Catacomba di Novaziano is a set of catacombs, dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries, with a modern entrance at Viale Regina Elena 303 in the Tiburtino quarter.
These catacombs have no documented history, so their discovery in the earlier 20th century was a surprise.
In 1926, during construction of the Viale Regina Margherita (the south section of which is now called the Viale Regina Elena), galleries of the upper level of the catacombs were discovered. These had already been seriously damaged by development, and little exploration was attempted. The ground-level site corresponding to the layout, at the present northern corner of the junction between the Viale and the Via Tiburtina, was examined archaeologically however. Traces of two edifices were reported, one a mausoleum of about the early 1st century AD or slightly earlier and another apsidal edifice which was very tentatively identified as a possible early church.
The second level was discovered in 1930. In 1932, the sensational discovery of an unknown martyr's shrine was announced. The occupant was called Novatian, which led to much scholarly speculation.
The recovery of two in-situ epigraphs puts the beginning of the complex in the mid 3rd century. This began with an access staircase leading to a longitudinal passage, crossed by a transverse passage in which the tomb of a martyr was located. One dated epigraph is from the year 266, and the other 270.
This became the focus of expansion in the following century. As well as expanding to an area roughly 500 by 50 metres, a second level above the first was excavated. These passages were on both the herring-bone and the grid plans familiar from other catacombs, the upper level involving a spine gallery off which side galleries were dug and the lower, a network of galleries. Some galleries had had their floors lowered after the loculi had been filled, to allow for further loculi to be dug at floor level.
An unusual feature was that the fill from new passages had been dumped in old, fully occupied ones. This is one reason why exploration was difficult. Another oddity consisted of loculi dug into the corners where passage floors met the walls, these being covered by tiles laid at an angle.
The complex was abandoned early, in the early 5th century. It did not feature in the early mediaeval pilgrimage itineraries.
The focal shrine was embellished in the later 4th century, with an inscription reading:
Novatiano beatissimo marturi Gaudentius diaconus fecit. ("Gaudentius the deacon made this for the blessed martyr Novatian").
This immediately led to speculation that this was the tomb of the mid 3rd century antipope Novatian, elected in opposition to Cornelius in 251. Both were subsequently martyred. The point of dispute was whether those who had denied their faith in the face of persecution could be readmitted to the Church after penance. Novatian, and his followers, denied the possibility. After their excommunication, they set up a rival church in Rome called Novatianist.
This sect amounted to a parallel church, and spread to eastern parts of the Empire including Constantinople and Alexandria. It persisted for three centuries, being present in the latter city in the early 7th century. At Rome, however, it was legislated against by the emperor Honorius in 412, which enabled Pope Innocent I to close their churches in the city.
The surmise that Novatian was enshrined here depends entirely on the coincidence of names. It has been pointed out that another martyr called Novatian was listed in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, so the surmise cannot be entirely reliable -the one enshrined could also have been an entirely unknown Novatian. However, the apparent date of the closure of these catacombs fits neatly with the action taken in 412. The assumption that the Novatianists had their own places of burial is a reasonable one, and this set of catacombs is the best candidate known in Rome.
There are several locations in Rome where a small set of catacombs faces a large set across a radial highway, and this is one of them (the large set of catacombs close by is the Catacomba di Ciriaca at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura). Other examples are at Coemeterium Maius, and Catacomba dei Giordani (with Catacomba di Sant'Ilaria), and it is possible that this pairing was on confessional grounds.
The modern entrance is a doorway in a wall on the east side of the Viale Regina Elena, just north of the Piazzale di San Lorenzo. The original staircase was further south-east.
The catacombs are on two levels, the first of which is seriously damaged and inaccessible. An estimate of the number of burials is about a thousand, and the length of known passages about 800 metres. However, a full exploration has not been attempted owing to passages being blocked with fill excavated from elsewhere in the complex, and also by roof collapses.
The second, older level is more accessible. The original stairway is still there, albeit blocked at the top. The layout involves long parallel passages with short linking ones, containing many loculi which are mostly intact. Some have painted epitaphs on the blocking, others scratched graffiti and others have inscriptions on marble closure-slabs. It is notable that there are very few cubicula or chambers -apart from the shrine, only two (one of them double) have been mapped.
Because these catacombs were never looted after their abandonment, the archaeologists found various trinkets pressed into the cement sealing of loculi as mementoes or markers. These are surprisingly varied.
Most important are some bases of broken gold-glass bowls, including one showing St Agnes and another showing a lady with a lute. Pottery lamps, two wooden dolls (one with moveable arms and legs), coins and little bone or ivory inlay carvings (some involving putti) also feature. Unique individual trinkets are: An alabaster medallion showing a winged genius, a coloured marble plaque in the form of a fish (a Christian symbol) and, most odd of all, a rectangular stone amulet plaque showing the Egyptian goddess Wadjet. She is depicted with a woman's body and a snake's head.
The shrine-chamber was entered between two columns, one of which survives, and had a lucinarium or skylight in the passage in front of the entrance. The cubiculum has the tomb fitted into its far end. The arcosolium tomb itself is in the form of a chest under an arch, and these are both in masonry. The chest was lined with marble, and originally was painted white on its front with the famous epigraph (already quoted). This was concealed when the frontage and the arch were revetted with green and red marble tiles. Traces of mosaic work also survive.
The rich decoration was deliberately destroyed, and the suspicion is that this was done when the catacombs were sequestered from the Novatianists in 412 and shut down.
Patrons' cubiculum Edit
The double cubiculum makes such a contrast with the simple passages with loculi that it is tempting to regard it as belonging to the original patrons of the catacombs. It contains four carved marble sarcophagi, with strigillate decoration and with Biblical scenes on three of them. These come from both the Old and New Testaments, and include Adam and Eve, Daniel with the Lions, The Denial of Peter, The Raising of Lazarus, Moses Striking the Rock and The Epiphany.
The sarcophagi contained a family with, sadly, children who died young. The occupants of the central sarcophagus are advertised as the parents, Tullianus and Aristia. The other three contained Florentius Domitius Marianus, who died aged nine, Aurelius who was five, and Atronius Fidelicus.
Antistia Euphanilla Edit
The archaeologists mentioned one arcosolium tomb belonging to a young lady called Antistia Euphanilla, aged twenty-five. They reported that they could see her remains through a crack, and that these included fragments of her dress and her hair and gold braiding for the latter.