Glossary of Terms Related to the Catacombs

Absis (pl. absides) – an apse

Aedicula – a small structure with supports carrying a lintel or arch; usually within a larger building; often intended for decorative or honorary purposes. It may be applied to a wall and enclose a niche.

Aedile – a Roman office having civil authority over provisioning public works, street traffic and cleaning, and games

Agape – in a funerary context, a love feast shared with the deceased; in Christian rites, often associated with the celebration of the Eucharist

Agger – originally built for fortification, this mound took on the function of a terrace

Amphora (pl. amphorae) – a large clay vase occasionally used as a burial container

Annona – the grain supply of ancient Rome, conceived of as an annual allotment.

Archigerousiarch – possibly an honorific title; also possibly the leader of a centralized communal Roman gerousia comprised of delegates from every Jewish congregation

Archisynagogos (pl. archisynagogi) – Most eminent among the congregational officials of the synagogue, director of the ritual and services and charged with the building and maintenance of the cult building

Archon – in the ancient Jewish community, a chief magistrate, usually a respected elder, whose responsibilities remain unclear

Archon alti ordinis – poss. synonymous with the Greek “archon pases times,” this may have been a high-standing and/or much-honored archon of the synagogue

Archon pases times – Archon of All Honor, possibly an honorary title

Arcosolium (pl. arcosolia) – an arched niche (found in the catacombs) that could contain a burial; usually found within a cubiculum

Ascia – a pickax, the main tool used by fossores

Astodans – chestlike ossuaries

Campagna – the countryside around Rome enclosed by encircling mountains

Cassettone – shaped like a chest of drawers, a structure used for inhumation

Cella (pl. cellae) – a chamber or chamber tomb

Cella tricora – a trilobed chamber or three-apsed hall

Cena pura – the holy meal before the Jewish Sabbath

Christogram – Chi-Rho; a symbol of Christ

Clipeus – a circular medallion containing relief sculpture or an inscription

Collegia funeraticia – Communal funerary organizations responsible for proper burials and commemorative services

Columbarium (pl. columbaria) – an above- or below-ground compartmented fixture that held burial remains inside each rectangular or apsed niche

Cremation – the incineration of a corpse prior to burial

Crux commissa – a symbol of salvation; the Hebrew “tav”; the English “T”

Crux gammata – a symbol made up of a combination of four “gammas”; similar to contemporary swastikas

Cubiculum (pl. cubicula) – a room or cell in a catacomb (or house)

Decurion – a member of the city council, or senator, of a municipum or colony outside of Rome; lit. a leader of/among ten

Diaspora – the dispersion of Jews

Dipinto (pl. dipinti)- a painting or graffito

Domus ecclesiae – a private home used as an assembly place for early Christians to hold liturgical services and manage the charitable and other functions of the community

Dromos (pl. dromoi) – an entrance passage to an underground tomb

Eidolon – an idealized idol or image in Greek art

Epigraphy – the study of ancient inscriptions or the inscriptions themselves

Ethrog (etrog) – a citrus fruit; one of the Four Species taken on Sukkot, a Jewish festival

Exarchon – possibly a former archon or the equivalent to an archon

Excarnation – tradition providing that the destruction of the flesh of the deceased allowed for the expiation of earthly sins

Forma (pl. formae) graves cut into the floors of cubicula or galleries

Forno – an oven-like access Fossa semplice – a simple (common) grave; most frequent type of sepolcri a fossa

Fossa doppia – a double-trough tomb with a slightly smaller lower cavity generally holding the body; a type of sepolcri a fossa

Fossores (sg. fossor) – a guild of excavators which managed the cemeteries in Rome under the auspices of the community or clergy

Fratres – brothers and by extension burial clubs (brotherhoods)

Gerousia (gerusia) – the Council of Elders that governed either a congregation or the entire Jewish population in Judea in financial, court, and religious matters from biblical times, through the Hellenistic age (era), into the Roman period; succeeded (at some point?) by the Sanhedrin

Gerousiarch – a member of the gerousia, usually representing a particular synagogue

Grammateus – a scribe; in charge of secretarial duties in the synagogue; probably a life office, possibly a hereditary office

Hecatomb – the sacrifice of a hundred cattle

Hevrah Kadishah – a Jewish ” holy brotherhood ” or burial society established to perform acts of charity, hew the catacombs, and sell burial places

Hyperetes – lit. servant; person responsible for maintaining the synagogue lamps and announcing the onset of Sabbath; a synagogue caretaker?

Hypogeum (pl. hypogea) – usually found below living quarters, an underground chamber used as a tomb

Impulsore Chresto – lit. “at the instigation of Chrestus.”  In Claudius 25, Suetonius refers to the (alleged) Jewish rioters who were expelled from Rome by Claudius

Inhumation – the burial of a body in the ground

Itinerary – written as a guide to the catacombs for pilgrims in the seventh and eighth centuries

Insula (pl. insulae) – a town block or island

Kline (pl. klinai) – a decorated couch upon which reclined the body of the deceased in some early Jewish burials

Koimeterion – a place of sleep or rest; a cemetery

Kokh (pl. kokhim) – a tunnel-like recess perpendicular to a wall in a tomb; preferred burial form in the Near East

Labarum – a standard or banner

Lapilli (sg. lapillus) – small stones or pebbles; volcanic ash

Larnax (pl. larnakes) – chest-like clay receptacle (in the bottom of which holes could be drilled)

Libation – wine poured in honor of the deceased for a deity, sometimes consumed, other times left as an offering (in a patera)

Librarius – a scribe, copyist, or secretary

Lithoid tufa – a hard compact stratum of tufa deposits (difficult to dig)

Loculo ad arcosolio – a double grave in which one body is buried beneath the other on ground hollowed out at a level lower than the niche and separated from the second body above by slanted tiles which adhered to each other and the wall with lime mortar; found in the Torlonia Catacombs, often on the lowest level of tiers of loculi

Loculus (pl. loculi) – a sealed slot-like niche containing a burial in the catacombs

Lucernario – a light well providing illumination to the catacombs

Lulav – a palm branch; one of the Four Species taken on Sukkot, a Jewish festival (often inscribed with the epitaph in a Jewish burial)

Luminaria – a light well providing illumination to the catacombs

Lunette – the semicircular upper part of an arcosolium

Masonry tomb – a built tomb, such as a mausoleum

Mater synagogae – mother of the synagogue

Mausoleum (pl. mausolea) a sumptuous house-like or temple-like tomb

Mellarchon – an archon-designate; thought to be an honorary title

Menorah – a seven-branched lampstand; regarded as the penultimate symbol of Judaism (often inscribed with the epitaph in a Jewish burial)

Mensa – upper surface of an altar, altar table, banquet, bank, or table

Mensor – a chief fossor or measurer/surveyor who administered and scheduled the work for each catacomb

Minium – a red lead oxide

Mishna(h)a six-part codification of oral rabbinic law, which is the basis of the Talmud

Monosome, bisome, trisome, quadrisome … polysome – indicates the number of burials a particular receptacle contains

Olla (pl. ollae) - a clay or marble jar, which could be used to hold the ashes of the deceased

Opistograph - a document or tablet inscribed on both sides

Opus reticulatum - tufa masonry set in a network or lozenge pattern interspersed every six to eight layers by three narrow bands of brick

Opus vittatum - a form of banded masonry, usually with two rows of small tufa blocks and one row of bricks

Orant or Orans - a praying or mourning figure with outstretched arms in early Christian art

Ossilegium - a Jewish rite of bone-collecting for a secondary burial

Ossuarya chest, box, building, well, or site made to serve as the final resting place of human skeletal remains

Padroni - former fossores who became property managers of the tombs (in catacombs)

Paleography -  the study of ancient writing for the purpose of deciphering, reading, and dating historical manuscripts

Pater synagogae - father of the synagogue; highly esteemed within and outside of the local Jewish community, the exact responsibilities of this office or title are unknown

Patera - a saucer for libations

Phrontistes - overseer and business manager of all properties belonging to the community including land and buildings

Pile - tiers of superimposed loculi

Pithos (pl. pithoi) - a vase large enough for the inhumation of adults

Plinth - a lower block or base for a column or pedestal; sometimes decorated or inscribed

Pomerium - the hallowed strip of land (in Rome) kept free of buildings on either side of the town walls

Pozzolana - volcanic dust mixed with lime and used in mortar by the Romans

Pozzolanella - (diminutive of the former) a fine quality of tufa

Praedium - any of many country estates owned by affluent Romans; this land was sometimes donated or sold to different groups for burials.

Praefectus urbis - governor of the city of Rome under the emporors

Prefericolo - a bronze bowl used in sacrificial rites

Presbiter titularis - the (Christian) administrator of his own parish or titulis; he could continue his lay profession simultaneously

Proseucha - an ancient synagogue or Jewish house of prayer

Prostates - probably a legal representative of the congregation; dealt with political authorities

Prutah - a Jewish coin

Puticuli - mass burial pits

Quaestor - an important political official in Rome who prosecuted or tried criminal cases in court, and later, was in charge of public monies and/or paymaster of the army

Refrigerium - a meal eaten at the grave at the time of a burial

Rosette - a disk decorated with a leaf or floral design found in the ornamentation and furnishings of tombs

Sanhedrin - the supreme governing body of ancient Israel, which administered religious, political and juridical affairs during the Roman period until 425 C.E.

Sarcophago formato - a burial container consisting of a clay vase or parts of the same

Sarcophago murato - a built tomb

Sarcophagus - a large container for the deceased, often elaborately decorated

Saxa rubra - red stone used in Roman building (a.k.a. Tufo di Monteverde)

Sepulchre - a vault or tomb for burial

Sepolcri a fossa semplici - simple burials without coffins

Sepolcro a fossa - an entrenched burial container

Sestertius - a brass, coin of ancient Rome, 1/4 of a silver denarius

Shalom - "Jewish" peace, an imperative on Jewish burial insriptions

Shofar - a horn used in Jewish ritual, often inscribed with the epitaph in a Jewish burial

Solium - burial receptacle

Sotterranea - underground; the catacombs

Sub divo cemetaries - open air or above-ground burial areas in Rome shared by Jews, Christians, and pagans alike

Tabula ansata - a decorative frame with dovetail handles sometimes surrounding an inscription.

Terracotta -  fired clay

Thekai (thekan) - literally "boxes," tunnel-like forms found in Hellenistic tombs of Greece

Thermopolium - a place where hot and cold drinks were served

Thymaterion - a device that burns incense

Titulus - 1. an inscription or epitaph; 2. a parish

Tomba a cassone - a tomb made in the form of a coffin with the lower part cut into tufa and the upper part a masonry cover

Tomba a forno - similar to kokh

Tomba a mensa - a table-top tomb found often under an oblong niche

Travertine - Limestone used for building in Rome

Triclia (trichlia) - a large pergola or latticework trellis, but also describes a portico, particularly the one at San Sebastiano

Triclinium - a Roman or Etruscan dining room with couches to recline on while eating, or just the couch itself

Tufa (tuff) - a porous rock formed as deposits in underground streams or springs. Strong and brittle, was preferred for the digging of burial chambers

Tufo compatto - compact tufa

Tufa terrosa - an earthy form of tufa

Tufo granularè - tufa rock often found in middle stratum of excavations of catacombs

Volute - a spiral or scroll-shaped form

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