In this volume, the authors, Frank and Camille Korn, in a crisp, clear, flowing prose, take the reader back in time to the early centuries of Christianity. The book traces the history of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the custom of tunneling the subsoil for burial purposes, not only by the local Christian community but also by the Jewish colony of the Eternal City. It was the latter group that first conceived the idea of underground necropoli. The practice of burying the dead, rather than cremating the body began with the Jewish community and by extension carried over to the early Christians. However, the burial of bodies required land. Jews and Christians would purchase tracts of land outside the city walls, since Roman law forbade burial within Rome’s fortifications. For practical purposes, the underground burial sites expanded in numerous directions, following multiple levels and covering miles of tunnels.
The reader gets a true sense of walking into the world of antiquity. If one were to venture into the catacombs with a tour group, you may find that the guide will put an eerie twist on the descriptions to heighten the sense of drama. For some, it may serve as no more than an amusing diversion, but if you want the true story about how and why the catacombs developed, you must read this book. There is enormous value to learning about the back drop of the saints and martyrs entombed in the catacombs. One would have heard the name St. Cecilia during the celebration of Mass in the Catholic Church, but the story of her life and how she died is both remarkable and compelling. The same can be said for many of the saints that the Korn’s have extensively researched. It is their existence within the underground burial sites that gave rise to the expansion of the catacombs. The desire of the faithful to be buried adjacent to a martyr or saint was a comfort for the family of the deceased. The description of the funeral rites set against a backdrop of the politics of Rome provides a significant enlightenment to the reader. We learn about the periods of persecution, as well as times of begrudging acceptance of Christians and even the blind eye turned towards the religion’s growing influence.
“Below Rome – The Story of the Catacombs” is an essential read for anyone who intends to visit the catacombs of Rome. The research that was necessary to write the book must have been a daunting challenge, but the authors have brought us a highly readable, yet scholarly book. Having a well-versed guide will make any exploration of Rome more enjoyable and a visit to Rome’s catacombs will be on many tourist’s lists. Now these visitors have a great new asset to help them appreciate the antiquities on an entirely new level. For anyone planning a trip to the Eternal City, it is strongly recommended that they read “Below Rome” in advance. These same visitors will unquestionably have the book with them during the tours of any necropolis.
The 189 page hardcover volume may be purchased on Amazon.com, at your local book store or from the publishing house St. Johann Press, P.O. Box 241, Haworth, N.J. 07641. (Include $5.00 for shipping when ordering from the publisher.)
Frank Korn studied as a Fulbright Scholar at the American Academy in Rome and taught Classical Studies at Seton Hall University for many years. He is the author of hundreds of articles. This is Professor Korn’s ninth book. His wife and co-author, Camille Korn, has assisted in chronicling the couple’s countless research trips to Rome.