Catacomba ad clivum Cucumeris is a lost 4th century (?) set of catacombs with a basilical church, thought to be somewhere around the Via Francesco Denza. (south-east of the church of Sacro Cuore Immacolato di Maria). This is in the Pinciano quarter.
The church was dedicated to a resident martyr called St John the Priest or St John of Rome.
Via Salaria Vetus Edit
This set of catacombs was located on the so-called Via Salaria Vetus, which was part of an ancient trackway along the left bank of the Tiber long before Rome was a city. This was almost certainly in use in the Mesolithic period (Late Stone Age), and became the Via Salaria. The ancient, but probably false, etymology translates the name as "Salt-trading way" (the name might well have come from a pre-Latin and pre-Etruscan Bronze Age language used locally when the Latins were still confined to the Alban Hills).
A circuitous part of the route through what is now the Pinciano quarter was bypassed by the Roman road-builders by a straighter alignment, the Via Salaria Nova. After the Aurelian Walls were built, this cut-off section had its own gate at the Porta Pinciana and functioned as an alternative route between the Milvian Bridge and the Quirinal.
A series of catacombs was established along the road by the 4th century, which became pilgrimage destinations because of the martyrs enshrined there.
Series of catacombs Edit
The catacombs along the Via Salaria Vetus listed in the early mediaeval sources are, in order from the city gate:
Catacombe di San Panfilo (under the church of Santa Teresa del Bambin Gesù in Panfilo).
Catacomba ad clivum Cucumeris.
The last set of catacombs is only known from the pilgrimage itineraries, and the dates of its foundation and abandonment are unknown. However, they were obviously important and contained several venerated martyrs.
Unusually, these catacombs had two topographical names, and both are still used in print. They are given in the Notitia Regionum Urbis Romae, mid 4th century:
Coemeterium ad septem palumbas ad caput sancti Iohannes in clivum Cucumeris.
Septem palumbas means "seven woodpigeons", and seems to have referred to a rural hostelry or inn. The Roman martyrology prefers this name. (Beware of the translation "seven doves" -the woodpigeon is a hefty bird and not a dove.)
Clivum Cucumeris means "Cucumber slope". This is odd, because it refers to one cucumber (cucumis), not to a crop (which would be cucumerum). It might have referred to a tower, in the same way that the Gherkin in London got its name.
A third name occurs only once -Martyrum concilia which means "Assemblies of martyrs". See below.
St John Edit
Most likely in the mid 4th century, a church was built over the catacombs in honour of one of the martyrs. This was St John the Priest, who had the following entry in the old Roman martyrology (before 2001):
Romae sancti Joannis Presbyteri, qui, sub Juliano Apostata, via Salaria veteri, ante simulacrum Solis decollatus est, et corpus ejus a beato Concordio Presbytero juxta Martyrum Concilia sepultum.
("At Rome, St John the Priest who, under Julian the Apostate was beheaded on the Via Salaria Vetus in front of an image of the Sun [Sol invictus] and whose body was buried by blessed Concordius the priest next to the Assemblies of Martyrs.")
The place-name Martyrum concilia only occurs in this text, and has been puzzled over by scholars since the 17th century. However, there has been an elucidation through the recent discovery of a hypogeum containing repeated mass burials of high-status victims of epidemic disease at Santi Marcellino e Pietro ad Duas Lauros. This was the first mass burial on record to be discovered in any of the catacombs at Rome, but it is very likely that the name just given refers to others found ad clivum Cucumeris in early mediaeval times.
When these catacombs were on the early mediaeval pilgrimage circuit, St John's head was venerated under the altar of the basilica but his body was still kept in the catacombs.
Unusually St John, and his fellow martyrs in these catacombs, did not have an edifying but fictional legend composed for them in the early Middle Ages. Perhaps for this reason, nobody was interested enough to record what happened to his relics and those of the rest. However, there is a strong but unprovable scholarly suspicion that his head is being venerated as that of St John the Baptist at San Silvestro in Capite.
Other martyrs Edit
The various early mediaeval sources inform us of the following, and illustrate the serious problems involved in figuring out who was who among the martyrs here:
Indices oleorum quae collegit Iohannes abbas
-Pittacia ampullarum: S.c.s Systus, s.c.s Liberalis...Blastro et multa milia...alii CXXII et alii s.c.i XLV...
-Index oleorum: s.c.i Iohannis, s.c.i Liberalis, s.c.e Lucinae, s.c.i Blastro et multorum s.c.orum, sed et alii s.c.i id est CCLXII in unum locum et alii CXXII et alii s.c.i XLVI quos omnes Iustinus pr[es]b[yter] colliga s.c.i Laurenti martyris sepelivit.
Itinerarium Salisburgensi: Deinde vadis ad orientem [that is, from Basilica e Catacomba di San Valentino} donec venias ad ecclesiam Iohannis martyris via Salinaria, ibi requiescit Diogenus martyr et in altero cubiculo Bonifacianus, et Fistus martyr sub terra, sub terra Blastus martyr, deinde Iohannis martyr, postea Longuinus martyr.
Epitome libri de locis Sanctorum Martyrum: Inde [that is, from Basilica e Catacomba di Sant'Ermete] non longe est in occidente ecclesia s. Iohannis martayris, ubi caput eius in alio loco sub altare ponitur, in alio corpus; ibi s. Diogenes et s. Fistus [in one ms. corrected to Sistus] st s. Liberatus, et s. Blastus et s. Maurus et s. Longina mater Iohannis sunt sepulti et alia mille CCXXII martyres.
Notitia portarum: Cum pervenit ad Salariam nomen perdit, et ibi prope in eo loco qui dicitur cucumeris requiescunt martyres Festus, Iohannes, Liberalis, Diogenes, Blastus, Lucina et in uno sepulcro CCLX et in altero XXX.
So, we have the following list of eight named martyrs: Systus OR Fistus, Liberalis, Blastrus OR Blastus, Lucina, Diogenus, Bonifatius, Longinus (male) OR Longina ("mother of John") and Maurus. Also we have a series of mass burials of martyrs: three involving 262, 122 and 46, or one involving 1222 or one involving 260.
The revised Roman martyrology (2001) has kept three of these. Blastus and Diogenes are listed on 17 June, and Liberalis on 20 December with a note that, by tradition, he had been a consul.
It is suspected now that the mass burials were of victims of epidemics.
The catacombs probably fell out of use in the 9th century, although this was not recorded. The official position is that they have never been rediscovered.
This is bizarre, because the area has been fully developed as a suburb and the surface remains must have been obvious to the developers as soon as they started to dig. They must have been tidied away illegally, and in secret.
Further, there is a rumour that Umberto Maria Fasola discovered the catacombs in 1955 but that the discovery was corruptly suppressed on behalf of local landowners.
It is a fair guess that any urban explorers poking around the Via Francesco Denza (the suspected locality) will have some large dogs set on them.