The 19th-century British catacombs expert, Father James Spencer Northcote, brings the history of the early Christians in Rome to life in his book “The Roman Catacombs.” He covers not only how the early Christians hid from Roman soldiers and buried their dead in the dark and hidden tunnels underneath the environs of the ancient city, but also the history of the catacombs once Rome became Christian, and their loss and recovery.
There are newer books covering this subject, but it’s hard to imagine they would bring the passion that Father Northcote does to the story. He was writing in an exhilarating era of archaeology, when scholars like Heinrich Schliemann were proving to the secular elites of their age that ancient texts like the Bible and the Iliad were not myths but actual history.
Father Northcote’s work is therefore a multi-layered exploration of many pasts, the early Christian times, the centuries since then, and his own era.
Father Northcote wrote in an accessible way — the book is enjoyable and avoids convoluted, overly academic jargon.
While reprints of older works sometimes look like they were a rush job, with pages slightly askew and poor reproductions, Sophia’s edition is top quality, filled with intriguing drawings of the art on the catacombs’ walls, a cross section of the levels of tunnels, a map showing the maze-like intricacy of the catacombs and what the landscape around the catacombs looked like back in the 1870s — before the city of Rome industrialized and sprawled.
This little book would a welcome addition to any Catholic interested in our faith’s history.
— Kristen Hannum