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§ 86. Epitaphs.

"Rudely written, but each letter

Full of hope, and yet of heart-break,

Full of all the tender pathos of the Here

and the Hereafter."

To perpetuate, by means of sepulchral inscriptions, the memory of relatives and friends, and to record the sentiments of love and esteem, of grief and hope, in the face of death and eternity, is a custom common to all civilized ages and nations. These epitaphs are limited by space, and often provoke rather than satisfy curiosity, but contain nevertheless in poetry or prose a vast amount of biographical and historical information. Many a grave-yard is a broken record of the church to which it belongs.

The Catacombs abound in such monumental inscriptions, Greek and Latin, or strangely mixed (Latin words in Greek characters), often rudely written, badly spelt, mutilated, and almost illegible, with and without symbolical figures. The classical languages were then in a process of decay, like classical eloquence and art, and the great majority of Christians were poor and illiterate people. One name only is given in the earlier epitaphs, sometimes the age, and the day of burial, but not the date of birth.

More than fifteen thousand epitaphs have been collected, classified, and explained by De Rossi from the first six centuries in Rome alone, and their number is constantly increasing. Benedict XIV. founded, in 1750, a Christian Museum, and devoted a hill in the Vatican to the collection of ancient sarcophagi. Gregory XVI. and Pius IX. patronized it. In this Lapidarian Gallery the costly pagan and the simple Christian inscriptions and sarcophagi confront each other on opposite walls, and present a striking contrast. Another important collection is in the Kircherian Museum, in the Roman College, another in the Christian Museum of the University of Berlin.541541    Under the care of Professor Piper (a pupil of Neander), who even before De Rossi introduced a scientific knowledge of the sepulchral monuments and inscriptions. Comp. his "Monumental Theology," and his essay "Ueber den kirchenhistorischen Gewinn aus Inschriften, in the Jahrbücher f. D. Theologie," 1875.41 The entire field of ancient epigraphy, heathen and Christian in Italy and other countries, has been made accessible by the industry and learning of Gruter, Muratori, Marchi, De Rossi, Le Blant, Böckh, Kirchhoff, Orelli, Mommsen, Henzen, Hübner, Waddington, McCaul.

The most difficult part of this branch of archaeology is the chronology (the oldest inscriptions being mostly undated).542542    De Rossi traces some up to the first century, but Renan (Marc-Auréle, p. 536) maintains: "Les inscriptions chrétiennes des catacombes ne remontent qu’ au commencement du IIIesiècle."42 Their chief interest for the church historian is their religion, as far as it may be inferred from a few words.

The key-note of the Christian epitaphs, as compared with the heathen, is struck by Paul in his words of comfort to the Thessalonians, that they should not sorrow like the heathen who have no hope, but remember that, as Jesus rose from the dead, so God will raise them also that are fallen asleep in Jesus.

Hence, while the heathen epitaphs rarely express a belief in immortality, but often describe death as an eternal sleep, the grave as a final home, and are pervaded by a tone of sadness, the Christian epitaphs are hopeful and cheerful. The farewell on earth is followed by a welcome from heaven. Death is but a short sleep; the soul is with Christ and lives in God, the body waits for a joyful resurrection: this is the sum and substance of the theology of Christian epitaphs. The symbol of Christ (Ichthys) is often placed at the beginning or end to show the ground of this hope. Again and again we find the brief, but significant words: "in peace;"543543    In pace; ἐν εἰρήνη. Frequent also in the Jewish cemeteries (shalom).43 "he" or "she sleeps in peace;"544544    Dormit in pace; requiescit in pace; in pace Domini; κοιμᾶται ἐν εἰρήνη.The pagan formula "depositus" also occurs, but with an altered meaning: a precious treasure intrusted to faithful keeping for a short time.44 "live in God," or "in Christ;" "live forever."545545    Vivas, orvive in Deo; vivas in aeternum; vivas inter sanctos. Contrast with these the pagan declamations: Sit tibi terra levis; Ossa tua bene quiescant Ave; Vale.45 "He rests well." "God quicken thy spirit." "Weep not, my child; death is not eternal." "Alexander is not dead, but lives above the stars, and his body rests in this tomb."546546    This inscription in the cemetery of Callistus dates from the time of persecution, probably in the third century, and alludes to it in these words: "For while on his knees, and about to sacrifice to the true God, he was led away to execution. O sad times! in which among sacred rites and prayers, even in caverns, we are not safe. What can be more wretched than such a life? and what than such a death? when they cannot be buried by their friends and relations-still at the end they shine like stars in heaven (tandem in caelo corruscant)." See Maitland, The Church in the Cat., second ed. p. 40.46 "Here Gordian, the courier from Gaul, strangled for the faith, with his whole family, rests in peace. The maid servant, Theophila, erected this."547547    This inscription is in Latin words, but in Greek uncial letters. See Perret, II. 152, and Aringhi, p. 387.47

At the same time stereotyped heathen epitaphs continued to be used but of course not in a polytheistic sense), as "sacred to the funeral gods," or "to the departed spirits."548548    D. M. or D. M. S. =Dis Manibus sacrum (others explain: Deo Magno or Maximo);memoriae aeterrae, etc. See Schultze, p. 250 sq. Sometimes the monogram of Christ is inserted before S, and then the meaning may be Deo Magno Christo Sacrum, or Christo Salvatori. So Northcote, p. 99, who refers to Tit. 2:13.48 The laudatory epithets of heathen epitaphs are rare,549549    More frequent in those after the middle of the fourth century, as inconparabilis, mirae sapientiae or innocentiae, rarissimi exempli, eximiae bonitatis.49 but simple terms of natural affection very frequent, as "My sweetest child;" "Innocent little lamb;" "My dearest husband;" "My dearest wife;" "My innocent dove;" "My well-deserving father," or "mother."550550    Dulcis, dulcissimus, ordulcissima, carus, orcara, carissimus, optimus, incomparabilis, famulus Dei, puella Deo placita, ἀγαθός, ἅγιος , θεοσεβής, σεμνός, etc.50 A. and B. "lived together" (for 15, 20, 30, 50, or even 60 years) "without any complaint or quarrel, without taking or giving offence."551551    Sine ulla querela, sine ulla contumelia, sine laesione animi, sine ulla offensa, sine jurgio, sine lite motesta, etc.51 Such commemoration of conjugal happiness and commendations of female virtues, as modesty, chastity, prudence, diligence, frequently occur also on pagan monuments, and prove that there were many exceptions to the corruption of Roman society, as painted by Juvenal and the satirists.

Some epitaphs contain a request to the dead in heaven to pray for the living on earth.552552    "Pete, or roga, ora, pro nobis, pro parentibus, pro conjuge, pro filiis, pro sorore." These petitions are comparatively rare among the thousands of undated inscriptions before Constantine, and mostly confined to members of the family. The Autun inscription (probably from the fourth century) ends with the petition of Pectorius to his departed parents, to think of him as often as they look upon Christ. See Marriott, p. 185.52 At a later period we find requests for intercession in behalf of the departed when once, chiefly through the influence of Pope Gregory I., purgatory became an article of general belief in the Western church.553553    Dr. McCaul, of Toronto (as quoted in Smith and Cheetham, 1. 856) says: I recollect but two examples in Christian epitaphs of the first six centuries of the address to the reader for his prayers, so common in mediaeval times."53 But the overwhelming testimony of the oldest Christian epitaphs is that the pious dead are already in the enjoyment of peace, and this accords with the Saviour’s promise to the penitent thief, and with St. Paul’s desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.554554    Luke 23:43; Phil. 1:23; 2 Cor. 5:8.54 Take but this example: "Prima, thou livest in the glory of God, and in the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ."555555    Prima, vives in gloria Dei et in pace Domini nostri."Scratched in the mortar round a grave in the cemetery of Thraso, in Rome, quoted by Northcote, p. 89. He also quotes Paulinus of Nola, who represents a whole host of saints going forth from heaven to receive the soul of St. Felix as soon as it had left the body, and conducting it in triumph before the throne of God. A distinction, however was made by Tertullian and other fathers between Paradise or Abraham’s bosom, whither the pious go, and heaven proper. Comp. Roller’s discussion of the idea of refrigerium which often meets us in the epitaphs, Les Catacombes, I. 225 sqq.55


I. Selection of Roman Epitaphs.

The following selection of brief epitaphs in the Roman catacombs is taken from De Rossi, and Northcote, who give facsimiles of the original Latin and Greek. Comp. also the photographic plates in Roller, vol. I. Nos. X, XXXI, XXXII, and XXXIII; and vol. II. Nos. LXI, LXII, LXV, and LXVI.

1. To dear Cyriacus, sweetest son. Mayest thou live in the Holy Spirit.

2. Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. To Pastor, a good and innocent son, who lived 4 years, 5 months and 26 days. Vitalis and Marcellina, his parents.

3. In eternal sleep (somno aeternali). Aurelius Gemellus, who lived ... years and 8 months and 18 days. His mother made this for her dearest well-deserving son. In peace. I commend [to thee], Bassilla, the innocence of Gemellus.

4. Lady Bassilla [= Saint Bassilla], we, Crescentius and Micina, commend to thee our daughter Crescen [tina], who lived 10 months and ... days.

5. Matronata Matrona, who lived a year and 52 days. Pray for thy parents.

6. Anatolius made this for his well-deserving son, who lived 7 years, 7 months and 20 days. May thy spirit rest well in God. Pray for thy sister.

7. Regina, mayest thou live in the Lord Jesus (vivas in Domino Jesu).

8. To my good and sweetest husband Castorinus, who lived 61 years, 5 months and 10 days; well-deserving. His wife made this. Live in God!

9. Amerimnus to his dearest, well-deserving wife, Rufina. May God refresh thy spirit.

10. Sweet Faustina, mayest thou live in God.

11. Refresh, O God, the soul of ....

12. Bolosa, may God refresh thee, who lived 31 years; died on the 19th of September. In Christ.

13. Peace to thy soul, Oxycholis.

14. Agape, thou shalt live forever.

15. In Christ. To Paulinus, a neophyte. In peace. Who lived 8 years.

16. Thy spirit in peace, Filmena.

17. In Christ. Aestonia, a virgin; a foreigner, who lived 41 years and 8 days. She departed from the body on the 26th of February.

18. Victorina in peace and in Christ.

19. Dafnen, a widow, who whilst she lived burdened the church in nothing.

20. To Leopardus, a neophyte, who lived 3 years, 11 months. Buried on the 24th of March. In peace.

21. To Felix, their well-deserving son, who lived 23 years and 10 days; who went out of the world a virgin and a neophyte. In peace. His parents made this. Buried on the 2d of August.

22. Lucilianus to Bacius Valerius, who lived 9 years, 8 [months], 22 days. A catechumen.

23. Septimius Praetextatus Caecilianus, servant of God, who has led a worthy life. If I have served Thee [O Lord], I have not repented, and I will give thanks to Thy name. He gave up his soul to God (at the age of) thirty-three years and six months. [In the crypt of St. Cecilia in St. Callisto. Probably a member of some noble family, the third name is mutilated. De Rossi assigns this epitaph to the beginning of the third century.]

24. Cornelius. Martyr. Ep. [iscopus].

II. The Autun Inscription.

This Greek inscription was discovered a.d. 1839 in the cemetery Saint Pierre l’Estrier near Autun (Augustodunum, the ancient capital of Gallia Aeduensis), first made known by Cardinal Pitra, and thoroughly discussed by learned archaeologists of different countries. See the Spicilegium Solesmense (ed. by Pitra), vols. I.-III., Raf. Garrucci, Monuments d’ epigraphie ancienne, Paris 1856, 1857; P. Lenormant, Mémoire sur l’ inscription d’ Autun, Paris 1855; H. B. Marriott, The Testimony of the Catacombs, Lond. 1870, pp. 113–188. The Jesuit fathers Secchi and Garrucci find in it conclusive evidence of transubstantiation and purgatory, but Marriott takes pains to refute them. Comp. also Schultze, Katak. p. 118. The Ichthys-symbol figures prominently in the inscription, and betrays an early origin, but archaeologists differ: Pitra, Garrucci and others assign it to a.d. 160–202; Kirchhoff, Marriott, and Schultze, with greater probability, to the end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century, Lenormant and Le Blant to the fifth or sixth. De Rossi observes that the characters are not so old as the ideas which they express. The inscription has some gaps which must be filled out by conjecture. It is a memorial of Pectorius to his parents and friends, in two parts; the first six lines are an acrostic (Ichthys), and contain words of the dead (probably the mother); in the second part the son speaks. The first seems to be older. Schultze conjectures that it is an old Christian hymn. The inscription begins with Ἰχθύος α (ὐρανίου ἅγ) ιον (or perhaps θεῖον) γένος, and concludes with μνήσεο Πεκτορίου, who prepared the monument for his parents. The following is the translation (partly conjectural) of Marriott (l.c. 118):

’Offspring of the heavenly Ichthys, see that a heart of holy reverence be thine, now that from Divine waters thou hast received, while yet among mortals, a fount of life that is to immortality. Quicken thy soul, beloved one, with ever-flowing waters of wealth-giving wisdom, and receive the honey-sweet food of the Saviour of the saints. Eat with a longing hunger, holding Ichthys in thine hands.’

’To Ichthys ... Come nigh unto me, my Lord [and] Saviour [be thou my Guide] I entreat Thee, Thou Light of them for whom the hour of death is past.’

’Aschandius, my Father, dear unto mine heart, and thou [sweet Mother, and all] that are mine ... remember Pectorius.’

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