Professions recorded in Catacomb Inscriptions

Excerpt from: Estelle Shohet Brettman, Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World, ed. Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, & Jessica Dello Russo. Boston: International Catacomb Society, 1991-2017.

Literary sources relate that among the Jews of Rome there were artists, actors, a poet of sorts, a Jewish tentmaker or leatherworker, as well as slaves to wealthy Romans and to royalty. Their presence in the commercial centers such as Puteoli, Porto, and Ostia, assure that many of them were traders or producers of specialty goods for local sale and export.

Yet, of the recorded epitaphs, only a few document the professions and callings of the Jews of ancient Rome; mainly, they inform us of the Jews in Rome who occupied themselves with such vocations as teaching, studying the sages, and studying and teaching the Law or Torah, all traditional Jewish interests which point to the importance of education and schooling for the members of their community, no matter their overall socioeconomic status in Roman society.

In one of the somewhat unusual mentions of an occupation in a Roman-Jewish epitaph, a Greek inscription in the Vigna Randanini catacomb was inscribed to "...Eudoxius the painter...(Frey CIJ 1, n. 109; JIWE 2.277, pp. 241-242)" The Greek word used to describe Eudoxius specified that he was a "painter of living things" which might seem a curious profession for a Jew at this time. Yet the decoration of the Roman Jewish catacombs indicates that the Jews were certainly comfortable with, and availed themselves of, the services of painters of animals and birds as well as religious and other decorative motifs. In any case, there is no reason to assume that Eudoxius worked only for Jewish clients (JIWE 2, p. 241).

Also in the Vigna Randanini catacomb, a sarcophagus fragment was inscribed in memory of "Aulus Vedius Collega, chief doctor [archiatros]" (CIJ 1.5*; JIWE 2.341, pp. 285-286. Because of the high quality lettering on this sarcophagus fragment, Frey, CIJ 1, pp. 535-536,  did not believe the epitaph to refer to a Jew, but the find spot and Aulus' honored position of "chief doctor" could nonetheless refer to a Jew) a position recorded also in Venosa, about a century later, in an inscription to "... Faustinus, gerusiarch, chief doctor, son of Isa ..."(CIJ 1.600; JIWE 1.76, pp. 100-103, where Noy points out that the title of archiatros is well documented from the third to sixth centuries for Jews, Christians, and polytheists in Roman legal and epigraphic sources).

A purveyor of foods was commemorated as: "Alexander, a butcher [or butter vendor] from the market, who lived 30 years, a good soul, friend of all. Your sleep among the righteous" (CIJ 1.210; JIWE 2.343. Estelle Brettman adds in a note: "The determining third letter of the second word is nearly illegible, but Prof. Mason Hammond of Harvard University agrees with what is recorded in Lifshitz, Prolegomenon to CIJ, p. 31, n. 210, that it is a T, which would make Alexander a butter merchant, butularus rather than the B and Bubular(i)s, as stated in CIJ 1, p. 149 and by Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 132, 138, 233". Suzanne Collon, “Remarques sur les quartiers juifs de la Rome antique,” p. 91, thought the market referred to in the inscription was likely that of the Macellum Magnum near today's church of S. Stefano Rotondo, but many such sites are known from Ancient Rome). A tree-like menorah is incised in the lower right hand corner of this stone, and the concept of moral judgement is implied in the mixed Latin and transliterated Greek closing phrase for righteous, "inter dicaeis"). 

Flashes of wit and irony enlivened, perhaps inadvertently, a few of the epitaphs: "Ch[...] set up (this stone) to his spouse, Gargilia Eufraxia, who lived 19 years, 3 months, 12 days, well deserving, but not deserving this" (CIJ 1.237; JIWE 2.258, pp. 227-228).

From his resting place in the Monteverde catacomb, Leo claims the visitor's attention with his flippant approach to the inevitable: "Friends, I await you here; Leo my name and Leontius my signum [the name by which I am called]" (CIJ 1.32*; JIWE 2.104, pp. 88-89. Frey did not consider this epitaph as Jewish because of its "ironic tone". Other scholars have accepted it; Noy, for one, saw no objective reason to reject it, especially since "Lion names were popular among Jews because of associations with the 'Lions of Judah'".).

Full Jewish proselytes were buried in Jewish cemeteries, but metuentes (in Greek,"god-fearing") or Judaizers who observed only a few Jewish rites did not receive Jewish burials (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 253-256).

"Irene, foster child, proselyte, her father and mother Jewish, an Israelite, lived 3 years, 7 months, 1 day"(CIJ 1,21; JIWE 2.489, pp. 390-391; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 267. In his edition of the text for JIWE, Noy presents various translations of the epitaph, which is difficult to interpret, including his own, ""Irene, foster-child [?], proselyte, of father and mother, Jewess, Israelite [?] ). This epitaph (in Leon's translation) refers to a proselyte of inordinately tender age, perhaps converted to Judaism by her adoptive parents. The situation might have resulted from Irene's having been an unwanted female child, a victim of the Graeco-Roman practice of abandonment, who was adopted by Jewish parents. Adoption does not appear to have been an uncommon procedure among Jews of this period.

A poetic lament of a bereaved adoptive father is a compelling expression of personal feelings: "Would that I who reared you, Iustus, my child, were able to place you in a golden coffin. Now, Lord, (grant) in thy righteous judgment that Iustus, an incomparable child, may sleep in peace. Here I lie, Iustus, aged four years, eight months, sweet to my foster father. Theodotos, foster father to (my) sweetest child" (CIJ 1.358; JIWE 2.25, pp. 28-30, but translation follows Leon's version in Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 317-318).

The direct invocation to the Lord in the epitaph of the Roman Iustus is unusual in Jewish inscriptions of Rome. There is a reflection of Greek influence in the phraseology of this inscription, echoed in the funerary epigram of another Iustus, who was laid to rest in a mausoleum at Beth She'arim (Schwabe and Lifshitz, Beth Shearim 2, 1974, pp. 97-110). Extolled by his father, he also addressed the living in the way the ancient Greeks did on their tombstones.

Like the belief in immortality and resurrection, the concept of judgment was not uncommon; it can be inferred from other epigraphy from the Roman Jewish and Christian catacombs (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 121).

"Cresces Sinicerius, Jewish proselyte, lived 35 years, took his sleep. His mother did for her sweet son what he should have done for me. December 25", This inscription in Latin comes from the Catacombs of Villa Torlinia (CIJ 1.68, JIWE 2.491, pp. 392-393). In his discussion of this inscription in the JIWE, Noy pointed out that the use of the phrase "took his sleep [dormitione accepit]" is common in pagan epitaphs from Italy, as is inclusion of the date. In this case, Noy observed, "Although the deceased had adopted Judaism, his mother did not adopt the Jewish epigraphic style."

For some of the proselytes, memorials were set up by their patrons: "To Nicetas, a proselyte worthy and well-deserving, Dionysias his patroness [had this] made"(CIJ 1.256; JIWE 2.218, pp. 194-195).

"Felicitas, a proselyte for 6 (?) years, named (?) Peregrina, who lived 47 years. Her patron, for the well deserving [woman]"(CIJ 1.462; JIWE 2.62, pp. 54-55). Felicitas may have been a freed slave who adopted as her second name "Peregrina," the feminine Latin equivalent of the Hebrew word for proselyte, meaning "alien." Her former master, or perhaps the man who converted her to Judaism, may have been the patronus who set up her tombstone (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 254, note 2 and p. 332).

More women than men proselytes were recorded in the Jewish catacombs of Rome, perhaps because it would have been easier for women to fulfill the requirements of Jewish observance than for their male counterparts to live totally up to the biblical covenant made between the Lord and Abraham: "This is my covenant which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; every man child among you shall be circumcised" (Genesis 17:10). The proscriptions by Hadrian and Antoninus Pius against circumcision for non-Jews no doubt had a limiting effect on male converts, but, as can happen with archaeological statistics, the higher ratio of known female proselytes may depend in part upon accidents of discovery.

Many of the Palmyrene Jews buried in the Beth She'arim catacombs enjoyed more comfortable economic circumstances, as revealed in their inscriptions, than their brethren in Rome. Some were of higher social standing, holding such positions as banker, goldsmith, and even the office of Palatinus, an imperial administrator associated with the Roman treasury and responsible for setting taxes (Schwabe and Lifshitz, Beth Shearim 2, p. 213, n. 61). In the four or five generations of a large family buried in the same catacomb, at least one in each generation held the title of "Rabbi," a designation which could signify a Talmudic scholar, or be given to the most worthy, pious man of each generation. Women must have been influential also, since among Palmyrene Jews, two became owners of burial halls and probably were the heads of families. One of the deceased was entitled "priestess" (N. Avigad, Beth Shearim 3: Report on the Excavations from 1953-1958: Catacombs 12-23, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1976, p. 261).

Careers in the military and as gladiators in the late Roman Empire can be inferred from Mazar's findings in Catacomb 4 at Beth Shearim, where he uncovered a vivid graffito of a uniformed Roman legionnaire and an inscription scratched on the wall nearby: "Germanos, the son of Isaac the Palmyrene"(B. Mazar, Beth Shearim 1, pp. 182-183, fig. 15, pl. 36:2; Schwabe and Lifshitz, Beth Shearim 2, pp. 77-80). Another member of his family might have been a gladiator, or at least a fan of the spectacle, since in the same room on a nearby wall are the crudely incised figures of two men, engaged in what appears to be a gladiatorial combat (The occupation of gladiator is mentioned for Jews in the Jerusalem Talmud: Gittin, 4:46a-47a, 4:9 and in Encyclopedia Judaica 5.7, pp. 598-599, although as B. Mazar notes in Beth Shearim 1, p. 192, notes 42-43, some rabbinical writings express disapproval). There is no concrete evidence, to date, of a Jewish soldier from Rome (A soldier named Rufinus commemorated in an anonymous catacomb on the via Appia Pignatelli, but the site is not definitively Jewish: see arguments of Frey, CIJ 1, p. 52, and Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 274). 

During the Later Empire, the Christian communities in Rome became so populous that in addition to the information regarding their positions in the early Church hierarchy, there is much evidence of their professions and vocations, which included public offices (notably from the Constantinian period on) such as that of the Consul Junius Bassus, lawyers, physicians, midwives, veterinarians, boat builders, and tradesmen, plus other callings too numerous to describe in detail here (More professions cited in Testini, Archeologia cristiana, pp. 374, ff.).

Dedalius the shipbuilder is portrayed on the restored bottom of an early 4th century gold glass attributed to the Catacombs of Saturninus on the via Salaria. Elegantly clad in a belted tunic, cloak (paludamenum) and breeches, and holding a staff with a knob in his right hand and a scroll in his left, with the T-square thrust into his belt, he is surrounded by vignettes of his craftsmen with their tools at their various labors. Athena-Minerva, the patron goddess of arts and crafts, supervises the work. The surrounding inscription reads: "Dedalius, hope, drink, live." The last two words of the toast are a common formula on specimens of gold glass both Jewish and Christian (Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, n. 788. See L. von Matt, G. Daltrop and A. Prandi, Art Treasures of the Vatican Library, New York, 1970, p. 167, pl. 30).

The last example of a trade mention, in this case, relating specifically to burial, is found on a sarcophagus of a stonecutter at work. With the assistance of an apprentice, perhaps his son, the carver is putting the finishing touches on a sarcophagus with his bow drill. Other tools, such as a mallet and chisel, lie on the ground and in a basket. A sarcophagus lid decorated with the familiar motif of a dolphin rests on a table nearby. Enjoying the felicity of paradise (connoted by a dove bearing a sprig at the right of the inscription), an orant, likely the saintly Europos for whose tomb monument the piece is made, looks on (The piece was found on the via Labicana, perhaps from the Catacombs of SS. Marcellinus and Peter, and now is on display in the Museum of the Ducal Palace at Urbino).