Biblical Archaeology Review 6:3, May/June 1980

Were Christians Buried in Roman Catacombs to Await the Second Coming?

By Charles A. Kennedy

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Marble Faun, a novel about young artists struggling to learn their craft in 19th century Rome, a group of painters visits the catacomb of Callistus on the old Appian Way. As they wander through the tunnels, their way lit by flickering candles, one of the young women becomes separated from the rest. She was lured away by the Ghost of the Catacombs!

The Ghost of the Catacombs, Hawthorne explains, is a “man-demon” who originally “was a [Roman] spy during the persecutions of the early Christians under the Emperor Diocletian” (293–305 A.D.). This man-demon, Memmius, as he was known, scoured the catacombs for Christians hiding from the arm of the Roman law. Memmius had the opportunity to be saved by conversion, but he resisted and was condemned thereafter to wander through “the wide and dreary precincts of the catacomb, seeking to beguile new victims into his own misery. … ”

In Hawthorne’s time, it was reported that a young French lieutenant was lost for days, and only by a stroke of good fortune managed to find his way out. He promptly renounced his atheism and became a Christian. When he died in battle years later, a copy of the New Testament was found in the pocket over his heart. Perhaps this incident provided the background for the episode in Hawthorne’s novel.

Join the BAS Library!

Already a library member? Log in here.

Institution user? Log in with your IP address.