The Empire of Death: The Creation and Early Years

When most people think about the Paris Underground, the first thing that comes to mind is a “creepy tunnel filled with bones.” While this may be true in many regards, the Catacombs have a great and interesting history that shaped and created the tunnels that we know and visit today.

Dating back almost 2000 years – when Paris was still called Lutetia – the Romans were building up the city to their likeness. In order to create the large and intricate structures that were planned, thousands of tons of limestone were required to be mined from underground. Lucky for the builders, the earth beneath Lutetia was filled with limestone. So, they began excavating the earth below the city, creating quarries and large tunnels to obtain the stone.


After the city decided that they did not require these quarries anymore, they left behind a huge tunnel system was made up of long tunnels and enormous rooms, all connected together to create an underground labyrinth. City officials decided that instead of abandoning these tunnels, they should be preserved, and it was agreed that they should house bones and remains of the deceased. The first section of the present-day catacombs was created in 1786, which housed thousands of remains from a previously above ground graveyard.

The city had good reasons to start moving the remains of the deceased below ground. In the late 1700’s to early 1800’s, Europe was still experiencing major outbreaks of disease and health issues were reducing the lifespan of the population. Officials noticed that storing dead bodies above ground was aiding in the spread of deadly diseases, such as the black plague, so the decision was made to reduce the chance of outbreak by moving the problem to where it was less likely for the public to be in contact with illness.

Because of the catacomb’s new popularity as a place to store the dead, many famous Parisians were also laid to rest here. Some notable individuals include Claude Perrault and Salomon de Brosse, both of whom were famous architects at the time, and Robespierre, who passed during the Revolution. Many other Parisians from the Revolution were also buried here as the death count was enormous.


When Napoleon heard about the Catacombs, he wanted to do something more than just throw bones into rooms and tunnels. He sent artists into the tunnels and instructed them to arrange the bones into arrangements that would look pleasing to visitors. This started the tourism aspect of the catacombs, as the placements of the bones created an eerie and unsettling atmosphere that attracted visitors from all over.

-Matthew Reiss

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One Response to The Empire of Death: The Creation and Early Years

  1. Pingback: The Cataphiles: Dwellers of the Parisian Underground » Mapping Paris

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