Coemeterium Maius is a 3rd and 4th century set of catacombs located at Via Asmara 6 in the Trieste district, just off the Via Nomentana.
A general introduction to catacombs is at Catacombs of Rome.
The catacombs have had several names. Coemeterium Maius is the one by which it emerges into documented history, and this is rendered in Italian by Cimiterio Maggiore or Catacomba Maggiore.
The locality was also anciently called ad Capream or "at the roe-deer [inn?]".
Scholars in previous centuries identified these catacombs with the Coemeterium Ostrianum and the Coemeterium Fontis Sancti Petri, mentioned in mediaeval sources. Unfortunately they also confused them with the catacombs at Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura, and so you can find descriptions even in 19th century guidebooks of the catacombs here under the title of Sant'Agnese.
The Latin Coemeterium is a transcription of a Greek word meaning "place of sleep". Christians believe in the resurrection of the body.
As mentioned, in the Middle Ages the pilgrim itineraries described a Coemeterium Fontis Sancti Petri or ad nympham Sancti Petri. The apocryphal acts of Popes Liberius and Damasus has: Non longe a coemeterio Novellae, Coemeterium Ostrianum, ubi beatus Petrus apostolus baptizaverat. At the end of the 6th century Queen Theodelinda of the Lombards sent a priest called John to Rome to collect relics, including oil from the lamps of coemeterium fontis Sancti Petri, ubi prius sedit Sanctissimus Petrus.
The developed legend arising from these texts was that St Peter had his headquarters at these catacombs, where he instructed and baptized catechumens. This was discredited in the late 19th century, and the location of ad nympham Sancti Petri is regarded as unknown (as is of the coemeterium Novellae mentioned).
A rival for the location used to be the Catacombe di Priscilla.
The complex arose in the mid 3rd century, when apparently excavations began in two separate but nearby sites. One of these was the location of a villa, and it seems that an underground feature of this such as a cellar or cistern was utilized in driving the first passages. This indicates that the first enterprise was a private one, perhaps initiated by the owners of the villa.
In the 4th century, the catacombs spread to a large area. However, the name Maius is slightly puzzling because the system here did not compare with other large catacombs such as the Catacombe di San Callisto either in size or (apparently) in status. It might have been that the number of martyrs venerated here was a feature, and also that this set of catacombs was regarded as one large unit rather than as many smaller ones which was the case at San Callisto.
The revised Roman Martyrology (2001) has three entries for these catacombs:
- St Emerentiana, 23 January, martyr, early 4th century? She is not listed as a virgin. The old RM has: "She was stoned by the heathen while still a catechumen, when she was praying at the tomb of St Agnes, whose foster-sister she was". This depends on the unreliable developed mediaeval legend of St Agnes, and has been deleted as unhistorical.
- SS Papias and Maurus, 29 January, solider martyrs, 3rd century?
- SS Victor, Felix, Alexander and Papias, 16 September, martyrs, uncertain date. They are not in the old RM. (Note the second Papias.)
Compared to other catacombs, it has been noticed that the ones here are of higher quality as regards epigraphs, frescoes and sculptural details. This might have been because of the number of martyrs venerated here in the 4th century, or might simply reflect the social status of the Christian group(s) using it.
The first record of the saints in the catacombs, listed under the name Coemeterium Maius ad Capream, is in the Martyrology of Jerome which is a 9th century recension of a 6th century document, but which contains a local church calendar of Rome thought to be from the mid 5th century. It lists SS Victor, Felix, Alexander, Emerentiana, Papias and Maurus.
Amazingly, in 1886 an early mediaeval epigraph from the catacombs was found during the demolition of the Trastevere church of San Salvatore a Ponte Rotto, which mentioned Victor, Felix, Alexander and Emerentiana. At the start of the 20th century, archaeologists found a missing bit of the same tablet in the catacombs which mentioned Papias.
The catacombs include several cubicula or chambers which contain rock-cut seating arrangements, notably one large one which has side-benches with a single seat at one end. Thirteen have been counted.
Since the 17th century these have been pointed out as places where the early Christians conducted their administrative and liturgical lives ("Catechumens were instructed here" or "St Peter celebrated Mass in this basilica"), but this is rubbish. The early Christians did not reside or celebrate Mass in the catacombs.
Rather, these cubicula were fitted out as places where visitors could celebrate refrigeria or funerary banquets in honour of the dead. This was a pagan Roman practice which was initially accepted by Christians, but criticism of this grew in the 4th century and St Augustine, for example, wrote against the custom. This set of catacombs is unusual in its extent of refrigeria seating.
The majority of the cubicula refrigeriorum in the catacombs are 4th century. It has been thought in the past that they contained the shrines of martyrs, but what is certain nowadays is that the relics of a martyr were not removed from his or her tomb and transferred to a special cubiculum in the 4th century. The practice back then was to keep the martyrs in their original tombs, and to build their shrines around them. So, the surmise has to be that some of these cubicula were altered to become shrines with seating arrangements for visitors. It is very difficult to corroborate this hypothesis, although it is clear that the so-called "underground basilica" was remodelled from a pair of cubicula.
One fairly obvious shrine of a martyr here was inserted into a staircase, which seems odd but illustrates the point that that was where the martyr was originally buried.
Coemeterium minus Edit
There was a much smaller and simpler set of catacombs on the other side of the main road, on the right leaving the city. The history of this is unknown, but it seems to be 4th century.
Another similar pair of a large and a small set of catacombs exists at Catacomba dei Giordani (with Catacomba di Sant'Ilaria). Catacomb proprietors were careful to excavate only under the properties to which they had legal title, which did not include the ground under the highways which belonged to the government. Hence, it is unlikely that these pairs were parts of the same underground complex.
There is an unprovable surmise that the arrangement might have come about through confessional differences.
Pilgrimage destination Edit
The Coemeterium maius was a popular pilgrimage destination, but the minus set was not noticed in the itineraries.
Of the seven documented martyrs listed above, it was only St Emerentiana who was to become the focus of persisting public veneration. This was because the author of the romantic legend of St Agnes borrowed her as a character therein. She gave her name to the church that was built above the catacombs at an unknown date. This might have been the same as the one erected by Pope St Damasus in the mid 5th century, and dedicated by him to the Martyres Coemeterii. If so, it was dedicated to the martyr by the 7th century when it was listed in the pilgrim itineraries.
The catacombs were stripped and abandoned in the 9th century, and St Emerentiana ended up at Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura where she still is -her head, however, went to St Peter's.
In 1493 Augustinian friars from Santa Maria del Popolo explored the catacombs, which were then under a vineyard owned by them. They left an epigraph in charcoal: Corpora quae cernis sanctorum intacta virorum, barbarica quondam sunt lacerata manu. Fratres de populo hic fuerunt. ("The whole bodies of saintly men which you see, were once torn by barbarous hand. The friars of [Santa Maria] de Popolo were here.")
It is possible that the locality had never been forgotten, and certainly the ruins of the basilica would have been obvious. However, what did happen is that everyone became convinced that the catacombs belonged to the church of Sant'Agnese (some distance away, 400 metres).
The scholar Antonio Bosio explored the catacombs in 1601, and published drawings of several of the frescoes that he found. This was fortunate, because over the course of the following two centuries the catacombs were looted for removable items and the loculi smashed open. Many frescoes were seriously damaged.
Modern times Edit
The catacombs began to receive serious archaeological attention only in 1843, when they became the main focus of the interest in catacombs of the pioneer Jesuit archaeologist Giuseppe Marchi (1785-1860). They featured in the first volume of his Monumenta, which he published in the following year and which contains the first mention of the so-called "subterranean church". Work was initially continued by Pietro Crostarossa in 1873, together with Giovanni Battista de Rossi and Mariano Armellini.
These pioneers supported the legend that the catacombs were the original "bishop's palace" or headquarters of St Peter, and described their findings accordingly. However scholarly challenges came immediately, especially a magisterial one from Orazio Marucchi, and the Petrine legend is now completely discarded.
At the start of the 20th century the catacombs were freely open to visitors on only one day a year, which was 18 January. This is the feast of the "Chair of St Peter", and this access was the last demonstration of the old legend.
The catacombs have not now been open for decades.
Above ground Edit
There is now nothing to see above ground. The catacombs lie below a public park to the north of the Via Asmara called Villa Leopardi, and the Albanian Embassy to the south.
The area was developed at the start of the 20th century. Before then, the scanty ruins of the church of Sant'Emerenziana were visible in a vineyard. The relics of St Emerentiana were still being venerated here in the 8th century, having been brought up from the catacombs, but the church was abandoned in the following century and they were taken to Sant'Agnese.
Having survived for a thousand years as a ruin, the church was tidied away when the suburb was built.
Below ground Edit
The catacombs are now accessed via a staircase which is thought to have been provided originally by Pope St Damasus (366-84). It breaks into a pre-existing set of galleries with an epigraphic date of 336.
They have two levels, and extend to a substantial area in an irregular grid pattern. The upper level connects to ancient underground sand quarries to the south (the arenaria), and apparently you can pass through these to the catacombs at Sant'Agnese without having to go back to the surface.
A passage measuring two hundred metres is allegedly the longest straight run of a catacomb in Rome.
This set of catacombs is noted for having many crypts or cubicula ("bedrooms") as side-chambers off the galleries. As already mentioned, several of these have rock-cut seating arrangements, and also niched tables with the niches interpreted as places for lamps. The excavations to create them involved carving ceiling cornices and other architectural features.
Some of these chambers have been claimed as shrines for martyrs. One of them was identified by Armellini as the original location of the shrine of St Emerentiana, but this one is now thought to belong to SS Victor and Alexander.
The main concentration of cublicula numbers seven, around an exceptionally large cubiculum through which a gallery passes. This has four engaged columns, rock-cut benches around the walls and several loculi and arcosolia (arched niches originally for sarcophagi). This space was erroneously identified as a church by the original excavators.
The fresco work in the cubicula is of high quality. The most famous fresco is an early 4rd century one on a lunette of an arcosolium, showing the bust of a woman in the orans position and with a child in front of her. This has been interpreted as being of the Madonna and Child, but very unfortunately the possibility that it simply shows the deceased with her son cannot be ruled out.
Other fresco scenes include Adam and Eve, Jonah, The Three Young Men in the Furnace, Daniel in the Den of Lions, Moses Bringing Water from the Rock, The Magi Before Herod and The Good Shepherd.
The original excavators also noted a chamber containing a spring of water, and labelled this as the Baptistery of St Peter. In reality, a source of water within a working catacomb was very useful for making up the cement used for sealing the loculi after funerals.
Coemeterium Minus Edit
There is another, smaller set of catacombs nearby, on the other side of the Via Nomentana at number 222 which is about fifty metres away from the entrance of the Coemeterium Maius. It was named the "Smaller Cemetery" in apposition when it was discovered in the 17th century.
The history of this set of catacombs is unknown, and there is no dating evidence.
Some investigation was made in 1938, and rescue archaeology was performed here when the road was widened in 1966. Nothing interesting was found, apparently. The surviving length of passageways is about fifty metres, but the system has not been properly explored.
The Maius catacombs are closed to the public. The Rules Regarding Visits to the Catacombs Closed to the Public are rather onerous. The word is that genuine scholarly interest needs to be demonstrated, before your application to visit is entertained.
If you manage to get together the maximum number of fourteen companions for a visit, the per head cost of fifteen euros for a 75 minute stay is worth it. On the other hand, you may get a blank refusal -the scheme is discretionary, and known New Agers or Dan Brown enthusiasts need not apply.
The Minus catacombs seem not to be visitable.