Some Characteristics of Jewish Epitaphs in Ancient Rome

Inscriptions from the Roman catacombs have yielded the single largest corpus of information yet found concerning the daily life of the Jews and early Christians of ancient Rome.(1) In addition to furnishing information on the language and the names of Roman Jews, the epitaphs from the Jewish catacombs give evidence concerning the origins as well as the civic and congregational activities of the members of the community: their personalities, vocations, family and community relationships, and religious beliefs.

Greek was the lingua franca of the Mediterranean area at this time and prevailed as the language of Jewish liturgy in the Diaspora. It predominated also in the Jewish catacombs of Rome. More than three-quarters of the epigraphy in the Monteverde catacomb was in Greek as were most of the epitaphs from the Torlonia burial grounds. There was also some use of Aramaic and Hebrew in those catacombs, but none in Randanini.

A few inscriptions were bilingual. In Monteverde, for instance, four were written in Latin and Greek, three in Greek and Hebrew, and one in Aramaic and Greek. On some bilingual stones, the entire epitaph was repeated in the second language; in others, the inscription was in Greek with added phrases such as "Peace" or "Peace upon Israel" in Hebrew characters. Whatever the language, many stones bore Jewish symbols, sometimes inserted into the body of the text.

Inscriptions in the Jewish catacombs that were not written in Greek were mainly in Latin, with some Latin epitaphs transliterated and inscribed in Greek letters. Latin became the dominant language of the Christians by the mid-fourth century.(2)

Most of the well-documented Semitic epigraphy was found in Monteverde, and probably originated there.(3) Leon believed that since the Monteverde grave markers also included the largest number of Semitic names, this catacomb may have been the final resting place for Roman Jews who were recent immigrants, or might have had the strongest memory of their roots and were the most conservative. But Rutgers took a different approach to the numbers and concluded that there are not enough statistical differences in the relative use of languages and ethnic names in the epitaphs to justify drawing conclusions about the relationships of the various congregational groups to the Roman world around them.(4)

Greek predominated in the Randanini catacomb as well, with a substantially larger number of Latin epitaphs and Graeco-Roman symbols found there than were found in the Monteverde and Torlonia cemeteries. Yet the Jews buried in Randanini need not have been the most "Romanized" of those interred in the four most extensive Jewish catacombs. For one thing, as Rutgers pointed out, the uncertain dates for the epitaphs mask the possibility for observing any trends in the usage of language and names over time.

In spite of the widespread use of the Greek language, Latin names were generally preferred by the Roman Jews, and exceeded the total number of Semitic and Greek names among them.(5) These statistics attest to the degree to which the Jews of ancient Rome had become integrated into the life of the ancient city.

Many names were Hellenized or Latinized versions of Semitic names: Gelasios and Hilaros were equivalents for Isaac (meaning "laughter"), Zosimos for Chayim ("life"), Theodotos for Jonathan ("gift of God"), Iustus for Zadok ("the just"), Donatus and Dativus for Nathan ("given"), Aster for Esther ("star"), Eirene or Irene for Shelomith ("peace"), Annia for Anna ("Hannah"), and Regina for Malcah ("queen"). It is interesting to note that women's tombstones show a higher incidence of Latin names than those of the males; perhaps the girls' parents were more open to naming their daughters according to the prevailing fashions.

Among the Semitic inscriptions is a trilingual memorial to Tobias Barzaharona and his son, unearthed from the bank of the Tiber in 1842.(6) "[In Greek] Here lies Tubias Barzaharona and Paregorios son of Tubias Barzaharona." The Latin version which follows the Greek is its exact equivalent. A closing invocation is in Hebrew: "Peace, peace, peace, peace," with a menorah after the first and before the last " shalom. " with a leaf at the center of the line.(7) The name of the deceased is Semitic; his son's name, Paregorios, is the Greek equivalent of Menahem or Nehemiah, meaning "comforter." Punctuating the Greek and Latin texts are grape or ivy leaves, signifying life eternal, popular as well in Christian and pagan funerary contexts. This epitaph is unique in Judeo-Roman epigraphy for its use of a Semitic name in conjunction with both Greek and Latin, and for the repetition of shalom four times.

In the Jewish catacombs explored in Venosa in Southern Italy, Greek inscriptions substantially outnumber the Latin, yet most of the names are Latin, and of the rest, there are more Semitic names than Greek. Not surprisingly, there are more non-Jewish names in the Diaspora than in Palestine, and in Aphrodisias in Asia Minor, Rutgers has observed an "exceptional" predominance of biblical names for the Jews.(8)

From the end of the Republic, ancient Roman citizens customarily carried three names: the praenomen, (first and distinguishing name); nomen gentilicium (the name of the clan or family group, the gens) and an additional name, the cognomen (a surname or nickname), but the practice was unusual for Roman Jews.(9) Most of the Jews with Latin or Greek names bore only single names, but some had double or even, like Lucius Domitius Abbas, triple names.(10) It has been suggested that freed slaves (libertini) adopted the gentilicium of their former owners, with each freedman keeping his original name as a cognomen, a practice which might have been perpetuated by their descendants.(11)

As noted above, more of the Jewish girls were given Latin names than the boys, and more frequently, double names, as was customary for Roman women. It was rare for a Roman Jewess to have three names, although there were a few; two inscriptions which have been cited as examples are the epitaph of Julia Irene Arista and a memorial of the Maecius family on which Lucia Maecia Sabbatis is listed.(12) But Julia's sarcophagus, now in Palazzo Spada, is believed to have been found in the church of Sant' Agnese on the Via Nomentana; and in the three generations of the Roman family whose names were included on Lucia's monument, she bore the only name, "Sabbatis," which might be considered Semitic.

The use of patriarchal or biblical names was rare in the Roman Jewish community. One Isaac and one Jacob were memorialized, but no one seems to have been named Abraham or Israel. 86 In the sixteenth century, an epitaph was recorded for a Beturia (Veturia) Paulina or Paulla, who had assumed the name "Sara" upon becoming a proselyte at the age of 70. Sara is a name often given to Jewish converts. 87

Some indicators are also gleaned from these epitaphs as to the geographic origins of the deceased. It has been estimated that among the eight million Jews who may have formed almost 10 percent of the population of the early Roman Empire, one hundred thousand lived in Cyrenaica (Libya), one million in Egypt (forty percent of the population of Alexandria may have been Jewish), two and a half million in Palestine, one and a half million in Asia Minor and Syria together, and one hundred thousand in Italy, of whom some forty to fifty thousand lived in Rome. About one million Jews lived outside of the Roman Empire, mostly in Babylonia Comment 1, and many in Parthia. 88

Many inscriptions retrieved from the Jewish catacombs indicate the places of origin of the deceased, which were widespread throughout the Mediterranean world. Many of the earliest ones which were found and recorded are presumed, because of that early documentation, to have originated in the Monteverde catacomb. One of those was for a Hebrew named Makedonis, son of Alexander. 89 Like many of his compatriots, he came from Caesarea, a major port and capital of Roman Palestine. His name is an example of the Hellenistic influence on the names of Jews of Caesarea. His epitaph ends with the exhortation, "The memory of the righteous is for a blessing": a reference to Proverbs l0:7, perhaps carrying overtones of moral judgment.

Another epitaph from Monteverde, for Ionios of Sepphoris, 90 was inscribed on the back of a stone which had been used before for someone else. 91 The reuse of tombstones was not an unusual practice (pp. ? , figs.?? ); such a stone, inscribed on both sides, is called an "opistograph." Sepphoris, the home of Ionios, was the administrative capital of Hasmonean Galilee in the early first century B.C.E. under the rule of Alexander Jannaeus (Yannai). In the early third century C.E., during the period of the Patriarchate of Rabbi Judah Ha-Nassi, it became the seat of the Sanhedrin, the supreme governing body of ancient Israel, and successor to the ruling Council of Elders (pp. ). The Sanhedrin administered the religious, political, and juridical affairs of the Hebrew people during the Roman period before and after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.

Alypius of Tiberias was buried in Monteverde with his sons, Iustus and Alypius. 92 This émigré from Tiberias, the second capital of Antipas in Galilee, bore a Greek name; one son had a Latin name and the other had the same Greek name as his father. The Jews of the Roman world were aparently not averse to naming a child for a living parent, a custom unlike that among most modern Eastern European and American Jews. In documenting a first century C.E. tomb in Jericho used by three generations of one family, R. Hachlili observed that to name a son after his living father seemed to prevail "during this period among the Jewish priesthood and aristocracy, especially in the families of the high priests and the Herodian dynasty." 93

A menorah ornaments the lower right side of a tombstone for "...Ammias, a Jewess of Laodicea (fig. ), who lived eighty-five years. Peace." It is uncertain whether Laodicea refers to the Syrian coastal city, Laodicea ad Mare, or the inland metropolis in ancient Phrygia. 94

Memorialized on another tombstone from the Monteverde catacomb was "Symmachos, gerousiarch of Tripolis, aged 80. In peace his sleep." 95 Symmachos had emigrated from Tripolis, either the city located in what is today Libya (see p. ), or the similarly-named city in Lebanon. Both cities had important Jewish communities and commercial contacts with Rome. Whichever the parent city was, Symmachos may have been an officer in the synagogue there, but since Tripolitans had also founded a synagogue in Rome, probably in Transtiberim, he might have been a member of the Council of Elders which governed this Roman congregation.

In the Randanini catacomb, three epitaphs were found, written in Greek and painted in minium (red lead oxide) on marble slabs. They were dedicated to Centulia, Ursacia, and Simplicia, 96 the three daughters of Ursacius, a gerousiarch, 97 who came from the major ancient seaport of Aquileia on the Adriatic in northeastern Italy.

Evidence for the presence of a Jewish colony in Aquileia is in the museum there: two lamps bearing menorahs and a Latin inscription, probably of the first century B.C., for a Jewish freedman named L. Aiacius Dama, who was perhaps a customs house worker. 98

Two epitaphs found by Fasola in the upper catacomb under the Villa Torlonia further reflect the disparate family origins of those who found a final resting place in Rome. Ioustos, only 22 years old when he died, was the son of Amachios of Catania (fig. ). 99 The other epitaph, of Maximos, imparts that he came from Thabraca, an island in ancient Numidia on the coast of present day Tunisia, near Algeria. 100

On a third, mutilated tombstone in Greek, dedicated to Abibos, who died at the age of 30, Fasola thought a group of letters with several characters missing, after Abibos's name, should be read as "apo Li[n?..]/ou," indicating the birthplace of the deceased to have been Lindos on the island of Rhodes; Noy, however, has followed Moretti's restoration of the partial word as the patronymic form of "Apollinarios," perhaps the name of the father of Abibos. 101

1. The earliest documented Jewish epitaphs from ancient Rome (JIWE 2.549 and 577, pp. 431-433; 457-459), no longer extant, were recorded in the sixteenth century by Philippe de Winghe (d. 1592) before the first publication of a Jewish catacomb (Monteverde) by Bosio in 1634. Cf. Leon, Rome , pp. 67-68.
2. P. Testini, Catacombe cristiani, p. 194.
3. Besides the epitaphs from the catacombs, there were also inscriptions from other sites in Rome or without any provenance. Among these also were some epitaphs which were bilingual or included Hebrew phrases or Jewish symbols (cf. JIWE 2, nn. 535, 539, 545, 550, 551, 560, 564, 577.
4. Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 242-244; Rutgers, Jews of Late Ancient Rome, pp. 140-143.
5. The names of Jews in Rome in Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 93-121 and Rutgers, Jews of Late Ancient Rome, pp. 139-175. 
6. CIJ 1.497), JIWE 2.539, pp. 422-423.
7. In all its variations, the closing formula calling for peace (in the hereafter) is fairly common in both Jewish and Christian epitaphs and appears in pagan texts. In Christian and pagan inscriptions, it is generally written in Latin, and in Jewish epitaphs, usually expressed in Greek, with rare instances in Hebrew.
8. Rutgers, Jews of Late Ancient Rome, pp. 155-157.
9. Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome , pp. 112-113.
10. CIJ 1.212; JIWE 2.377, p. 117.
11. Many of the Jewish slaves brought to Rome as prisoners of war by Pompey, Vespasian, and Titus, were eventually freed by their Roman masters or had their freedom purchased with funds provided by their co-religionists, who regarded freeing them as a duty: Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 237-238.
12. CIJ 1.72) JIWE 2.616, pp. 498-500. Leon was not convinced that Julia was Jewish, but included her epitaph in his list in Jews of Ancient Rome , pp. 113, 247, 273-274, no. 72. R. Lanciani, New Tales of Old Rome, pp. 242-243, Frey, CIJ 1, pp.44-46, and B. Lifshitz, in Prolegomenon to CIJ 1, pp. 27-28, identified her as a Jew. D. Noy placed this epitaph in Appendix 4 of the JIWE 2, pointing out that "nothing [in the inscription] cannot be satisfactorily explained as Christian" and that A. Ferrua had considered it to be Christian.
85. CIJ 1.470; JIWE 2.618, pp. 501-503; Latin, 2nd-3rd century (?). The epitaph, now in the Vatican Museum, was assembled by N. Müller from fragments supposedly from the Monteverde Catacomb; it is very worn and its interpretation not totally clear. Noy placed it in JIWE 2, Appendix 4, finding aspects inconsistent with Jewish usage. He added that the inscription may be "a reused pagan one," ... [and the] "nature of the plaque and the form of the epitaph ... unparalleled at Monteverde."

86 ForLeon, Jews of Ancient Rome , p. 120.
87. CIJ 1. 523), JIWE 2.577, pp. 457-459; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 254.
88. M. Grant, Roman World, p. 60; Grayzel, History, p. 140.
89. CIJ 1.370; JIWE 2.112, p. 95; Leon, Rome , p. 319.
90. "Ionios, who [was] also [called] Akone, of Sepphoris": CIJ 1.362;  JIWE 2.60, p. 53; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 318, fig. 39, no. 23.
91. "Here lies Irene, a virgin": CIJ 1.320), JIWE 2.59, p. 52; Leon, Rome , p. 312.
92. "Alypius of Tiberias and his sons, Justus and Alypius, Hebrews, with their father, lie here": CIJ 1.502;  JIWE 2.561, pp. 445-446; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 338. Noy dated this inscription "2nd-4th century (?)," but added that, "The historian Justus of Tiberias was a contemporary of Josephus."
93. It was a custom of Hellenistic rulers, evidently adopted by the Jews: R. Hachlili, "The Goliath Family in Jericho," BASOR 235 (1979), pp. 53, 58.
94. CIJ 1.296), JIWE 2.183, pp. 145-146. Ammias was a common name in Asia. The translation of the last phrase of her epitaph as "peace" (in Hebrew, " shalom ") has been debated, with some earlier scholars identifying the script as Nabataean or Palmyrene, according to Noy, but he observed that the characters "show close similarities to the Hebrew at Beth She'arim": ibid . p. 146; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome , p. 308.
95. CIJ 1.408; JIWE 2.113, p. 96; Leon, Rome , pp. 153-154, 326.
96. Inscriptions CIJ 1. 129;  JIWE 2.237; CIJ 1.147; JIWE 2.238, 239; CIJ 1.167; JIWE 2.239; pp. 209-211; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome , pp. 283, 286, 289.
97: R. Garrucci, Cimitero Ebraico di Vigna Randanini, pp. 62-63, recorded the epitaphs of Centulia and Ursacia along with a third inscription in the same cubiculum. When Marucchi explored the cubiculum later, he recorded only Ursacia's epigraph and that of Honoratus, son of Rufus the archon: Guida , p. 241. But Garrucci (op. cit., p. 61) had initially found young Honoratus buried in a chamber with his grandfather, the elder Honoratus, Rufus's father. Since Marucchi found the grandfather's epitaph separate from his grandson's, some of the inscriptions had evidently been moved from their original sites (Guida del cimitero ebraico, p. 242).
98. CIJ 1.643; JIWE 1, pp. 11-13.
99. Fasola, Villa Torlonia, pp. 25-26, fig. 10; JIWE 2.515, p. 405.
100. Fasola, Villa Torlonia , pp. 21-22, 23, fig. 9;  JIWE 2.508, p. 402.
101. Fasola, Villa Torlonia , pp. 46-47, fig. 21;  JIWE 2.415, p. 345. Noy suggested that "Abibos" is the Greek form of the Semitic name "Habib."