Flavia Domitilla donated the use of her family catacombs on her suburban property. It already hosted an above-ground cemetery. (Two of her household staff were buried above-ground.*) Although Flavia Domitilla’s nuclear and extended family disappears from history after 95 CE, the Roman congregation continued to use the donated Catacombs of Domitilla for many centuries, evolving from a proto-Christian to a Christian congregation. After Flavia’s death, the property was probably seized by the State. The above-ground portion continued to be used as a cemetery. In short, we cannot assume that the Roman congregation owned the property. They owned the use of the catacombs.
The early use of the catacombs can be inferred from a description of the extant art in all the catacombs of Rome** (Lamberton, Clark D. “The Development of Christian Symbolism as Illustrated in Roman Catacomb Painting.” American Journal of Archaeology 15, no. 4 (1911): 507-522. https://doi.org/10.2307/497187.) The art from the first century is pagan and decorative. Lamberton writes, “Regarding these first century pictures it must be remembered that they are found exclusively in the catacomb of Domitilla in the hypogeum of the Flavian family, and in a room known as the ‘oldest cubiculum,’ and in the catacomb of Priscilla in the hypogeum of the well known Acilian family.” (pp. 510-511).
Regarding the Catacombs of Domitilla, Lamberton’s description is consistent with the following scenario: Flavia Domitilla and her (Gentile) family members were interred in the two rooms mentioned. These rooms were adorned with pagan decorative art. The family soon died out (her seven small children disappear from the historical record at the same time she was exiled and her husband was killed). The fact that two rooms are mentioned implies that more people used it than two adults and seven children. Possibly Flavia Domitilla inherited the catacombs from her or her husband’s relatives, who had also been buried there.
After Flavia’s death, the only persons using the catacombs of Domitilla were members of the Roman congregation. Imagery from Judean and Christian texts began to appear in the early 2nd century. “In the second century, and early in the century, the frame and groundwork of Christian catacomb symbolism was evolved.” (p. 512)
*Jean Eracle https://www.aasm.ch/pages/echos/ESM062018.pdf , pp 114-115 mentions the existence of inscriptions for Flavia’s children’s wet-nurse, Tatia Baucyl, and Hector, a buffoon in Flavia’s household. Tatia’s inscription mentions her own freedmen and freedwomen.
**”Of these 132 subjects or themes it will be observed that 20 are first century in origin, 34 are second, 22 are third, 49 are fourth, and 7 are fifth century and later….In the first century they seem to be subjects taken from nature, such as were common in contemporary pagan art, and used largely for decorative purposes. The list includes dolphins, vine and flower designs, cupids, peacocks and other birds, animal forms, a sea monster, ideal forms, landscape genre pictures, a fishing scene, and various decorative designs.(4) Regarding these first century pictures it must be remembered that they are found exclusively in the catacomb of Domitilla in the hypogeum of the Flavian family, and in a room known as the “oldest cubiculum,” and in the catacomb of Priscilla in the hypogeum of the well known Acilian family. (emphasis added) Note 4: Second half of the first century, catacomb of Domitilla. Wilpert, Malereien, pl. 1 ff.
Original post November 1, 2021