The Social Setting in the Catacombs of Rome – Prestentation hold at the Annual SBL 2017 in Boston

For this presntation, I took a closer look on the social setting of the deceased in one of the earliest nucleus of the Priscilla Catacombs, Rome. It was the first of several papers presented  in the Art and Religions of Antiquity Program Unit at the joint Annual Meeting of the  Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the American Academy of Religion 2017, in Boston, MA.


Égalité? Fraternité? Misère?
Reflections on the Social Structure of the First „Christian“ Catacombs in the Suburbs of Rome
by Dr. András Handl

“Let there be no heavy charge for burying people in the cemetery/tomb, for it belongs to all the poor.” The exhortation of the so-called Traditio Apostolica (Apostolic tradition) puts the communis opinio on the main function of the “Christian” catacombs of Rome in a nutshell: they are originated as graveyards for the poor and, in their homogeneous appearance, reflect uniformity: a visualization of the Pauline ethos (Gal 3,28), an expression of the “equality-principle” of the new faith. The red-brownish monotony of endless galleries might create such an impression. But what kind of story do the graves of these subterranean cemeteries really tell?

The present contribution aims to “dig deeper” and offers a unique insight into the social structure of the catacombs. One of the oldest and relatively well preserved nucleus of the Catacombs of Priscilla, the so-called arenario centrale, dated approx. between 210 and 240 serves this endeavour. A systematic data collection, supported by the techniques of a survey, was carried out in the entire region and focused on the tombs and their immediate context. Recorded is the tomb typology, size, allocation, decoration, and if any traces remained, the cover material. These little yet significant features reflects (financial) efforts made for the preservation of the defunct’s body and memory. In this context, the epigraphic evidence is essential. Although the inscriptions are shaped by “archaic brevity”, they bear essential facts like name, sex, potentially the most frequently used language of the deceased, indicators of religious attitude, and occasionally also the age, donor and profession.

The analysis combines newly compelled evidence with already known materials, such as epigraphic collections or topography. The combination of these data does not only facilitate the contextualization of an individual tomb or text within the funeral complex, it also opens a new perspective on social structure of the defuncts. Calculating proportions, supported by methods of descriptive statistic, helps to emphasize tendencies and provides new information on general demographic figures such as child mortality, (average) age of death, life expectancy and so on. The newly collected data also open the door for the investigation of particular aspects, e.g. that of gender: Were man and woman equal in their death or is there an observable disparity between both sexes? Another advantage of taking a descriptive perspective is that typological economic and sociological differences are more easily comparable at a statistical level. Based on new evidence, the current contribution sheds some light on the mysterious beginnings of the subterranean complexes, provides insights on the economical potential of the occupants and brings more differentiation into their alleged “poor” and “egalitarian” social reality.