About a year ago, I posted a short review of The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions, by Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai, Fabrizio Bisconti, and Danilo Mazzoleni. I wrote a long review for last October’s issue of Touchstone Magazine, and the full version follows.
The Roman catacombs are a veritable city of the dead. More than sixty miles of labyrinthine corridors have been discovered so far, and archeologists are still finding more. Estimates of their population range into the millions. And they are our richest source of evidence of early Christian life.
A lavishly illustrated coffee-table volume, The Christian Catacombs of Rome allows us to walk those corridors with three of the world’s leading experts on the subject. All are members of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission on Sacred Archeology; all teach archeology at Roman universities.
From their intimate knowledge of thousands of inscriptions, artifacts, bone fragments, and artworks, the authors give us brief and brilliant glimpses of the ordinary lives of the early Christians, answering questions like: What kind of work did they do? Were they poor, rich, or middle-class? (See below.) How old were they when they married? (Women were 14-20, men 20-30.) What qualities did they value in their spouses and in their children? (No surprise here: fidelity, affability, concord, integrity.) How did they die? (Relatively few were martyrs.)
The catacombs were dug by a professional corps of tunnelers out of the soft volcanic rock at the outskirts of Rome. Following soon after were an army of artists and artisans: brick masons, stone masons, plasterers, sculptors, mosaic and fresco artists, not to mention priests and mourners.
And much of this industry bustled during a time of intermittent persecution. Though the Christian catacombs represent the first massive public work of the Church, they were, so to speak, an underground economy.
The book divides neatly into three sections. Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai sketches the catacombs’ origin and development, giving readers a concise but complete introduction to the subject. He covers not only the history of their construction, but also the history of their excavation — which, given the crude methods of past centuries, was sometimes their destruction.
In the second section, Fabrizio Bisconti examines the artistic decoration of the catacombs and its interpretation (a field given to much controversy). In the final section, Danilo Mazzoleni highlights the 40,000 inscriptions that embellish the tombs, inscriptions that range from graffiti scratched in plaster to poems chiseled in marble.
All three sections are packed with useful and fascinating details. Mazzoleni, for example, uses the epitaphs to show us what the early Christians did for a living. They were “bricklayers, cleaners, dyers, seamstresses, shoemakers and cobblers . . . doctors and veterinarians, lawyers, notaries, stenographers, couriers, teachers, and clerks of grain administration.” Thus, we see the whole range of professions and social classes, and probably in close proportion to their distribution in Roman society.
Along the way, he challenges the fairly common assertion that the pre-Constantinian Christians were overwhelmingly pacifist. On the contrary, he writes, “diverse specialties and every rank” of the military are represented in Christian catacomb inscriptions, “including praetorians (the corps was disbanded by Constantine), cavalry and equites singulares.”
Mazzoleni also analyzes the names bestowed and taken by the Christians of Rome. Readers can follow the trends through those early centuries, learning, for example, that relatively few chose biblical names, and many chose the names of martyrs (there are 3,000 Lawrences in one catacomb alone!). It was more common, however, to choose names with theological associations, such as Agape (love), Irene (peace), Anastasius (resurrection), Spes (hope), Quodvultdeus (what God wills), and so on. And many Christians seem to have stuck with the old, traditional Roman names, the names of pagan deities (Hermes, Hercules, Aphrodite, Eros).
One illuminating subsection covers “Humiliating names or nicknames.” These names “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, [which] can be understood as ‘abandoned in the garbage.’ . . . At the Catacomb of Pretestato, one of them was in fact named Stercorinus.”
The authors (or translators) are being polite. Stercorius is most accurately translated by what kids call “the S-word.” Thus, Stercorinus (the diminutive) means “Little S***,” or “Dear S***.”
Why would Christians bear such a name? It is likely that these particular Romans were, as infants, rescued from the dungheap — the place where Romans abandoned “defective” or female newborns. After all, the pagan philosopher Seneca said: “What is good must be set apart from what is good-for-nothing.”
I’ll bet that no small number of those “good-for-nothings” were rescued by Christian families. They were lucky to be alive, but surely they still had to suffer the taunts of playmates, who were pleased to remind them of their lowly origins.
As Mazzoleni points out, they may have kept those demeaning names as “a life-long act of modesty” — or perhaps as 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. These children who were dung in the eyes of Imperial Rome knew that they were precious in the sight of God.
And in the catacombs they were buried among popes and praetorian guards. Nicolai remarks on the “uniformity of the tombs” that demonstrates the “heavily egalitarian ideology of the new religion.” In the catacombs, Stercorius is immortal, even in a merely historical sense, thanks to the work of these three authors. Reading their book is a profoundly religious experience.