. Then to the amazement of all she said: 'When are we going to be thrown to that heifer or whatever it is?' When told that this had already happened, she refused to believe it until she noticed the marks of her rough experience on her person and her dress. Then she called for her brother and spoke to him together with the catechumens and said: 'You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through.'

At another gate Saturus was earnestly addressing the soldier Pudens. 'It is exactly', he said, 'as I foretold and predicted. So far not one animal has touched me. So now you may believe me with all your heart: I am going in there and I shall be finished off with one bite of the leopard.' And immediately as the contest was coming to a close a leopard was let loose, and after one bite Saturus was so drenched with blood that as he came away the mob roared in witness to his second baptism: 'Well washed! Well washed!' For well washed indeed was one who had been bathed in this manner. Then he said to the soldier Pudens: 'Good-bye. Remember me, and remember the faith. These things should not disturb you but rather strengthen you.'

And with this he asked Pudens for a ring from his finger, and dipping it into his wound he gave it back to him again as a pledge and as a record of his bloodshed. Shortly after he was thrown unconscious with the rest in the usual spot to have his throat cut. But the mob asked that their bodies be brought out into the open that their eyes might be the guilty witnesses of the sword that pierced their flesh. And so the martyrs got up and went to the spot of their own accord as the people wanted them to, and kissing one another they sealed their martyrdom with the ritual kiss of peace. The others took the sword in silence and without moving, especially Saturus, who being the first to climb the stairway was the first to die. For once again he was waiting for Perpetual Perpetua, however, had yet to taste more pain. She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat. It was as though so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing.

Ah, most valiant and blessed martyrs! Truly are you called and chosen for the glory of Christ Jesus our Lord! And any man who exalts, honours, and worships his glory should read for the consolation of the Church these new deeds of heroism which are no less significant than the tales of old. For these new manifestations of virtue will bear witness to one and the same Spirit who still operates, and to God the Father almighty, to his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom is splendour and immeasurable power for all the ages. Amen.

An entire Roman Legion was Martyred for Christ

Down through the years it fell into the hands of Mauritius (Saint Maurice), the head of a 3rd century garrison of Roman soldiers called the Theban legion.  

The Theban Legion was a Christian legion of soldiers during the reign of Diocletian. A legion of men consisting of 6,600 (some say: 6,666) soldiers were all Christian

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LETTERS BETWEEN THE CHURCHES

OF ROME AND OF CARTHAGE

In telling the story of the Catacombs of St. Callixtus we have met personalities of the highest order: the martyr popes Fabian, Cornelius, Sixtus II...and the bishop of Carthage St. Cyprian. The Church of Rome and that of Carthage were often in contact. It is interesting to know the contents of some letters, to be acquainted with what those great Pastors talked about and how they judged their times, which were anything but tranquil.

1. The Church of Rome to the Church of Carthage

The Church of Rome, during the persecution of emperor Decius, offered to the Church of Carthage the following testimonial of its faithfulness to Christ.

Rome, early 250.

" ... The Church resists strong in the faith. It is true that some have yielded, being alarmed at the possibility that their high social position might attract attention, or from simple human frailty. Nevertheless, though they are now separated from us, we have not abandoned them in their defection, but have helped them and keep still close to them, so that by penance they may be rehabilitated and pardoned by Him who can forgive. Indeed if we were to leave them to their own resources, their fall would become irreparable.
Try and do the same, dearest brothers, extending your hand to those who have fallen, that they may rise again. Thus, if they should be arrested, they may this time feel strong enough to confess the faith and redress their former error.
Allow me also to remind you of what course to take on another problem. Those who surrendered in the time of trial, and are now ill and have repented and want communion with the Church, should be helped. Widows and other persons unable to present themselves spontaneously, as also those in prison or far from home, ought to have people ready to look after them. Nor should catechumens who have fallen ill remain disappointed in their expectation of help.
The brethren who are in prison, the clergy and the entire Church, that watches so carefully over those who call on the Lord's name, salute you. In return we also ask you to remember us" (letter 8,2-3).

2. The Bishop of Carthage to the Church of Rome

When Cyprian was informed of pope Fabian's death, he wrote this letter to the priests and deacons in Rome.

Carthage, early 250..

"My dear brothers,
News of the death of my saintly fellow-bishop was still uncertain and information doubtful, when I received your letter brought by subdeacon Crementius, telling me fully of his glorious death. Then I rejoiced, as his admirable governing of the Church had been followed by a noble end.
For this I share your gladness, as you honour the memory of so solemn and splendid a witness, communicating to us also the glorious recollection you have of your bishop, and offering us such an example of faith and fortitude.
Indeed, harmful as the fall of a leader is to his subjects, no less valuable and salutary for his brethren is the example of a bishop firm in his faith... My wish, dearest brothers, is for your continued welfare" (Letter 1).

3. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage to pope Cornelius

Ciprian pays homage to the testimony and fidelity shown by the Pope Cornelius and by the Church of Rome: " a magnificent testimony of a Church entirely united in one spirit and one voice". Foreseeing an imminent time of trial also for the Church of Carthage, Cyprian asks for the brotherly help of prayer and charity.

Carthage, autumn 153..

"Cyprian to Cornelius, his brother bishop.
We know, dearest brother, of your faith, your fortitude and your open witness. All this does you great honour and it gives me so much joy that I feel myself part of and companion in your merits and undertakings.


Since indeed the Church is one, and one and inseparable is love, and one and unbreakable is the harmony of hearts, what priest singing the praises of another does not rejoice as though they were his own glory? And what brother would not feel happy at the joy of his brethren? Certainly none can imagine the exultation and great joy there has been among us here when we have learnt such fine things, like the proofs of strength you have given.


You have led your brethren to testify their faith, and that very confession of yours has been strengthened further by that of the brethren. Thus, while you have gone before the others in the path of glory, and have shown yourself ready to be the first in testifying for all, you have persuaded the people too to confess the same faith.


So we cannot decide what to praise more in you, your prompt and unshakeable faith or your community's indivisible fraternal charity. In all its splendour, the courage of the bishop leading his people has been manifested, and the fidelity of the people in full solidarity with their bishop has been a great and shining example. Through all of you, the Church of Rome has given a magnificent testimony, entirely united in one spirit and one voice.


In this way, dear brother, the faith which the Apostle recognised and praised in your community, has shown forth. We may say that he, then, already foresaw prophetically and celebrated your courage and your indomitable fortitude. Already then he recognised your merits which were to make you glorious. He exalted the deeds of the fathers, foreseeing those of their sons.


With your complete harmony and strength of spirit, you have given all Christians a shining example of constancy and unity.


Dear brother, the Lord in his Providence forewarns us that the hour of trial is at hand. God in his goodness and eagerness for our salvation gives us helpful promptings for the coming struggle. So, in the name of charity which binds us together, let us help one another, persevering with the entire community, with fasts, vigils and prayer. These are for us the heavenly arms which keep us firm and strongly united, and make us persevere. These are the spiritual weapons and the divine arrows which protect us.


Let us remember one another in harmony and spiritual brotherhood. Let us pray for each other at all times and in all places, and let us try to lessen our sufferings with mutual charity" (Letter 60,1-2).

4. Cyprian announces the death of pope Sixtus II

The Church of Carthage had sent some ecclesiastics to Rome to get some news about the decree of Emperor Valerian. They returned with the painful news of the death of pope Sixtux II. Cyprian at once conveyed the information to the Churches of Africa by the following letter to bishop Successus.

Carthage, August 258..

"My dearest brother,
I was unable to send you a letter earlier because none of the clergy of this Church could move, being all under persecution, which however, thank God, found them inwardly most ready to pass at once to heaven. I now send you what news I have.
The envoys I sent to Rome have returned. I sent them to verify and report the decision taken by the authorities concerning myself, whatever it may be, and so put an end to all the speculations and uncontrolled hypotheses which circulated. And now here is the truth, duly ascertained.


Emperor Valerian has sent the Senate his rescript by which he has decided that bishops, priests and deacons shall immediately be put to death. Senators, notables and those who have the title of Roman knighthood shall be deprived of all dignities, as well as of their possessions. If they are obstinate in profess Christianity, even after the confiscation, they will be condemned to capital punishment.


Christians matrons will have all their goods confiscated and then be sent into exile. All imperial functionaries who have professed faith or should do so now, will suffer the same confiscation. They will then be arrested and registered for forced labour on the imperial estates.


Valerian also adds to the rescript a copy of a letter he has sent to the provincial governors concerning myself. I expect this letter any day and hope to receive it quickly, keeping myself firm and strong in faith. My decision in the face of martyrdom is quite clear. I am waiting for it, full of confidence that I shall receive the crown of eternal life from the goodness and generosity of God.


I have to report that Sixtus suffered martyrdon with four deacons on 6th of August, while he was in the "Cemetery" area (the catacombs of St. Callixtus).
The Roman authorities have a rule that all who are denounced as Christians must be executed and their goods forfeited to the imperial treasury.


I ask that what I have reported be made known to our colleagues in the episcopate, so that by their exhortations our communities may be encouraged and ever more prepared for the spiritual combat. This will stimulate them to consider not so much death as the blessings of immortality, and to consecrate themselves to the Lord with ardent faith and heroic fortitude, to delight and not to fear at the thought of testifying their faith. The soldiers of God and of Christ know very well that their immolation is not so much a death but a crown of glory.
To you, dear brother, my greetings in the Lord " (Letter 80).

5. The martyrdom of St. Cyprian

It would have been very useful and edifying to have the reports of the trials of the martyrs Pontianus, Fabian, Cornelius, Sixtus II, Eusebius, Cecilia... Unfortunately, during the tremendous persecution of Diocletian the archives of the Church of Rome were destroyed.


But the reports of St. Cyprian's trial have come down to us. The Acta were read in the Christian communities for the glory of the Martyr in order to strengthen others in the moment of their ordeal. We can therefore assume that the reports of the trial of the other martyrs just cited were written in much the same way.


Carthage, 14th September 258.

" On the morning of September 14 a large crowd gathered at Sesti by order of proconsul Galerius Maximus. And the same proconsul Galerius Maximus bade that Cyprian should be brought to the hearing which he conducted on that same day in the 'Sauciolus Hall'. When bishop Cyprian stood before him, the proconsul said to him:
- 'Are you Tascius Ciprianus?'
Bishop Cyprian answered:
- ' Yes, I am.
Proconsul Galerius Maximus said:
- ' Are you the one who has presented himself as the leader of a sacrilegious sect'
Bishop Cyprian answered:
- ' I am'.
Galerius Maximus said:
- ' The most holy emperors bid you to sacrifice'.
Bishop Cyprian said:
- ' I will not do it'.
Proconsul Galerius Maximus said:
- 'Think it over'.
Bishop Cyprian said:
- ' Do what you have been ordered to do. In such a just cause there is nothing to think over'.

Galerius Maximus, after conferring with the college of magistrates, with difficulty and unwillingly pronounced this sentence: ' You have long lived sacrilegiously and have gathered many in your criminal sect, and set yourself up as an enemy of the Roman gods and of their religious rites. The pious and most holy Augusti emperors Valerian and Gallienus, and Valerian most noble Caesar, failed to bring you back to the observance of their religious ceremonies.
Therefore, since you have been seen to be the instigator of the worst of crimes, we shall make an example of you before those whom you have associated with yourself in these wicked actions. The respect for the law will be sanctioned by your blood'. Having said this he read out in a loud voice from a tablet the decree: 'I order that Tascius Ciprianus be punished by being beheaded'. Bishop Cyprian said: 'Thanks be to God'.


Following the sentence, the crowd of Christian brethren said: ' We want to be beheaded with him'. At this there was great agitation among the brethren and a large crowd followed him. Thus Cyprian was led into the countryside of Sesti, and there he took off his cloak and hood, knelt on the ground and prostrated himself in prayer to the Lord. He then removed his dalmatic and gave it to the deacons, leaving himself only in his linen garment, and so waited for the executioner.
When the latter arrived, the bishop ordered his own followers to give the executioner twenty-five gold pieces. Meanwhile his brethren held out pieces of cloth and handkerchiefs ( to receive the blood as relics). Then the great Cyprian with his own hands bandaged his eyes, but since he could not tie the corners of the handkerchief, presbyter Julian and subdeacon Julian went to help him.
Thus bishop Cyprian was martyred and his body, because of the curiosity of the pagans, was placed in a place nearby where it was hidden from their indiscreet eyes. It was then carried away at night with lighted flares and torches and accompanied as far as the cemetery of procurator Macrobius Candidianus, which is in the 'Huts' Road near the Baths. A few days later, proconsul Galerius Maximus died.


The holy bishop Cyprian was martyred on September 14th under emperors Valerian and Gallienus, but in the reign of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom all honour and glory be forever. Amen". (From the Acta Proconsularia,3-6).

 

 

 

1. From the Letter to Diognetus (apology by an unknown author of the 2nd C.).
 
They are men like others
"Christians are not different because of their country or the language they speak or the way they dress. They do not isolate themselves in their cities nor use a private language; even the life they lead has nothing strange.

Their doctrine does not originate from the elaborate disquisitions of intellectuals, nor do they follow, as many do, philosophical systems which are the fruit of human thinking. They live in Greek or in barbarian (foreign) cities, as the case may be, and adapt themselves to local traditions in dress, food and all usage. Yet they testify to a way which, in the opinion of the many, has something extraordinary about it".
 
They dwell on earth, but are citizens of heaven  
"They live in their own countries and are strangers. They loyally fulfil their duties as citizens, but are treated as foreigners. Every foreign land is for them a fatherland and every fatherland, foreign.

They marry like everyone, they have children, but they do not abandon their new-born. They have the table in common, but not the bed. They are in the flesh, but do not live according to the flesh (2 Cor 10,3; Rom 8, 12-15). They dwell on earth, but are citizens of heaven.

They obey the laws of the state, but in their lives they go beyond the law. They love everyone, yet are persecuted by everyone. No one really knows them, but all condemn them. They are killed, but go on living. They are poor, but enrich many (2 Cor 6,9-10). They have nothing, but abound in everything. but in that contempt they find glory before God. Their honour is insulted, while their justice is acknowledged.

When they are cursed, they bless. When they are insulted, they answer with kind words

(1 Cor 4,12-13). They do good to others and are punished like evil-doers. When they are punished, they rejoice, as if they were given life. The Jews make war against them as if they were a foreign race. The Greek persecute them, but those who hate them , cannot tell the reason for their hatred".

They are in the world as the soul is in the body
"In the way the Christians are in the world, so the soul is in the body. As the soul is diffused in all parts of the body, so Christians are spread in the various cities of the earth. The soul lives in the body, but is not of the body; so Christians live in the world, but are not of the world. As the invisible soul is imprisoned in a visible body, so Christians are a reality quite visible in the world, while the spiritual worship they give to God is invisible.

As the flesh hates the spirit and fights against it, though not receiving any offence from it, but only because the spirit hinders it in its savouring of harmful joys and pleasures; so the world hates the Christians who have done it no harm, merely because they oppose a way of life based on mere pleasure.

As the soul loves the body and its limbs, which hate it in return, thus Christians love those who hate them. The soul, though it sustains the body, is enclosed in it. So Christians, though they are a support to the world, are confined in the world as a prison. The immortal soul lives in a mortal tent, so Christians live like strangers among corruptible things, awaiting the incorruptibility of heaven.

By mortifying itself in food and drink, the soul is refined and strengthened; so Christians, maltreated and persecuted, grow in number every day. God has assigned them such a high state that they are never to abandon it" (Sources Chrétiennes 33 bis, 62-67).
 
2. From the "Books to Autolicus" of S. Theophilus of Antioch, 2nd C.
 
The Christians pay homage to the emperor and pray for him (I, 2)
 
"I shall pay homage to the emperor, but will not adore him; I shall instead pray for him. I adore the true and only God, by whom I know the sovereign was made. Well now, you might ask me: 'Why don't you adore the emperor?'. The emperor, given authority by God, must be honoured with a proper respect, but he must not be adored.

You see, he is not God; he is only a man whom God has placed in that office not to be adored, but in order that he exercise justice on earth. In a way this authority was entrusted to him by God. As the emperor may not tolerate that his title be taken over by those subject to him, so no one may be adored, save God.

The sovereign must therefore be honoured with sentiments of reverence; we must obey him and pray for him: In this way God's will is done".
 
The life of Christians proves the greatness and beauty of their religion (III, 15)
"We find out that Christians have a wise self-control, practice temperance, marry only once, keep chaste, refuse injustice, uproot sin, practice justice, observe the law, have a positive appreciation of piety. God is acknowledged, and truth is regarded as the supreme law.

Grace guards them; peace protects them; the Sacred Word guides them, wisdom teaches them; eternal life directs them. God is their king".
 
3. From the "Apology" by Aristides, 2nd C.
 
Christians observe the divine laws
"Christians bear the divine laws impressed on their hearts and observe them in the hope of a future life. For this reason they do not commit adultery, or fornication; don't bear false witness; don't misappropriate the money they have received on deposit; don't crave for what is not due to them; honour father and mother, do good to their neighbour; and when they are appointed judges, judge rightly.

They don't adore idols in human form; whatever they don't want others do to them, they do not do it to anyone. They don't eat meat offered to the gods, because it is contaminated: Their daughters are pure and keep their virginity and shun prostitution; men abstain from every illegitimate union and from all impurity; likewise their women are chaste, in the hope of the great recompense in the next life...
 
They are kind and charitable
They help those who offend them, making friends of them; do good to their enemies. They don't adore idols; they are kind, good, modest, sincere, they love one another; don't despise widows; protect the orphans; those who have much give without grumbling, to those in need. When they meet strangers, they invite them to their homes with joy, for they recognise them as true brothers, not natural but spiritual.

When a poor man dies, if they become aware, they contribute according to their means for his funeral; if they come to know that some people are persecuted or sent to prison or condemned for the sake of Christ's name, they put their alms together and send them to those in need. If they can do it, they try to obtain their release. When a slave or a beggar is in need of help, they fast two or three days, and give him the food they had prepared for themselves, because they think that he too should be joyful , as he has been called to be joyful like themselves.
 
They live in justice and sanctity
They strictly observe the commandments of the Lord, by living in a saintly and right way, as the Lord God has prescribed to them; they give Him thanks each morning and evening for all food and drink and every other thing.
These are, o emperor, their laws; the goods they have to ask God, they ask Him, and so they pass through this world till the end of time; because God has subjected everything to them. Therefore they are grateful to Him, because the whole universe and all creation have been made for them. Surely these people have found truth".
 
4. From "The Apologeticus" of Tertullian, 2nd - 3rd C.
 
Christians are not useless and unproductive
"We are accused of being unproductive in the various fields of activity. But how can you say this of men who live with you, eat with you, wear the same clothes, follow the same way of life and have the same necessities of life?

We remember to give thanks to God, our Lord and Creator, and do not refuse any fruit of his work. There is no doubt that we make use of things with moderation and not in an evil or unrestrained way. We live together with you and often attend the forum, the market-place, the baths, the shops and workshops, the stables, taking part in all activities.

We also are at sea together with you, we serve in the army, we till the land, we carry on trade, we exchange goods and put on sale, for your benefit, the fruits of our work. I really cannot understand how we may appear useless and unproductive for your affairs, when we live with you and for you.

Surely, there are some people who have good grounds for complaining about Christians, as they cannot do any business with them. They are the masters of prostitutes, the procurers and their accomplices; then there come the criminals, the murderers through poison, the sorcerers, the fortune-tellers, the wizards, the astrologers.

What an unbelievable thing is to be unproductive for such people!... And finally, you will never find any Christian in prison, unless he be there for religious reasons.
We have learnt from God to live honest lives".

The signs and symbols we find painted in the frescoes, inscribed on the marble sarcophagi and slabs, and etched on the walls of the catacombs all deal with the christian faith, even though some symbols are taken directly from the pagan repertoire.

Ancient cultures loved the use of symbols to express ideas. The peacock for the pagans was the symbol of eternal life. However, not all the pagans shared the idea of an afterlife, and for those who did, it was one clouded in mystery and wrapped in a shadowy world of obscurity. Pagan art strongly reflects this anguish, which was a vision of pain and sorrow.

The Christians adopted the symbol of the peacock, but developed a deeper meaning. Because of Revelation, the obscurity of death was cancelled by the victory of Christ's resurrection. The peacock therefore became the symbol of the eternal life of the soul.

The dove represented the peace and happiness of the soul, while the anchor represented hope in Jesus.

Symbols often were a synthesis of more than one idea. The anchor is an example. By its very functional nature, it represents the ideas of stability, security, and hope because it confirms the safe arrival of the ship at port after a perilous journey at sea.

greek cross in catacombs

The simple Greek cross (+) is found below the inscription of Rufinus and Irene, catacombs, early third century

By turning the anchor upside down, the greek letter TAU was formed, and the "T" resembled the shape of the CROSS. Thus the symbolism of the anchor was enriched by this additional element. Hope in Jesus represented the secure port of Salvation, which came about through His crucifixion and resurrection.

The fish was perhaps the favorite Christian symbol, and we note the richness of its meaning. 

The biblical and pagan cultural background was again important in the development of the symbol.

The New Testament abounds with references to fish. We recall Christ telling his disciples he will make them fishers of men. [Gospel of Matthew, Ch.4 ver.19] The fish therefore became the symbol of the Christian. He was saved in the net of the gospel news preached by the fishermen apostles.

The most important point regarding the symbol of the fish is that in Greek the word fish was written as "ICHTHYS"

The word "fish" was not a secret code, but It was most likely used by Christians in perilous times to recognize one another.  Rather the Greek word for "fish" formed an acrostic, which was a typical classical style of poetry by which the letters of a word were ordered to form a phrase, or vice versa. In this case we can vertically read the greek word for fish:

    • Iesus
    • CHristos
    • THeou
    • Yios
    • Soter

 

Each letter in the word fish formed a word. The meaning of each greek word formed by the letters ICHTHYS are:

    • Iesus = Jesus
    • CHristos = Christ
    • THeou = of God
    • Yios = Son
    • Soter = Saviour

Some Inscriptions found in the Catacombs:

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

"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."

Pagan Inscriptions

The full force of the above 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."

"Traveller, curse me not as you pass, for I am in darkness and cannot answer."

 

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