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The Building of a Christian Identity on the Tombstones of the Early Centuries

When It Was Scandalous to Call One Another Brothers and Sisters

Carlo Carletti L'Osservatore Romano, July 12, 2012

The building of a Christian identity on the tombstones of the early centuries

When it was scandalous to call one another brothers and sisters


In the homily delivered on the occasion of the celebration of the dies natalis of Peter and Paul, Benedict XVIdrawing inspiration from the lived experience of the two Apostlesrecalled in tones of luminous simplicity the immanent and transcendent newness implicit in the principle of Christian fraternity. And in this perspective, in a reflection offered in the editorial of our newspapers June 30-July 1 edition, the image of the universal Church as the loftiest expression of Christian brotherhood was conceptualized in its full historical sense. When we speak of Christian fraternitywhich goes above and beyond kinshipwe express not only an absolute principle, a preferential option, but also a way of being and of living that has accompanied and characterized the Christian community from its earliest daysnot only in its principle propositions, which necessarily emerged in apologetics and polemics, but also in the concrete history of daily life; and we find consistent, genuine and unmediated features of this in epigraphic evidence. This is the context in which persons and situations otherwise unknown assume their full historical importance; always, of course, within the bounds of the nature of epigraphic memory, in which an attitude of selfrepresentation is always at work, one however, thatin terms of historical reconstructionportrays a collective imagination and hence a case of consciously shared behavior. We may therefore reread with profit a basic funerary inscription dating back to the first two decades of the 3rd century, which is taken from an outdoor cemetery on the Via Salaria Vetus (located close to the St. Ermete catacombs) and is currently displayed in the National Roman Museum. It tells of the young roman slave Marco, who died at the age of 18 years, nine months, 5 days: Alexander | Augg(ustorum duorum) ser(vus) fecit | se bivo. Marco filio | dulcisimo caputa|africesi, qui deputa| batur inter bestito|res, qui vixit annis | XVIII, mensibu VIIIi | diebu V. peto a bobis, | fratres boni per | unum deum ne quis | <h>un<c> titelo moles[tet] | pos(t) mor[tem meam] (Inscriptiones Christianae Urbis Romae, x, 27126). The dedication and commissioner of the inscription is Alessandrothe father of the deceaseda servant in the Severan imperial domus (specifically of Septimius Severus and Caracalla). The young Marco was seized by death while he was training for the office of vestitor (inter bestitores the inscription reads) in the school of pages destined for the imperial domus located in

region II (Mount Celio), along the Vicus Capitis Africae (now the Via Capo dAfrica), hence the caputafricensis quality of the inscription addressed to Marco. But beyond this information, the interesting aspect that emerges in this inscription is contained in the last four lines, where the deceased himself enters the scene, addressing his brothers in the faith, saying in the first person: "I ask you, good brothers, in the name of the one God, that no one damage this tomb after my death." If we consider that this inscription was not "protected" within the enclosure of a private Christian cemeterywithin a catacomb, for instancebut was found, fully visible, in a "mixed" outdoor cemetery, where pagans and Christians alike lived together in the sleep of death, the appeal to the fratres boni and the inclusion of the profession of unum deum acquire, in their complementarity, a most notable relevance. What emerges here, with the greatest weight of evidence, is a specific identity traitprecisely that of Christian fraternityand it is displayed unambiguously and in writing for the community of survivors, who were pagans and Christians, and it is conveyed by a Christian family belonging to the lowest rung on the roman social ladder: Marco and his father Alessandro were slaves. Of a different cultural extraction, and following nearly 50 years after, is another epigraphic witness, which is presently considered to be the oldest Latin funeral oration produced by the Christian community in Rome: it certainly dates back prior to the age of Constantine, as its discovery in one of the most ancient areas of the cemetery of Priscilla indicates. It is a lengthy poem in hexameters. Here alsoin the concluding part of the eulogythe deceased, the 14-year old Agape, called Christi fidelis by her parents Pius and Eucharis, begins to speak (Inscr. Christ., ix, 25962): Eucharis est mater, Pius et pater [mihi - - -].| Vos precor, o fratres, orare huc quando veni[tis] | et precibus totis patrem natumque rogatis, |9 sit vestrae mentis Agapes carae meminisse,| ut deus omnipotens Agapen in saecula servet (Eucharis is my mother, Pio my father. I ask you, brothers, when you come here to pray and in all your prayers call upon the Father and the Son, remember your dear Agape, that Almighty God keep Agape forevermore). The reminder to the fratres here does not concern the protection of the grave, but reaches rather to the celebration of Agapes dies natalis (the day of her birth to new life), when the "brethren" standing before her grave (huc quando venitis) together will raise a common prayer (precibus totis) in memory of their "sister." Seemingly rarified in its essential simplicity of expression is another inscription from the catacomb of Priscilla, dating not later than the mid-third century, in which the brethren collectively address a final farewell to Leonzio: "Leonzio, peace from your brothers. Farewell" (Inscr. Christ., ix, 25319). In third-century Rome, the followers of Jesus did not describe themselves using what we might call the technical adjective Christianus, which at least in

the West would slowly begin to spread beginning with Constantine. However, looking to the essence of an announcement revealed in history, they called themselves children of one God and Father, who were equal among themselves; indeed, like "brothers" and "sisters." Two terms that already in second century Rome had been severely stigmatized as scandalous and, as such, had aroused defamatory slander. The opinion that circulated among the pagans was well known, and was reported by Minucio Felicewho for some time resided in Romein his imaginary dialogue Octavius (8,2): "They acknowledge one another with secret signs and insignia and they love one another with mutual affection virtually before knowing one another: everywhere there winds its way among them a kind of religion of love, and without distinction they call one another 'brothers' and 'sisters.'" Around a century later, we read a coherent reply to the destructive pagan criticism in a measured page of Lattanzio. Here the ideal of a Christian society is evoked, in which all the followers of Jesus called one another "brother" and "sister": "No other reason may be attributed to our calling one another brothers, save that we all consider one other equals (): slaves and freemen, great and small alike, are all equal among themselves () and before God we are distinguished only by virtue" (Divinae institutiones, 5,15). Against the backdrop of this reflectionand quite clearlywe read the watermark of a secular tradition, which found its milestone in Paul and in Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. Marco and Alessandro, Agape, Pio, Eucharis, Leonziothe faithful we have met in inscriptions recalled abovebelong to the generation that had seen the birth of the memoria apostolorum along on the Appian Way in 258. Here, over the course of nearly a half a century, thousands of faithful came to invokealways togetherPeter and Paul, as the more than six hundred graffiti that may still be read on the painted walls of the triclia, a walled courtyard, incontrovertibly indicate. A meeting-place for a banquet (the refrigerium) in honor of the two Apostles, there they etched the writtenand therefore consciously indeliblememorial of a devotional act carried out, and a request for help and protection: Petre et Paulo petite pro Victor (Peter and Paul, intercede for Victor); Petre et Paule in mente habetote Urbium et Zitum (Peter and Paul, remember Urbio e Zita); Petre et Paule beati martyres nos conservate in Domino (Peter and Paul, blessed martyrs, keep us in the Lord ) (Inscr. Christ. 12989, 12992, 12996). It is the indisputable sign of the building of an identity, one that in this case, is entirely roman. Carlo Carletti July 12, 2012 [Translation by Diane Montagna]