Ancient Graffiti in Roman Catacombs

Author: Danilo Mazzoleni


Danilo Mazzoleni

Inscriptions reveal Pilgrims' devotion

There is a particular category of inscription in the Roman catacombs which in certain contexts is useful for maintaining that a venerated tomb exists there: these are the graffiti, i.e., epigraphs scratched with a fine point on the walls of basilicas, cubicula and corridors of catacombs.

The authors of these writings were pilgrims who wished to leave in those sacred places a record of their visit, a prayer, an invocation. Although they are undoubtedly significant, it must be acknowledged that these texts defy all rules, since they were carved in haste, sometimes without being completed; they often show different script types, from classic capitals to disjointed italics. For these reasons the study of this particular category of epigraph always requires great caution and experience on the part of experts, first, during the initial phase of examination, due to the difficulty of deciphering them caused by the fineness of the scratched lines and the frequent overlapping of words written in different eras; then during their interpretation, which is often problematic.

Furthermore, it is often very difficult to give an exact date to these inscriptions, due to the lack of significant or convincing evidence. This is noticeable precisely in the graffiti close to the martyrs' crypts in many early Christian cemeteries, where no appreciable difference in the script can be detected over the span of the three or four centuries to which these unique inscriptions often belong.

A special and fortunate case in this regard is the so-called Memoria Apostolorum in the archaeological complex of the funerary area of St Sebastian on the Appian Way, where in hundreds of Greek and Latin graffiti the intercession of St Peter and St Paul is invoked or ritual meals eaten in their honour are recalled: "Paul and Peter, intercede for Victor", "Peter and Paul, remember us". It can be said that these epigraphs, apparently repetitive, are among the strongest evidence in support of the theory—advanced by some scholars—of the partial and temporary translation of the apostolic relics from their original sites on the Appian Way in the years of persecution under Valerian.

Thus, these graffiti can be assigned to a well-defined chronological period between the second half of the third century and the first decades of the fourth, when the construction of the Constantinian basilica, in the same area but at a higher level, put an end to that custom followed previously by the faithful for rites in honour of the Apostles, thereby "sealing" all that belonged to that phase of its construction.

It can also be pointed out that in the nearby catacombs of St Callistus it was precisely two graffiti which enabled Giovanni Battista de Rossi, in the second half of the 19th century, to identify the crypt of the martyrs Calocerus and Parthenius, whose names were expressly mentioned. In the same cemetery, at the foot of the stairs leading to the Crypt of the Popes, there are many other graffiti of the faithful, who in ancient Christian times visited that place where many Popes were buried, some of them martyrs. Among others, we can read the names of foreign priests who celebrated a liturgical rite there, such as the priest Felicio, who humbly described himself as "sinner". Not far from here, other inscriptions scratched on the walls of the corridors invoke St Sixtus II: "St Sixtus, remember in your prayers Aurelius Repentinus..."; or the chosen spirits who are in eternal beatitude: "Holy Souls, remember Marcian, Successus, Severus and all our brothers". One text stands out from the others due to its content: "Jerusalem, city and ornament of the martyrs of God ......

In the cemetery of Sts Marcellinus and Peter, along the ancient Via Labicana (today Via Casilina), many graffiti (examined years ago by Fr Ferrua) document the great devotion which the two eponymous martyrs received for many centuries: "Marcellinus and Peter, intercede for Gallicanus the Christian!"; "Leo, may you always live in God with all your family!"; "Lord, preserve Calendion [for eternity] in your holy name!"; "O Lord of the holy martyrs and St Helen, save your servants John and Thomas, monks of the monastery [dedicated] to the saint!". Regarding this last prayer, it should be remembered that the ruins of the mausoleum of Constantine's mother are preserved directly above the catacomb.

In underground Rome we can also read numerous graffiti of the faithful in the small basilica of the martyrs Felix and Adauctus in the cemetery of Commodilla on Via Ostiense. One deserves particular mention: it is so far the only epigraph in Rome written in runes, the ancient Germanic alphabet. It was evidently carved by a pilgrim who had come from Central Europe to visit the martyria.

In this regard, although the majority of these inscriptions were presumably written by foreigners, in only a few cases are their origins expressly indicated in the text. However, they can sometimes be inferred from the nature of the names of the faithful. Thus in the crypt of the catacomb of the martyr Pamphilus, one discovers that a . certain Paschal had come from Naples, but it is likely that the priests Grimoaldus and Gaidus (who also visited the cemetery of Commodilla) were of Lombard origin, while Madalger was very likely an African.

In this particular catacomb the careful examination of all the graffiti, published some years ago in the 10th volume of the Inscriptiones Christianae Urbis Romae septimo saeculo antiquiores, made it possible to identify St Pamphilus' name, scratched with a very fine point and thus hardly visible. A humble but very important inscription, because it was the missing clue for precisely identifying the martyr venerated in that cubiculum, as shown by many archaeological elements.

Outside Rome there are certainly other examples of graffiti in many shrines frequented by pilgrims from other regions of the ancient Christian world, from the Holy Land to the catacombs of Hadrumetum (modern Sousse in Tunisia), from the Euphrasian Basilica of Poret, Croatia, to St Michael on Mount Gargano in Apulia. The latter revealed, among other things, the presence of important figures of Lombard society. Indeed, it is thought that at this last site craftsmen were available who, upon payment, would etch artistic graffiti on the rock walls.

Lastly, some particularly moving inscriptions are engraved in the rooms that predate the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth: one of these repeats in Greek the angel's greeting to Our Lady: "Hail, Mary!", while another refers to that "holy place" already venerated by the faithful in the first centuries.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
9 February 2000, page 6

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