Sunday Martyr Moment: Coliseum and Catacombs

Foxe's Book of Martyrs. According to this summary from Christian Book Summaries,

Writing in the mid-1500s, John Foxe was living in the midst of intense religious persecution at the hands of the dominant Roman Catholic Church. In graphic detail, he offers accounts of Christians being martyred for their belief in Jesus Christ, describing how God gave them extraordinary courage and stamina to endure unthinkable torture.

From the same link, the book's purpose was fourfold:
  • Showcase the courage of true believers who have willingly taken a stand for Jesus Christ throughout the ages, even if it meant death,
  • Demonstrate the grace of God in the lives of those martyred for their faith,
  • Expose the ruthlessness of religious and political leaders as they sought to suppress those with differing beliefs,
  • Celebrate the courage of those who risked their lives to translate the Bible into the common language of the people.
Text from Foxe's Book of Martyrs

"It has been said that the lives of the early Christians consisted of "persecution above ground and prayer below ground." Their lives are expressed by the Coliseum and the catacombs. Beneath Rome are the excavations which we call the catacombs, which were at once temples and tombs. The early Church of Rome might well be called the Church of the Catacombs. There are some sixty catacombs near Rome, in which some six hundred miles of galleries have been traced, and these are not all. These galleries are about eight feet high and from three to five feet wide, containing on either side several rows of long, low, horizontal recesses, one above another like berths in a ship. In these the dead bodies were placed and the front closed, either by a single marble slab or several great tiles laid in mortar. On these slabs or tiles, epitaphs or symbols are graved or painted. Both pagans and Christians buried their dead in these catacombs. When the Christian graves have been opened the skeletons tell their own terrible tale. Heads are found severed from the body, ribs and shoulder blades are broken, bones are often calcined from fire. But despite the awful story of persecution that we may read here, the inscriptions breathe forth peace and joy and triumph. Here are a few:

"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."
Remember when reading these inscriptions the story the skeletons tell of persecution, of torture, and of fire.
But the full force of these 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."
"Traveler, curse me not as you pass, for I am in darkness and cannot answer."

The most frequent Christian symbols on the walls of the catacombs, are, the good shepherd with the lamb on his shoulder, a ship under full sail, harps, anchors, crowns, vines, and above all the fish."


Wikipedia explains the Catacombs: "The Catacombs of Rome (Italian: Catacombe di Roma) are ancient catacombs, underground burial places under Rome, Italy, of which there are at least forty, some discovered only in recent decades. Though most famous for Christian burials, either in separate catacombs or mixed together, they began in the 2nd century AD,[1] much as a response to overcrowding and shortage of land. Many scholars have written that catacombs came about to help persecuted Christians to bury their dead secretly. The soft volcanic tuff rock under Rome is highly suitable for tunnelling, as it is softer when first exposed to air, hardening afterwards. Many have kilometres of tunnels, in up to four storeys (or layers). The Christian catacombs are extremely important for the art history of early Christian art, as they contain the great majority of examples from before about 400 AD, in fresco and sculpture. The Jewish catacombs are similarly important for the study of Jewish art at this period."

Below, Early Christian funerary art from the Roman catacombs depicting the good shepherd 3rd-5th century CE
photo credit: mharrsch via photopin cc

"Catacombs of San Callisto; in the center, the Chi Rho -- a commonly used Greek monogram for Christ. Also note the fish in the upper right hand corner, another Christian symbol -- the letters in the Greek word for symbol were an an anagram for "Jesus Christ, Savior, Son of God." More at Jim Forest's Photostream
photo credit: jimforest via photopin cc


I visited the Colosseum and the Catacombs when I was in Rome some years ago. The Colosseum was where many thousands of Christians were slaughtered for the name of Jesus. The Catacombs was the place where they were buried. They tunneled under ground secretly because no one was allowed to be buried within the walls of the city, and land was expensive anyway. Christians were usually poor and could not afford land. Wealthy Brethren donated land for the purpose, and the Catacombs were born.

Photo Jim Forest
 When I was there, I wasn't saved yet. After visiting these two important places in the birth of Christianity, my only takeaway was of the Colosseum, that the Romans were geniuses at engineering, and from the Catacombs, how small the early Romans were. Their funeral holes in the walls of the tufa were a mere four or five feet.

How I wish I could go back there now that I am part of the great, eternal body of believers, connected through time by the blood of Jesus. Now I know of the plan of redemption God promised His Son from before the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:20, Titus 1:1-2). I would give the places more respect, pray in praise for our Magnificent God for creating a people who, by the Spirit endured death for His holy name, and thank Him for my inclusion in this great Body.

As it is, I'll do the same from my chair here in Georgia, because I know that though my body may perish, it will be resurrected and united with my eternal soul, in a timeless and boundary-less place called heaven.

Further reading from this blog,

Colosseum- "Take Heart Grieving Family Members!"

External reading:

The Catacombs of San Callisto

The earliest surviving Christian art is from the Catacombs of Rome. Here is a five-minute Youtube video explaining the art of the catacombs. And here is a five-minute pictorial representation of the art, set to Latin chant, on Youtube.


  1. Hi Elizabeth! I just found your blog a few days ago and I'm really enjoying it! Thank you! Also looking forward to meeting my Savior very soon!


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