Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.52

Éric Rebillard, Religion et sépulture. L'Église, les vivants et les morts dans l'Antiquité tardive. Civilisations et Sociétés 115.   Paris:  Éditions de l'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2003.  Pp. 243.  ISBN 2-7132-1792-X.  €22.00.  

Reviewed by Olof Brandt, Swedish Institute for Classical Studies in Rome (
Word count: 2556 words

In this book, Éric Rebillard raises important questions about the ownership and administration of the Early Christian cemeteries, although his answers probably won't satisfy all scholars. The book reassumes his research, presented in earlier papers,1 on how the Late Antique Church did not pretend to control all aspects of the life of the Christians, as it did later in Medieval Christianity. He wants to prove that, far from having created Christian cemeteries, the Church left the care of the dead to the families (p. 9). The book is part of a project to study the birth of the Christian cemeteries in Late Antiquity. Rebillard's point of departure is Medieval: when did the Medieval cemeteries begin?

This book gives an interesting picture of the importance of the family and of the private sphere in the relationship between living and dead in Late Antiquity and stimulates us to discover the many nuances in the relationships existing within the Late Antique Christian community and the interaction between private individuals, priests and bishops in the material organisation of the life of the community. Rebillard rightly discusses pagan, Jewish and Christian burials together: the three have often been studied separately, making it difficult to see common Late Antique patterns.

The study is mainly based on texts but also discusses archaeological evidence. However, the author writes that a deeper analysis of the archaeological evidence from the Roman catacombs will be the object of a later study (p. 7). This is unfortunate, because the archaeology of the Roman catacombs is a category of evidence of fundamental importance for the questions discussed in this book. This will be discussed more in detail below, after a presentation of the different chapters.

1. Le dossier des origines - les catacombes de Rome et les areae de Carthage.

In this first chapter, Rebillard attacks the common opinion since de Rossi in the 1860's,2 that the Church had its own cemeteries at least from around 200 AD. The traditional opinion is based on a dossier of texts from that date, most important a Roman text in Hippolytus, Refutatio omnium haeresium 9, which says that Pope Zephyrinus put his deacon Callixtus, later Pope himself, in charge of to koimeterion (identified by de Rossi and all later scholars with the Roman catacomb today called San Callisto), and a North African text in which Tertullian describes pagan protests against the existence of Christian "areae" in Carthage (Ad Scapulam 3,1). After the initial publications by de Rossi, these texts have often been cited without a discussion of their context, so Rebillard's effort to put them back in their true historical context in order to understand their exact meaning is very useful, even if not all may agree with his conclusions.

The word koimeterion, Rebillard reminds us, originally meant individual tomb, and in Late Antique Christian texts he believes that koimeterion is equivalent to martyrion, and that it had a collective sense only as a place with martyr tombs, not collective cemeteries. But in his discussion of the "dossier", this interpretation doesn't explain exactly what Callixtus was in charge of. It couldn't possibly be the Crypt of the Popes, which of course is a complex of venerated tombs exactly in the sense Rebillard suggests but was created after Callixtus' death (222), the oldest tomb there being that of Anteros (236). No venerated tombs contemporary to Callixtus are known in San Callisto.

The interpretation koimeterion = martyrion is more plausible in R's interpretation of the edict of Valentinian, which in 257 forbad the Christians to visit the koimeteria (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical history 7,11,10). The Emperor had no reason to stop the Christians from burying their dead, while stopping the veneration of the tombs of the martyrs tombs had more sense in the context of a persecution. But, as Rebillard shows, the word coemeterium/koimeterion could have many meanings, and if it meant martyrion in the edict of Valerian, it could well mean collective burial places in other texts. When Hippolytus, The apostolic tradition 40 (written in Rome towards the end of the second century AD) mentions burials of poor in a koimeterion with staff paid by the bishop, it becomes difficult to accept Rebillard's interpretation. The catacombs seem to have been burial places with guardians, very unlike normal family tombs.

2. Sepulture et identité religieuse - Les groupes religieux et la sépulture collective.

In this chapter, Rebillard rightly underlines that the choice of burial place was not compulsory in any of the religious groups in the third century and that the normal choice was to be buried together with the family. pagans, Christians and Jews were often buried next to each other in mixed burial places. However, the author admits that the situation could be different in larger cities like Rome, where the community was so big that it could organise burial places for its members. However, Rebillard does not believe that the earliest phases of the catacombs were created by the religious communities. He accepts an hypothesis of Margaret H. Williams, that Jewish catacombs were organised not by the Jewish community but by entrepreneurs, from whom families and individuals bought their tombs.3 Later in the book, he applies this hypothesis also to the Christian catacombs, which means that from an hypothesis he creates a mysterious and not very satisfying category of people without identity who organised the huge and standardised subterranean burial places used by the Christians.

For this discussion, the interpretation of the archaeology of the Roman catacombs is of crucial importance. Were they exclusively Christian (or Jewish) in their earliest third-century phases, or can at least some of them be considered mixed burial places? Not all scholars have the same opinion. Pergola4 admits the possibility that also big hypogaea or nuclei, from which the catacombs developed, could have been pagan in their first phase, and mentions especially the hypogaea of the Buon Pastore and of the Flavi Aureli A in Domitilla, which have only standard pagan decoration. Fiocchi Nicolai on the other hand has no doubts about the Christianity of Flavi Aureli A and presents it as a typical example of an early Christian catacomb.5

These hypogaea are important for the discussion as they are bigger than mixed hypogaea normally are. The question here is not if mixed hypogaea could be the origin of Christian catacombs, but how big these mixed nuclei were. Traditionally, a certain size has been believed to go together with an exclusive character and an organisation by a religious community. Archaeology shows that mixed burial places are rather small compared to the size of the exclusively Christian catacombs. The division into smaller hypogaea, used by families or smaller associations, with members belonging to different faiths, and catacombs, used exclusively by big communities belonging to the same faith, is still valid, as Brandenburg has shown.6 There are very few examples in-between the few burials of the hypogaea and the many hundred or thousand in the catacombs.7 Christians, as everyone else, could always choose to be buried with their family, but they and Jews could choose also to be buried in the burial place of the community. This choice was probably particularly attractive for poor people.

3. Associations et sépulture collective. - L'Église, les chrétiens et les collèges.

In this chapter, Rebillard shows that Christians could be members of associations that could offer burial places and shows that Christians could be buried together with the members of associations as well as together with their families. Rebillard interestingly demolishes the collegia funeraticia, invented by Mommsen, and shows that there were no exclusively funerary collegia. The collegia mostly mixed several affiliations: to a professional category, to a quarter, to religious beliefs and to some shared social activities. Their members could choose to be buried by the collegium rather than by their family but did not have to. He suggests that the catacombs themselves were divided into areas controlled by different collegia. He has a point in reminding us of the fact that the catacombs always are made up of different parts with different characters and separate entrances; it may well be that they also were owned or used by different groups, but the fact that it so far has been impossible to find pagan in Christian burials made at the same time in the same catacomb shows, in my opinion, that the Church in some way controlled the catacombs.

4. Violation de sépulture et impiété. - Pratiques funéraires et croyances religieuses.

In this chapter, Rebillard stresses that laws against the violations of tombs show a new attention to the body in the third century: now it became a crime to damage the body, not only the tomb as in earlier laws. The Church, on the other hand, did not define violation of a tomb as a religious crime, but simply noted the fact that it is punished by civil law.

5. Piété chrétienne et devoir de sépulture. - Du devoir d'inhumer les morts à l'organisation de la sépulture des pauvres.

The Church, Rebillard argues, was concerned mostly with the burial of the martyrs, to permit the celebration of the anniversary of their martyrdom. That the Church took care of the burial of the martyrs does not, according to Rebillard, mean that it organized cemeteries for ordinary Christians. According to his interpretation, Hippolytus, The apostolic tradition 40 (see above) does not talk about the administration of cemeteries for ordinary Christians but only of those for the poor. Again, Rebillard tries to prove that the Christians were not obliged to be buried in the Christian cemeteries, but I am not aware of any modern scholar who has said such a thing: burial in family tombs was always an option. Rather, I believe Rebillard underestimates the importance of the care of the poor in the early Church: the most fruitful interpretation of the creation of the Christian catacombs is as a monumental expression of the care of the Church for the poor.8 But he is right in underlining that the Church did not create a uniform funerary organization in all the Roman Empire: the burial of the poor did not require the same degree of organisation in all places.

6. Funérailles chrétiennes et funérailles de chrétiens. - Église et rituel de la mort dans l'Antiquité tardive.

In this chapter, Rebillard concludes that there was no official standard Christian liturgy for the funeral: it was up to the family if they wanted to celebrate the funeral with prayers or a eucharistic celebration: the family, he states, was the main actor of the funerals.

7. L'Église, les chrétiens et les morts. - La commémoration des morts dans l'Antiquité tardive.

In this last chapter, the author concludes that the Church did not mention all the deceased during the eucharistic prayer, where the dead were remembered only in a collective and general way, usually without mentioning their names. And this general collective mention included only baptised Christians who did not die in sin. Many Christians wanted to celebrate the memory also of other relatives who did not fit in these categories, but the Church could not offer this service. Funerary banquets were celebrated by families in a ritual space left empty by the official liturgy: the Church did not replace these individual commemorations with the collective one in the eucharistic celebrations.

Among the problematic conclusions of this book, some have already been mentioned above. A fundamental problem is that the author is fighting against an opinion which has not been expressed by any modern scholar: that the Christians had to be buried in Church-administered cemeteries or that burial in family tombs was not an option. This opinion does not belong to scholars who have written extensively on the catacombs in the last two decades, like Brandenburg, Fiocchi Nicolai and Pergola. As a matter of fact, Rebillard uses a definition of cemetery which belongs to the Middle Ages, not Late Antiquity: a burial place for all Christians (p. 5).

Probably few scholars will be convinced by the fundamental conclusion which Rebillard proposes, that the Church did not organise cemeteries at all in the third century. Perhaps it could be useful to have a more nuanced discussion of the difficult and important question whether the catacombs and other Christian cemeteries really were owned by the Church. If the answer at least some times may be "no", that does not mean that these collective cemeteries were not coordinated and controlled by the Church. In the process of centralisation of the organisation of the Christian Church during the third, fourth and fifth centuries, there were many possible models for the collaboration between individuals, families and the bishops. Individuals could play an important role through donations or even through ownership, but hardly without control or supervision from the bishop. Private initiative is often seen behind the creation of Roman cemeteries that carry the name of unknown individuals, often women like Priscilla and Domitilla.

Earlier scholars discussing the problem of ownership of the catacombs reached slightly different conclusions but always admitted the possibility of private ownership under Church control. Fiocchi Nicolai9 does not rule out that some parts with more monumental tombs like the catacombs of Priscilla could be property of the founders and that the catacomb was founded by an individual, not the Church. However, he sees the Church behind the creation of the big subterranean cemeteries10 and states that the administration of at least some of these collective cemeteries must have been coordinated by the authority of the Church.11 He quotes the example of an early fourth century incription from the Via Appia close to Velletri in which a rich woman mentions the donation of hoc coemeterium to her fellow Christians, huic religioni (ILCV, 3681A). But, again, Rebillard believes this inscription talks not about a cemetery but only about a family tomb that she opened for other Christians.12

An important case is the catacomb of Priscilla, very different from the schematic origin of San Callisto, where the oldest nucleus is made up of different upper class hypogaea united by the "arenarium" with many poorer burials. According to Brandenburg and Tolotti, Priscilla was founded by a private individual.13 But who administered the catacomb after its foundation? Tolotti, who has written most extensively on the catacomb, says nothing about this question, while Brandenburg concludes that it must have been the Church, at least when Pope Marcellinus was buried there (296-304), one century after the foundation of the earliest nucleus.14 Only San Callisto seems to have been directly administered by the hierarchy.15

While there are many unanswered questions about who founded, owned and administered the catacombs in the third century, there is no doubt about who used them. The standardised Christian decorations and the lack of pagan decorations, except in few older hypogaea which were included later in the catacombs, show clearly that these cemeteries were used by the Christians and only by them, and that there was some kind of Church control -- otherwise why not sell tombs in San Callisto to Jews or pagans?

The exclusive character that is evident in both Jewish and Christian catacombs as soon as they get bigger than a medium family size, shows some kind of control from the community. If the catacombs were administered not by the Church but under control of the Church, this is interesting but does not change the traditional interpretation as much as Rebillard wants.


1.   É. Rebillard, KOIMHTMPION et COEMETERIUM: tombe, tombe sainte, nécropole, MEFRM(A) 105, 2, 1993, 975-1001; Id., "Les areae carthaginoises (Tertullien, Ad Scapulam 3, 1): cimetières communautaires ou enclos funéraires de chrétiens?", MEFRA 108, 1, 1996, 175-189; Id., "L'Église de Rome et le développement des catacombes. A propos de l'origine des cimetières chrétiens", MEFRA 109, 1997, 741-763; Id., "Les formes de l'assistance funéraire dans l'Empire romain et leur évolution dans l'Antiquité tardive", Antiquité tardive 7, 1999, 269-282; Id., "Église et sépulture dans l'Antiquité tardive (Occident latin, 3e-6e siècles)", Annales. Histoires, sciences sociales 54, 5, 1999, 1027-1046; Id., "The cult of the dead in Late Antiquity. Towards a new definition of the relation between the living and the dead", in Rome AD 300-800. Power and symbol - Image and reality (= Acta ad archaeologiam et artium historiam pertinentia 17 (N.S. 3), J.R. Brandt, O. Steen, S. Sande & L. Hodne (eds), Roma 2003, 47-55.
2.   G.B. de Rossi in Bollettino di archeologia cristiana (prima serie) 4, 1866, 1-14, and in La Roma Sotterranea I, Roma 1864, 197-204.
3.   M.H. Williams, "The organization of Jewish burials in ancient Rome in the light of evidence from Palestine and the Diaspora", Zeitschrift fhr Papyrologie und Epigraphik 101, 1994, 165-182.
4.   Ph. Pergola, Le catacombe romane. Storia e topografia. Catalogo a cura di P.M. Barbini, Roma 1997.
5.   V. Fiocchi Nicolai, "The origin and development of Roman catacombs", in V. Fiocchi Nicolai, F. Bisconti & D. Mazzoleni, The Christian catacombs of Rome. History, decoration, inscriptions, Regensburg 1999, 9-69.
6.   H. Brandenburg, "Überlegungen zu Ursprung und Entstehung de Katakomben Roms", in Vivarium. Festschrift Theodor Klauser zum 90. Geburtstag (Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum. Ergänzungsband 11), Münster Westfalen 1984, 11-49, esp. 39.
7.   Ibid., 44.
8.   Ibid., 48.
9.   V. Fiocchi Nicolai, Strutture funerarie ed edifici di culto paleocristiani di Roma dal IV al VI secolo (Studi e ricerche pubblicati a cura della Pontificia commissione di archeologia sacra 3), Città del Vaticano 2001.
10.   Ibid., 20.
11.   Ibid., 30.
12.   É. Rebillard 1993, op. cit. in note 1, 979.
13.   H. Brandenburg, op. cit. in note 6, 3-34; F. Tolotti, Il cimitero di Priscilla. Studio di topografia e architettura, Città del Vaticano 1970, 169.
14.   H. Brandenburg, op. cit. in note 6, 36.
15.   V. Fiocchi Nicolai 2001, op. cit. in note 9, 29.

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