Epigraphy, Christian

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Epigraphy in general is concerned with ancient inscriptions, that is, writings on hard materials, such as stone, metal, clay, bone, and wood. By convention, legends on coins are not included, as they fall within the province of a sister discipline, numismatics.

Christian Epigraphy and Its Scope. Christian epigraphy, which is primarily concerned with inscriptions written in Greek or Latin, deals with writings on hard materials that can be recognized as being Christian in origin and that fall within the period from the 2d to the 7th century. It includes not only the extant Christian inscriptions themselves, but also copies of inscriptions, now lost, as found in the manuscript tradition, such as the Itinerarium Einsidlense and similar documents.

As compared with the some 300,000 profane Greek and Latin inscriptions extant, the Christian Greek and Latin inscriptions comprise a total of some 50,000, the Latin outnumbering the Greek by about five to one. It should be noted both in the case of pagan and Christian inscriptions that the number extant or known through copies represents only a fraction of the total that once existed. The largest number of Christian inscriptions found in any one area come from Rome and its vicinity and total some 20,000. In the 3d century the Greek inscriptions at Rome are as numerous as the Latin, but in the 4th century, the inscriptions are largely Latin, and in the 5th and 6th centuries, Greek disappears from the stones almost completely. The Latin inscriptions from Rome outnumber the Greek by about ten to one. Outside of Rome and Sicily, the number of Christian Greek inscriptions found in the West is very small, but includes the famous pectorius epitaph at Autun. Surprisingly, archeology to date (1965) has brought to light only a relatively limited number of Christian Greek inscriptions on the mainland of Greece, Macedonia, and Thrace, including Constantinople before the 7th century. On the other hand, the finds in Asia Minor, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine have been much more numerous and valuable. The precious inscription of abercius, for example, comes from Phrygia. Outside of Rome the largest number of Christian Latin inscriptions have been found in Gaul, Africa, the rest of Italy, and Spain. Those from Africa and Gaul are especially important for their rich content. The Christian Latin inscriptions found in Germany are relatively few in number, and the same is generally true for Britain, Switzerland, Illyricum, and the East.

Pagan inscriptions embrace all aspects of public and private life and may be easily classified into a large number of special categories. In contrast, the range of Christian inscriptions is limited. They comprise chiefly funeral inscriptions, pious invocations and acclamations, brief professions of faith, scriptural quotations, and, after the Peace of the Church (313), dedications connected with churches and the cult of saints and martyrs and the graffiti of pious pilgrims. In the period before Constantine, and obviously in times of active persecution, many Christian inscriptions exhibit a guarded or symbolic reference to Christian belief, but by the application of all pertinent criteria these so-called crypto-Christian inscriptions may be identified as Christia without qualification.

On the dogmatic side, Christian inscriptions confirm doctrinal statements and liturgical practices recorded in the literary tradition, but they usually lack the fullness and precision of the patristic writings. On the other hand, they are an invaluable source for the organization of the early Church, for the cult of the martyrs, and, above all, for the daily life and occupations of the rank and file in the Christian communities. T. Mommsen's epigrammatic observation regarding pagan inscriptions applies equally well to the Christian: "Die Inschriften sind nicht Denkmäler der Literatur sondern des Lebens" (The inscriptions are not monuments of literature, but of life).

Dating, Letter Forms, Abbreviations, and Linguistic Features. Christian and pagan inscriptions of their very nature have many elements in common that are characteristic of their genre and their age. Funeral inscriptionsand the great majority of Christian inscriptions are in this categoryusually do not indicate any form of official date. At Rome, for example, the first dated Latin inscription comes from 217 (E. Diehl, Inscriptiones Christianae latinae veteres, 3631b), and the first dated Greek inscription from 235. The number of dated Christian inscriptions in both East and West is very small before 325. When dates are given, the West generally employs consular dating, although one finds also examples of dating according to the Mauretanian Era (a.d.39) and according to the Era of Spain (38 b.c.) in Africa and Spain respectively. In the East dating by eras was much more frequent, the more common eras in use being: the Seleucid Era (312 b.c.), Era of Antioch (49 b.c.), Era of Bostra (a.d. 105), and Era of Tyre (126 b.c.). In Egypt, Christians introduced an Era of the Martyrs (a.d. 284). The employment of dating by indictions did not become common before the late 5th century a.d. It should be observed that the Christian Era itself was not used before the early Middle Ages. The assignment of dates to undated Christian inscriptions is difficult. However, the converging evidence of letter forms, formulas, and, above all, accompanying archeological evidence, especially Christian symbols, often make approximate dating reasonably certain. In the case of the catacombs, for example, it has been established that inscriptions found in the topmost galleries are earlier than those found in the lower galleries, which were only dug out later.

Letter Forms. Letter forms in both Christian Greek and Latin inscriptions correspond to the general evolving usage from the 2d to the 7th century. On the whole, the lettering of the earlier Christian inscriptions, especially on the Latin side, is inferior to that in the more or less official pagan inscriptions of the same period (see Grossi Gondi, 868, esp. 3039). An exception must be made later for the elegant Latin capitals created by Furius Dionysius Filocalus for the inscriptions composed by Pope damasus. Funeral inscriptions were normally incised on marble slabs or steles and were often obtained from professional pagan monument makers. This explains in part why a Christian inscription is occasionally found on a slab bearing the conventional pagan dedication DM (Dis manibus ). The Christian graffiti of Rome especially are very important. They were made over a long period and furnish direct evidence for the writing habits, religious ideas, and culture of those who scratched them on walls and tombs.

A number of Christian Latin inscriptions found in Rome are written in Greek letters, and some Greek inscriptions were composed by Latin speakers or for Latin speakers. These phenomena are perhaps best explained by the special reverence and prestige attached to Greek as the liturgical language of Rome into the 4th century. It is significant that the extant papal inscriptionswith the exception of that of Corneliusto the end of the 3d century were written in Greek, although certain other popes listed, as well as Cornelius were not Greek (see Hertling and Kirschbaum, 144).

Abbreviations. Christian inscriptions, especially the Latin, make frequent usein common with pagan Latin inscriptionsof suspension. Both Greek and Latin Christian inscriptions likewise reveal a frequent employment of what may be called the characteristically Christian form of abbreviation, namely, contraction. Pagan and Christian ligatures occur side by side. Monograms are common also, the most important and the most famous being the Constantinian monogram for Christ (see chirho) which can be dated definitely from the year 323, and which assumes various forms (see Grossi Gondi, 5368). Of the Christian cryptograms, IXΘ[symbol omitted]C is the most widely used (see fish, symbolism of). The cryptogram, XMΓ, although not uncommon, has not yet received a generally accepted interpretation (see Testini, 35960). Psephism occurs in Greek Christian inscriptions, but is rare.

Linguistic Features. Christian Greek inscriptions reflect the contemporary usages of the koine especially the nonliterary koine in phonology, morphology, and syntax. Iotacismthe monophthongization of diphthongsbecomes increasingly common from the 4th century, and local aberrations from the common standard occur in Greek inscriptions found in Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, and in the post-Constantinian period in Rome. In some instances, mistakes are clearly the result of an imperfect knowledge of Greek on the part of Orientals. The vast majority of Christian Latin inscriptions are written in Vulgar Latin and reflect to a marked degree the spoken Latin of the age in which they were composed. Along with a large number of pagan inscriptions of the same kind they furnish precious information on the evolution of the living Latin into primitive Romance. Sacred inscriptions of a liturgical character, or dedications of churches or other monuments, composed in the second half of the 4th century and in the early 5th, are usually written in the standard Latin prose style of the period. However, Latin funeral inscriptions, especially from the 4th century, and all Latin inscriptions from the second half of the 5th show a steady deterioration in phonology, morphology, and syntax, in some cases becoming almost unintelligible. (See Grossi Gondi, 41722, but especially the indices in E. Diehl, Inscriptiones Christianae latinae veteres 3.) A number of Christian Greek and Latin verse inscriptions are extant, but as a wholeincluding the epigrams of Pope Damasusthey are more laudable for their pious sentiments than for their poetical quality and metrical accuracy. The most common meters employed are the hexameter, the elegiac couplet, and the iambic trimeter or senarius. Some examples are to be classified as accentual rather than metrical verse.

Christian Names, Places of Origin, and Indications of Age. Some definite tendencies or practices can be noted in the inscriptions, but it is impossible to reduce Christian epigraphical nomenclature to a system. In the beginning Christians apparently retained their pagan names. A baptismal name is attested first for Ignatius of Antioch and thereafter the baptismal name becomes common in place of, or often, beside the earlier name. There was a tendency among the Greeks to use a single name. At Rome, however, the traditional usage of three names gave way only gradually to the dominant employment of the single name in the 4th and 5th centuries. Yet it should be noted that converts from the Roman aristocracy, undoubtedly as a mark of humility, adopted a single name as early as the beginning of the 2d century. The types of names found in Christian inscriptions may be classified, in general, under the following heads: (1) profane or mythological, such as Diogenes, Aphrodisia, Asclepiodotus, Apollonius, Galatea, Phoebus, Hermes, such names being fairly common even after 250; (2) Biblical names, such as Susanna, Abel, Martha, Maria, Petrus, Paulus, and Ioannes; these names, however, being relatively rare, and, with few exceptions, late; (3) specifically Christian names, such as Theodorus, Adeodatus, Renatus, Redemptus, Anastasius, Dominica, Fides, Charitas, and, in particular, from Africa, Quodvultdeus, Spesindeo, Habetdeum; (4) names signifying humility or opprobrium, such as Stercorius, Proiectus, Sceleratus; such names commemorated pagan vilification in the age of persecution and were retained as titles of honor, but also of Christian humility; (5) Christian signa or nicknames introduced by qui et or ς καί, and similar formulas, as Marcellus qui et Exsuperius, Bassa qui et Felix, Anastasia qui et Verula, 'Αγαθ καì Σείρικα, Muscula quae et Galatea.

Filiation is normally indicated in Christian Latin inscriptions by the use of filius as an appositive preceded or followed by the genitive of the parent's name, as Novellus Crescentis filius, Primigenia filia Primigenii. In Christian Greek inscriptions, filiation is indicated by the genitive alone, or by υός or θυγάτηρ followed by the genitive. Greek and Latin inscriptions, as their pagan counterparts, often indicate the native region or place of origin of the defunct by a variety of phrases or proper adjectives.

The age lived is indicated commonly by the simple vixit or ζησε accompanied by the number of years, but Latin inscriptions in particular often include months and days and exhibit specific Christian formulas, as vixit in saeculo, vixit in pace. In the fourth and fifth centuries the date of birth is often given according to the consular date. Latin inscriptions, especially, often indicate the age at which Baptism was received or the number of years between Baptism and death. The years lived in marriage are likewise often indicated, and already among the earliest Christian Latin inscriptions. Such information is rarely found in Christian Greek inscriptions.

Family, Civil Status, and Professions. The early Christian inscriptions tend, in general, to ignore distinctions of class and condition, but from the middle of the fourth century data of this kind rapidly became common. They reveal a closely knit Christian family life. Slavery is recognized as a traditional institution but the Christian slave, from the religious point of view, is a person possessing sacred personal rights. Christians are found engaged in a wide range of professions from grammarians and physicians to merchants, bakers, carpenters, dyers, and farmers. They are found also in the higher and lower nobility and as incumbents in all the offices of the imperial administration and in that of the municipalities. (See the lists furnished by Grossi Gondi, 10019; Leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed.F. Cabrol, H. Leclerq, and H. I. Marrou, 7.1:75059; and Inscriptiones Christianae latinae veteres 3, Res Romanae, 43158.)

The Church and the Cult of Martyrs and Confessors. With some important exceptions, the pertinent inscriptionsat least the dated onesbelong to the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries. The Church, the Christian community as a whole, or the Christian communities at the regional or local level, are normally designated by the term κκλησία, ecclesia, but often accompanied by a qualifying genitive or by a qualifying adjective. The combination Ecclesia Catholica appears first on the stones at Rome in an inscription of Pope Damasus composed in 362. Despite the frequent use of "Christian" in the literary tradition from New Testament times, this word occurs rarely in inscriptions outside Asia Minor. A newly baptized or full member of the Christian community is frequently called a νεοφώτιστος, πιστός, neophytus, fidelis. Puer and puella are sometimes used in the same sense.

The Clergy. The inscriptions furnish evidence for an early distinction between clergy and laity and for clerical ranks. Of the minor orders, that of lector is mentioned with the greatest frequency. The major orders are much better represented, and from the pre-Constantinian period come diaconus (also called levita ), presbyter, episcopus. The Roman inscriptions include references to the presbyteri of the titular churches. For πίσκσπς, episcopus, special mention must be made of the early list of the bishops of Rome discovered in the Cemetery of Callistus beginning with ANTEPωC EIII (236) and including one name in Latin letters, CORNELIVS MARTYR EP. Other terms used with some frequency to designate a bishop are sacerdos, antistes, papa, praesul (poetic), and pontifex the last, because of its earlier pagan employment, only from the 5th century. Among other words designating ecclesiastical or quasi-ecclesiastical status it will suffice to note archidiaconus, diaconessa, vidua, fossor; from monastic life, monachus, virgo, virgo devota, virgo sacra or sacrata.

Numerous titles or expressions are found that connote devotion or humility: servus Dei (used by bishops, lower clergy, and laity), servus Christi, famulus Dei, ancilla Dei (often used to indicate a virgo sacra, but also applied to unmarried girls and married women), δο[symbol omitted]λος Θεο[symbol omitted], δο[symbol omitted]λος Xριστο[symbol omitted], δούλη Θεο[symbol omitted]. Peccator is confined largely to ecclesiastical use and is found especially in the graffiti.

Cult of the Martyrs and Confessors. The inscriptions reveal an early cult of martyrs and confessors and its steady development. The term confessor is often employed, by Pope Damasus, for example, in the sense of martyr as well as in its stricter meaning. There are no dated examples before the 4th century, as the siglum MPT and the word martyr found in the epitaphs of the popes mentioned above were added later. Yet it seems very probable that a few undated inscriptions referring to martyrs are earlier than Constantine. In any event, from the early 4th century the number of inscriptions honoring martyrs increases rapidly, culminating in the poetic epitaphs of Pope Damasus incised in the beautiful Filocalian letters (see A. Ferrua, Epigrammata Damasiana ). Martyrs are given the epithets sanctus, beatus, or, often in the superlative, sanctissimus, beatissimus. Such epithets are frequently given in abbreviated form. However, it should be noted that sanctus may be used also in a broader sense to indicate the faithful in general (sancti ) or an individual pious Christian [see H. Delehaye, Sanctus (Brussels 1927)].

Funerary Formulas. The Christian inscriptions, the great majority of which, as already noted, are funerary, exhibit their specific Christian character by their constant expression of an unquestioned belief in a life after death and in the resurrection of the body. Earthly life is a journey, a peregrinatio, to the Christian's true homeland (patria ), heaven. Death is not the end, but the beginning of the true and eternal life with God. Hence the Christian dies natalis is not the day of physical birth but the day of death. The passage of the soul or spirit to the other world, to life with God, is indicated by a variety of expressions, for example: abiit in pace, decessit (from 234 in Rome), discessit, evocatus a Domino, excessit, ingressus in pace, migravit de hac luce, recessit, recessit in pace; in Greek, πεγένετο, πεχώρει πρς (τν) Kύριον, ξ[symbol omitted]λθε. It must be emphasized that these expressions are not euphemisms for death but reflect literally the Christian belief mentioned above. Burial is described as a "storing away" of the body, or as a rest or sleep, until the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day. This is the meaning conveyed by Latin depositus est, depositio, conditus in sarcophago, dormit, dormivit in pace, hic iacet, pausat, quiescit, requiescit (which becomes the basic liturgical word), and by Greek νεπαύσατο, κοίμησις, κοιμήθη, κε[symbol omitted]ται.

The Christians, as noted earlier, followed generally the pagan system of dating for years, months, and days. However, there are sporadic and late examples of the use of dies dominica for dies Solis, of dies Sabbadi for dies Saturni, and of feria for one of the other days of the week.

Inscriptions often praise the virtues or piety of the dead. Expressions like the following are common: sanctissima femina, benemerenti (in pagan use also), devotus obsequiis martyrum, castissima et pudicissima, amator or amatrix pauperurm, μακάριος, θεοπιλέστατος, θεοσεβής.

Christian Dogma and Religious Practices. Because of their brevity, inscriptions do not furnish detailed information on Christian doctrine, yet they contain confirmatory evidence for the major Christian teachings. Thus, they reflect the universal belief in the Trinity, divinity of Christ, Redemption, remission of sins, communion of saints, resurrection of the dead, eternal life. They advocate and contain prayers for the living and the dead. They are particularly valuable for the evidence that they furnish on Baptism, the Eucharist, and Matrimony. They give precious information on the consecration and dedication of churches, on votive offerings, on the veneration of relics, and on the Christian calendar and feasts (especially Easter). Their acclamations, invocations, and prayers in general represent in many respects primitive liturgical formulas. Biblical quotations or adaptations of scriptural passages contribute to our knowledge not only of the early liturgy but also to the textual criticism of the Greek and Latin Bibles. It is hardly necessary to observe that the investigation of Christian inscription must be combined as closely as possible with the study of the accompanying early Christian symbolic art and with that of early Christian literature in all its phases. (For Jewish inscriptions in Greek and Latin, see the works by Frey and Leon cited in the bibliography.)

See Also: art, early christian; rossi, giovanni battista de.

Bibliography: Surveys, Manuals, History. w. larfield, Griechische Epigraphik (3d ed. Munich 1914). r. bloch, L'Épigraphie latine ("Que sais-je?" rev. ed. Paris 1965). r. cagnat, Cours d'épigraphie latine (4th ed. Paris 1914). h. thylander, Études sur l'épigraphie latine: Date des inscriptions, noms et dénomination latine, noms et origine des personnes (Lund 1952). a. ferrua, ed., Epigrammata Damasiana (Vatican City 1942). p. testini, "Epigrafia," in his Archeologia cristiana (Rome 1959) 329543, the most up-to-date comprehensive treatment. l. jalabert, Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique, ed. a. d'ales et al. (Paris 1912) 1:140453, old but still valuable. l. jalabert and r. mouterde, "Inscriptions grecques chrétiennes," Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq, and h. i. marrou, 15 v. (Paris 190753) 7.1:62394. h. leclercq, "Inscriptions latines chrétiennes," ibid. 694850; "Inscriptions (Histoire des recueils d')," ibid. 8501089. These articles contain a large number of epigraphical texts and are furnished with copious bibliogs. o. marucchi, Epigrafia cristiana (Milan 1910), Eng. tr. j. a. willis (Cambridge, Eng. 1912), confined almost entirely to Rome. c. m. kaufmann, Handbuch der altchristlichen Epigraphik (Freiburg 1917). f. grossi gondi, Trattato di epigrafia cristiana latina e greca del mondo romano occidentale (Rome 1920). l. hertling and e. kirschbaum, The Roman Catacombs and Their Martyrs, tr. m. j. costelloe (2d ed. London 1960). i. kajanto, Onomastic Studies in the Early Christian Inscriptions of Rome and Carthage (in Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae 2.1; Helsinki 1963). a. degrassi, "Dati demografici in iscrizioni cristiane di Roma," Rendiconti della Classe di Scienze dell' Accademia dei Lincei 18 (1963) 2028. Collections, Greek. Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum, ed. a. boeckh et al., v.4 (Berlin 1959) nos. 86069026. In IG the Christian inscriptions are presented passim. See esp. v.14. j. s. creaghan and a. e. raubitschek, "Early Christian Epitaphs from Athens," Hesperia 16 (1947) 154. f. halkin, "Inscriptions grecques relatives à l'hagiographie," Analecta Bollandiana 67 (1949) 87108; 69 (1951) 6776; 70 (1952) 11637, 30611; 71 (1953) 7479, 32658. l. a. jalabert and r. mouterde, eds., Inscriptions grecques et latines de la Syrie (Paris 1929). No convenient collection of Christian Greek inscriptions corresponding to Diehl (see below) is available. Collections, Latin. e. diehl, Inscriptiones Christianae latinae veters, 3 v. (Berlin 192531), with invaluable index. In Corpus inscriptionum latinarum (Berlin 1863), the Christian Latin inscriptions are omitted from v.6, as they are contained in De Rossi and Silvagni. In the other v. they are presented passim. j. b. de rossi, ed., Inscriptiones christianae Urbis Romae septimo saeculo antiquiores, 2 v. (Rome 185787), new series ed. a. silvagni and a. ferrua, 3 v. (Rome 192257); Monumenta epigraphica Christiana saec. XII antiquiora quae in Italiae finibus adhuc extant (Rome 1944). j. vives, Inscripciones cristianas de la España romana y visigoda (Barcelona 1942). Sylloge inscriptionum christianorum veterum Musei Vaticani, ed. h. zillacus et al. (Helsinki 1963). e. diehl, Inscriptiones latinae (Bonn 1912), plates 3250. j. b. frey, Corus inscriptionum Judaicarum, ed. j. b. frey (Rome 1936). h. j. leon, The Jews of Ancient Rome (Philadelphia 1960). For photographs of Christian inscriptions in addition to those contained in the works listed above, see f. van der meer and c. mohrmann, Atlas of the Early Christian World, ed. and tr. m. f. hedlund and h. h. rowley (New York 1958), passim. For new discoveries and current bibliography, see Revista di archeologia cristiana (Rome 1924) and L'Année philologique (Paris 1928) s.v. "Épigraphie chrétienne."

[m. r. p. mcguire]