Early Christian inscriptions

Early Christian inscriptions

Early Christian inscriptions form, as non-literary remains, a valuable source of information on the development of Christian thought and life in the early Church. They may be divided into three main classes: sepulchral inscriptions, epigraphic records, and inscriptions concerning private life.

General characteristics


The material on which early Christian inscriptions were written was the same as that used for pagan inscriptions. For the first two and most important classes, the substance commonly employed was stone of different kinds, native or preferably imported. The use of metal was not so common. When the inscription is properly cut into the stone, it is called a titulus or marble; if merely scratched on the stone, the Italian word graffito is used; a painted inscription is called dipinto, and a mosaic inscription—such as are found largely in North Africa, Spain, and the East—bears the name of opus musivum. It was a common practice in Greek and Latin lands to make use of slabs already inscribed, i.e. to take the reverse of a slab containing a pagan inscription for the inscribing of a Christian one; such a slab is called an opisthograph. The form of the Christian inscriptions does not differ from that of the contemporary pagan inscriptions, except when sepulchral in character, and then only in the case of the tituli of the catacombs. The most common form in the East was the upright "stele" ( _el. στήλη, a block or slab of stone), frequently ornamented with a fillet or a projecting curved moulding; in the West a slab for the closing of the grave was often used. Thus the greater number of the graves (loculi) in the catacombs were closed with thin, rectangular slabs of terra-cotta or marble; the graves called arcosolia were covered with heavy, fiat slabs, while on the sarcophagi a panel (tabula) or a disk (discus) was frequently reserved on the front wall for an inscription.

Artistic value

The majority of the early Christian inscriptions, viewed from a technical and paleographical standpoint, give evidence of artistic decay: this remark applies especially to the tituli of the catacombs, which are, as a rule, less finely executed than the pagan work of the same time. A striking exception is formed by the Damasine letters introduced in the 4th century by Furius Dionysius Filocalus, the calligraphist of Pope Damasus I. The other forms of letters did not vary essentially from those employed by the ancients. The most important was the classical capital writing, customary from the time of Augustus; from the 4th century on it was gradually replaced by the uncial writing, the cursive characters being more or less confined to the graffito inscriptions.


Latin inscriptions are the most numerous. In the East, Greek was commonly employed, interesting dialects being occasionally found (e.g. in the recently deciphered Christian inscriptions from Nubia in Southern Egypt). Special mention should also be made of the Coptic inscriptions. The text is very often shortened by means of signs and abbreviations. Specifically Christian abbreviations were found side by side with the usual pagan contractions at an early date. One of the most common of the latter, "D. M." (i.e. "Diis Manibus", "to the protecting Deities of the Lower World"), was stripped of its pagan meaning, and adopted in a rather mechanical way among the formulae of the early Christians. In many cases the dates of Christian inscriptions must be judged from circumstances; when the date is given, it is the consular year. The method of chronological computation varied in different countries. Our present Dionysian chronology does not appear in the early Christian inscriptions.

epulchral inscriptions

The earliest of these epitaphs are characterized by their brevity, only the name of the dead being given. Later a short acclamation was added (e.g. "in God", "in Peace"); from the end of the 2nd century the formulae were enlarged by the addition of family names and the date of burial. In the third and fourth centuries the text of the epitaphs was made more complete by the statement of the age of the deceased, the date (reckoned according to the consuls in office), and laudatory epithets. For these particulars each of the lands comprising the Roman empire had its own distinct expressions, contractions, and acclamations. Large use was made of symbolism. Thus the open cross is found in the epitaphs of the catacombs as early as the 2nd century, and from the third to the 6th century the monogrammatic cross in its various forms appears as a regular part of the epitaphs. The cryptic emblems of primitive Christianity are also used in the epitaphs, e.g. the fish (Christ), the anchor (hope), the palm (victory) and the representation of the soul in the other world as a female figure (orante) with arms extended in prayer. Beginning with the 4th century, after the victory of the Church over paganism, the language of the epitaphs was more frank and open. Emphasis was laid upon a life according to the dictates of Christian faith, and prayers for the dead were added to the inscription. The prayers inscribed thus early on the sepulchral slabs reproduce in large measure the primitive liturgy of the funeral service. They implore for the dead eternal peace and a place of refreshment (refrigerium), invite to the heavenly love-feast (Agape), and wish the departed the speedy enjoyment of the light of Paradise, and the fellowship of God and the saints.

A perfect example of this kind of epitaph is that of the Egyptian monk Schenute; it is taken verbally from e ancient Greek liturgy. It begins with the doxology, "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen", and continues:

May the God of the spirit and of all flesh, Who has overcome death and trodden Hades under foot, and has graciously bestowed life on the world, permit this soul of Father Schenute to attain to rest in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the place of light and of refreshment, where affliction, pain, and grief are no more. O gracious God, the lover of men, forgive him all the errors which he has committed by word, act, or thought. There is indeed no earthly pilgrim who has not sinned, for Thou alone, O God, art free from every sin.
The epitaph repeats the doxology at the close, and adds the petition of the scribe: "O Savior, give peace also to the scribe." When the secure position of the Church assured greater freedom of expression, the non-religious part of the sepulchral inscriptions was also enlarged. In Western Europe and in the East it was not unusual to note, both in the catacombs and in the cemeteries above ground, the purchase or gift of the grave and its dimensions. Commonly admitted also into the early Christian inscriptions are the pagan minatory formulae against desecration of the grave or its illegal use as a place of further burial.

Historical and theological inscriptions

To many of the early Christian sepulchral inscriptions we are indebted for much information concerning the original development of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, besides which they are of great value as a confirmation of Catholic truths. Thus, for example, from the earliest times we meet in them all the hierarchical grades from the door-keeper (ostiarius) and lector up to the pope. A number of epitaphs of the early popes (Pontianus, Anterus, Fabianus, Cornelius, Lucius, Eutychianus, Caius) were found in the so-called "Papal Crypt" in the Catacomb of St. Callistus on the Via Appia, rediscovered by De Rossi and well known to every pilgrim to Rome. Numbers of early epitaphs of bishops have been found from Germany to Nubia. Priests are frequently mentioned, and reference is often made to deacons, subdeacons, exorcists, lectors, acolytes, fossores or grave-diggers, alumni or adopted children. The Greek inscriptions of Western Europe and the East yield especially interesting material; in them is found, in addition to other information, mention of archdeacons, archpriests, deaconesses, and monks. Besides catechumens and neophytes, reference is also made to virgins consecrated to God, nuns, abbesses, holy widows, one of the last-named being the mother of Pope Damasus I, the celebrated restorer of the catacombs. Epitaphs of martyrs and tituli mentioning the martyrs are not found as frequently as one would expect, especially in the Roman catacombs. This, however, is easily explained by recalling the circumstances of burial in the periods of persecution, when Christians must have been contented to save and to give even secret burial to the remains of their martyrs. Many a nameless grave among the five million estimated to exist in the Roman catacombs held the remains of early Christian martyrs. Another valuable repertory of Catholic theology is found in the dogmatic inscriptions in which all important dogmas of the Church meet (incidentally) with monumental confirmation. The monotheism of the worshippers of the Word–or Cultores Verbi, as the early Christians loved to style themselves–and their belief in Christ are well expressed even in the early inscriptions. Very ancient inscriptions emphasize, and with detail the most profound of Catholic dogmas, the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. In this connexion we may mention the epitaph of Abercius, Bishop of Hieropolis in Phrygia (2nd century), and the somewhat later epitaph of Pectorius at Autun in Gaul. The inscription of Abercius speaks of the fish (Christ) caught by a holy virgin, which serves as food under the species of bread and wine; it speaks, further, of Rome, where Abercius visited the chosen people, the Church par excellence. This important inscription aroused at first no little controversy among scholars, and some non-Catholic archeologists sought to find in it a tendency to pagan syncretism. Now, however, its purely Christian character is almost universally acknowledged. The original was presented by Sultan Abdul Hamid to Leo XIII, and is preserved in the Apostolic Museum at the Lateran. Early Christian inscriptions confirm the Catholic doctrine of the Resurrection, the sacraments, the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the primacy of the Apostolic See in Rome. It would be difficult to over-estimate the importance of these evidences, for they are always entirely incidental elements of the sepulchral inscriptions, all of which were pre-eminently eschatological in their purpose.

Poetical and official inscriptions

While the copious material obtained from the early Christian epitaphs, especially the inscriptions of the Roman (Latin) and the Greek-Oriental groups, is equivalent to a book in stone on the faith and life of the early Christians, the purely literary side of these monuments is not insignificant. Many inscriptions have the character of public documents; others are in verse, either taken from well-known poets, or at times the work of the person erecting the memorial. Fragments of classical poetry, especially quotations from Virgil, are occasionally found. The most famous composer of poetical epitaphs in Christian antiquity was Pope Damasus I (366–384), mentioned above. He repaired the neglected tombs of the martyrs and the graves of distinguished persons who had lived before the Constantinian epoch, and adorned these burial places with metrical epitaphs in a peculiarly beautiful lettering. Nearly all the larger cemeteries of Rome owe to this pope large stone tablets of this character, several of which have been preserved in their original form or in fragments. Besides verses on his mother Laurentia and his sister Irene, he wrote an autobiographical poem addressed to Christ:

Thou Who stillest the waves of the deep, Whose power giveth life to the seed slumbering in the earth, who didst awaken Lazarus from the dead and give back the brother on the third day to the sister Martha; Thou wilt, so I believe, awake Damasus from death.

Eulogies in honor of the Roman martyrs form the most important division of the Damasine inscriptions. They are written in hexameters, a few in pentameters. The best known celebrate the temporary burial of the two chief Apostles in the Platonia under the basilica of St. Sebastian on the Via Appia, the martyrs Hyacinth and Protus in the Via Salaria Antiqua, Pope Marcellus in the Via Salaria Nova, Saint Agnes in the Via Nomentana, also Saints Laurence, Hippolytus, Gorgonius, Marcellinus and Peter, Eusebius, Tarsicius, Cornelius, Eutychius, Nereus and Achilleus, Felix and Adauctus. Damasus also placed a metrical inscription in the baptistery of the Vatican, and set up others in connexion with various restorations, e.g. an inscription on a stairway of the cemetery of St. Hermes. Altogether there have been preserved as the work of Damasus more than one hundred epigrammata, some of them originals and others written copies. More than one half are probably correctly ascribed to him, even though it is necessary to remember that after his death Damasine inscriptions continued to be set up, i.e. inscriptions in the beautiful lettering invented by Damasus or rather by his calligrapher Furius Dionysius Filocalus. Some of the inscriptions, which imitate the lettering of Filocalus, make special and laudatory mention of the pope who had done so much for the catacombs. Among these are the inscriptions of Pope Vigilius (537-55), a restorer animated by the spirit of Damasus. Some of his inscriptions are preserved in the Lateran Museum. The inscriptions just mentioned possess as a rule a public and official character. Other inscriptions served as official records of the erection of Christian edifices (churches, baptisteries, etc.). Ancient Roman examples of this kind are the inscribed tablet dedicated by Boniface I at the beginning of the 5th century to St. Felicitas, to whom the pope ascribed the settlement of the schism of Eulalius, and the inscription (still visible) of Pope Sixtus III in the Lateran baptistery, etc. The Roman custom was soon copied in all parts of the empire. At Thebessa in Northern Africa there were found fragments of a metrical inscription once set up over a door, and in almost exact verbal agreement with the text of an inscription in a Roman church. Both the basilica of Nola and the church at Primuliacum in Gaul bore the same distich:

Pax tibi sit quicunque Dei penetralia Christi, pectore pacifico candidus ingrederis.

(Peace be to thee whoever enterest with pure and gentle heart into the sanctuary of Christ God.)

In such inscriptions the church building is generally referred to as domus Dei, domus orationis (the house of God, the house of prayer). The present writer found an inscription with the customary Greek term Kyriou (House of the Lord) in the basilica of the Holy Baths, one of the basilicas of the ancient Egyptian town of Menas. In Northern Africa, especially, passages from the psalms frequently occur in Christian inscriptions. The preference in the East was for inscriptions executed in mosaic; such inscriptions were also frequent in Rome, where, it is well known, the art of mosaic reached very high perfection in Christian edifices. An excellent and well-known example is the still extant original inscription of the 5th century on the wall of the interior of the Roman basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine over the entrance to the nave. This monumental record in mosaic contains seven lines in hexameters. On each side of the inscription is a mosaic figure: one is the Ecclesia ex gentibus (Church of the Gentiles), the other the Ecclesia ex circumcisione (Church of the Circumcision). The text refers to the pontificate of Celestine I, during which period an Illyrian priest named Peter founded the church.

Other parts of the early Christian churches were also occasionally decorated with inscriptions, e.g. the titles of roofs and walls. It was also customary to decorate with inscriptions the lengthy cycles of frescoes depicted on the walls of churches. Fine examples of such inscriptions have reached us in the "Dittochaeon" of Prudentius, in the Ambrosian tituli, and in the writings of Paulinus of Nola.

It should be added that many dedicatory inscriptions belong to the eighth and ninth centuries, especially in Rome, where in the eighth century numerous bodies of saints were transferred from the catacombs to the churches of the city.


Although apparently of little value and devoid of all monumental character, the graffiti (i.e. writings scratched on walls or other surfaces) are of great importance historically and otherwise. Many such are preserved in the catacombs and on various early Christian monuments. Of special importance in this respect are the ruins of the fine edifices of the town of Menas in the Egyptian Mareotis (cf. "Proceedings of Society for Bibl. Archæology", 1907, pp. 25, 51, 112). The graffiti help in turn to illustrate the literary sources of the life of the early Christians.

ee also



*de Rossi, "Inscriptiones Christianae urbis Romae septimo saeculo antiquiores" (Rome, 1861)
*Le Blant, "Manuel d'épigraphie chrétienne" (Paris, 1869)
*Ritter, "De compositione titulorum christianorum sepulcralium" (Berlin, 1877)
*M'Caul, "Christian Epitaphs of the First Six Centuries" (London, 1869)
*James Spencer Northcote and William R. Brownlow, "Epitaphs of the Catacombs" (London, 1879)
*Kaufmann, "Handbuch der christlichen Archäologie, pt. III, Epigraphische Denkmäler" (Paderborn, 1905)
*Systus, "Notiones archæologiæ christian , vol. III, pt. I, Epigraphia" (Rome, 1909).

Catholic|Early Christian Inscriptions "The original article was written by Carl Maria Kaufmann."

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