Last week I mentioned a promising new book, The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions, co-authored by three members of the Pontifical Commission on Sacred Archeology. Over the weekend I was able to borrow a copy from Lea Ravotti, the great contemporary Christian artist and premiere interpreter of ancient Christian art. The book is the stuff of which obsessions are made. I could blog on it for a year and never want for good material. I hope, at some point, to do a more in-depth review for Touchstone magazine. In the meantime, I’ll post occasional bits from this lavishly illustrated coffee-table volume.
Certainly the book benefits from the, um, depth of the knowledge of its authors. They’re in situ, living, teaching, noting correspondences in the many miles of underground corridors. From their intimate knowledge of thousands of inscriptions, artifacts, bone fragments, and artworks, they’re able to give us brief and brilliant glimpses of the ordinary lives of the early Christians. What kind of work did they do? Were they poor? rich? middle-class? How old were they when they married? What did they value in their spouses? In their children? In their priests? How did they die? Answers to all these questions arise from the epitaphs in the Catacombs.
One fascinating section deals with the names bestowed and taken by the Christians of Rome. How many took biblical names? How many were named after early martyrs? How many Christian parents stuck with the old, traditional Roman names — the names of pagan deities?
One illuminating subsection covers “Humiliating names or nicknames.”
In Christian nomenclature, the so-called “humiliating names” or “shameful names” form a distinctive group. These names, when not defamatory, were sometimes used by some faithful as a life-long act of modesty, precisely because of their unpleasant significance…
This is the case of Proiectus and Proiecticus, which meant “exposed,” and the unpleasant Stercorius, with the Greek parallel Coprion, that can be understood as “abandoned in the garbage.” Further proof of the abandonment of minors comes from the large number of alumni or “adoptive children” recorded in the Christian epigraphy of Rome. At the Catacomb of Pretestato, one of them was in fact named Stercorinus.
The authors (or the translators) are being polite. Stercorius means, literally, crap. It’s most accurately translated by what kids call “the S-word.” Thus, Stercorinus (the diminutive) means “Little S***,” or “Dear S***.”
I have posted before on the Roman custom of abandoning “defective” or female infants on the dungheap. Apparently, some were rescued and adopted — but their neighbors and playmates would taunt them by reminding them of their lowly origins. The authors of this volume speculate that some of these children, on becoming Christian, chose to keep their foul nicknames as an act of humility — or perhaps an act of triumphant irony. The joke, after all, was on the pagan world, which would soon enough die out for the crime of murdering its young. The children who were dung in the eyes of Imperial Rome were precious in the sight of God.
Reading this book is a profoundly religious experience.
And to those of you who will join me in the Catacombs in May: Just wait and see!