Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.07.28

Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai, Jean Guyon, Origine delle catacombe Romane. Atti della giornata tematica dei Seminari di Archeologia Cristiana (Roma 21 marzo 2005). Sussidi a lo Studio delle antichità cristiane XVIII.   Città del Vaticano:  Pontificio Istituto di Archaeologia Cristiana, 2006.  Pp. 268.  ISBN 978-88-85991-43-9.  €30.00.  

Reviewed by Carolyn Osiek, Brite Divinity School (
Word count: 1414 words

Table of Contents

The papers in this collection were all presented in a one-day seminar that lasted from 9:00 in the morning until after 5:30 in the afternoon, with only a two-hour lunch break, considerably faster than the usual Italian pace. They provide assessment, reassessment, confirmations, and updates on new discoveries in catacomb scholarship. A brief introduction by the editors sets the context for what follows. The morning was devoted to more thematic papers on social context, art history, and epigraphy, while the afternoon papers focused on specific topics in the catacombs of Callistus, Priscilla, Domitilla, Pretextatus, and Novatian. A transcription of a brief tavola rotunda at the end of the day concludes the collection. All papers are in Italian except that of Eric Rebillard, which is in French.

M. Mazza begins the papers with thoughts on the social and economic structures of Roman Christians between the second and third centuries. Most of his remarks center on the entry of elites into the church at that period as witnessed by Eusebius, Tertullian, and the Acts of Peter, and the dilemma of elite women looking for husbands, solved by Callistus with permission for cross-status marriages, to the dismay of the author of the Panarion attributed to Hippolytus.

M. Simonetti traces the presbyteral structure of church government as it gives way to monarchical episcopacy seemingly everywhere in the second century. As is well known, Rome was one of the last places to embrace the new structure, probably starting with Victor, and Simonetti argues that the reason is the wide diversity of ethnicities, theologies, and liturgies in Rome. While some would want to push the changeover of organization in Rome even later, Simonetti argues that the Callistus-Hippolytus dispute is only comprehensible as a small group against a monarchical bishop. The absence of any mention of Justin in this history is puzzling.

E. Rebillard begins with the absence of any evidence of communal burial among devotees of Mithras, by way of comparison. De Rossi's theory of Christians as organized collegia carries no credibility today, but could the churches have used existing collegial organizations? Yes, says Rebillard, and by way of example, the collegium of mensores had a section of the Domitilla catacomb in the late fourth century. He suggests that even as late as this, catacombs were organized in independent administrative sections, not a whole catacomb together under a single administration.

H. Von Hesberg explores modes of self-representation under two aspects, representation of the collective group and of the individual within the group. In the catacomb burials, self-representation could only be done within a very limited space, where what we would judge to be necessary individuality is lost. By way of comparison, some of the surviving columbaria like those of Livia's household, Villa Doria Pamphili, and the small one on Via Latina have rows of niches that are all the same, yet the tabella above each gives room for some individual expression. The change from incineration to inhumation provided more space for individual representation, yet third-century style became more simplified. Most catacomb burials do not differ greatly from others. Thus greater emphasis is placed on the collective representation rather than the individual.

F. Bisconti discusses the particular situation of catacomb painting, with high humidity and reduced light that produced a special simplification of the styles of the day. He studies two distinct styles of division of space, architectonic (with complex spatial arrangements and dimensions) and a simpler red and green linear division, and discusses possible chronological interplay between the two.

C. Carletti reviews what he calls the "pre-history" of Christian inscriptions, the norms for assessing early inscriptions as Christian and the possible interplay of the wide varieties of Christianity in the third century. Photographs and discussions of some of the earliest and most disputed are helpful. Carletti suggests that the rise of identifiable Christian epigraphy follows the rise of the monarchical episcopate after Victor.

After lunch, a joint paper by V. Fiocchi Nicolai and J. Guyon, editors of the volume, does a rereading of the work of P. Styger's work in the 1920s on area I in the Callistus catacomb, correcting and clarifying some points of detail. The authors conclude that area I, the oldest part of the catacomb, was the "cemetery" that was placed in the care of Callistus.

R. Giuliani mostly confirms earlier studies of the Catacomb of Priscilla, with the arenarium as earliest nucleus. The region of theVelata is dated to the third quarter of the third century, the Madonna and Prophet painting 230-240. The large number of tile stamps of Caracalla may suggest imperial properties located in the area. Large hydraulic installations in Villa Ada along the Via Salaria may indicate agricultural use even in the imperial period. More attention is paid by Giuliani to possible investigation of above-ground burials, since the park may have preserved them. Ph. Pergola's paper is very different from the others. Instead of a detailed discussion of the origins of the Catacomb of Domitilla, he tells of a quick visit in 1977 to a newly discovered hypogeum in the area that was to be destroyed by building construction and that closely resembled the hypogea of the Flavii A and B, the supposed earliest parts of the Domitilla catacomb. He then relates his attempts as a student in 1978 to publish a proposal for non-Christian origins of some of the catacombs, and the reluctance of the great Antonio Ferrua to publish it. Today Pergola is even more certain of his original idea, which has since often proved true.

L. Spera gives a long and detailed report on the development of the Catacomb of Praetextatus, reviewing previous topographical analyses. The paper includes helpful comparisons from second-century architectural features elsewhere and numerous photos and plans.

A. Rocco presents a preliminary report of her doctoral thesis at the Università degli Studi in Bari on the topographical analysis of the Catacomb of Novatian, never previously done. She provides corrections and clarifications of previous work on the catacomb, discovered in 1926 on the northeast side of Rome during the extension of Viale Regina Margherita (today Regina Elena), which partially destroyed it. The state at discovery of the tomb of the martyr Novatian is not original but is due to remodeling by the deacon Gaudentius in the second half of the fourth century, while the area of the tomb was probably begun in the early third century. Thus the assumption that this Novatian is the "rigorist" theologian of 251 who opposed Cornelius cannot be disproven archaeologically. The group is known to have survived at least into the early fourth century. The catacomb was abandoned in the fifth century.

A. Granelli reports on the Catacomb of Calepodius near the Via Aurelia, distinguished by the burial of Callistus there on October 14, 222. The catacomb was discovered in the seventeenth century but mostly unexplored until 1959. Its small original nucleus was augmented in the fourth century by several additions, including a larger second level below. An extensive area to the north/northeast, now connected, was originally four separate units with their own stairs, connected only in the seventeenth or eighteenth century to the rest. The area in which Callistus was buried may have been originally "private," and his burial there gave the impulse for extension to community burials.

The brief discussion that follows moves into a new direction. Pergola suggests that the model to look to is the transition from pagan to Christian, and that the whole idea of hypogea burials comes from the East, where it is found in Hellenistic contexts. Carletti calls attention in this context to the presence of Greek inscriptions alongside Latin ones in the catacombs. While Fiocchi Nicolai finds this idea unnecessarily complicated, Bisconti calls attention to identifiably pagan and Christian symbols and those which could go either way, such as orante, shepherd, and Orpheus. No conclusions are drawn.

For the fluent Italian reader who is seriously interested in the development of the catacombs, the book is a feast. Photos and plans are abundant. While many of the contributors are long established, there are also new voices, male and female, and it is regrettable that no information at all is given about the contributors. The papers of the first part on the larger picture of social organization of early Roman Christians reflect more academic mainstream positions than have sometimes characterized the Roman schools, while most of the papers in the second part provide the kind of detailed analyses for which they are known.

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