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, rev. ed. Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, & Jessica Dello Russo. Boston: International Catacomb Society, 1991-2017 (rev. 2024)

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, studying the Law or Torah, and probably teaching the Law, all traditional Jewish interests which point to the importance of education and schooling for Jews in Rome, no matter their overall socioeconomic status in the local society.

In one of the somewhat unusual mentions of an occupation in a Roman-Jewish epitaph, unique, in fact, in this context, a Greek inscription in the Vigna Randanini catacomb was inscribed to "...Eudoxius the painter.[i] 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.[ii]

Epitaph to Eudoxios, "zoographos" incised onto the lid of a sarcophagus in the Catacombs of Vigna Randanini, Rome (DAPICS n. 0239).

Also in the Vigna Randanini catacomb, a sarcophagus fragment was inscribed in memory of "Aulus Vedius Collega, chief doctor [archiatros]",[iii] a position recorded also in Venosa, about a century later, in an inscription to "... Faustinus, gerusiarch, chief doctor, son of Isa ..."[iv]

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".[v] 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". 

Epitaph to Alexander, "butularus," from the Catacombs of Vigna Randanini, Rome (now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) (DAPICS n. 1282).

More comfortable economic circumstances for individual Jews are recorded in the epitaphs to Palmyrene Jews buried in the Beth She'arim catacombs in the Galilee. 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.[vi] 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 and pious man of his generation.[vii] Women must have been influential also, since among Palmyrene Jews, two became owners of burial halls and probably were the heads of their families. One of the deceased was entitled "priestess".[viii]

Careers in the military and as gladiators in the late Roman Empire can be inferred from Benjamin 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".[ix] 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.[x] There is no concrete evidence, to date, of a Jewish soldier from Rome.[xi]

During the Later Empire, Christians 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) like that of the Consul Junius Bassus, lawyers, physicians, midwives, veterinarians, boat builders, and tradesmen, plus other callings too numerous to describe in detail here.[xii]

Painted on the front of the Cubiculum of Leone, the Latin inscriptions reads: "Leo Officialis Annonae". Catacomb of Commodilla, Rome (DAPICS n. 3038).

To give but one example of a Christian government official, amply documented as well in literature of the time, an epitaph in the Catacomb of Commodilla on the via Ostiense identifies a chamber as belonging to "Leo, an official of the annona". The annona was the annual produce, usually referring to grain, which was distributed at minimal cost, or, in times of necessity, even for free, to indigents numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Because the Romans were always concerned with supplying the populace with sufficient grain, the harbor at Ostia was built by the Emperor Claudius to accommodate the importation of wheat. Initially, in the early first century CE, the process was handled by a praefectus; later, a bureaucracy developed in the administration of the program and eventually the word annona connoted a tax in kind decreed by later emperors to support the army.[xiii]

Talking a look at evidence in a very different medium, we find Dedalius the shipbuilder 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, delineated with her customary appurtenances, the shield, helmet, and aegis or breastplate embellished with the apotropaic gorgon's head, supervises the work of a carpenter wielding a hammer and chisel. Going clockwise around the rim, the other artisans work with a saw, an ascia, a bow drill, the [finish?] of the bow of a boat, and with a plane. 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.[xiv]

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.[xv]

[i] Frey CIJ 1, n. 109; JIWE 2.277, pp. 241-242.
[ii] JIWE 2, p. 241.
[iii] 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.
[iv] 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.
[v] CIJ 1.210; JIWE 2.343, pp. 288-290. 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, or butcher, as stated in CIJ 1, p. 149 and by H. J. Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome (Philadelphia, 1960), pp. 132, 138, 233". Suzanne Collon, “Remarques sur les quartiers juifs de la Rome antique,” in Mélanges d'archéologie et d'histoire 57 (1940), 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.
[vi] M. Schwabe and B. Lifshitz, Beth She'arim 2, The Greek Inscriptions (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1974), p. 213, n. 61.
[vii] B. Mazar, Beth She'arim 1, The Catacombs. Report on the Excavations during 1936-1940: Catacombs 1-4 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1973), p. 86; Schwabe and Lifshitz, Beth She'arim 2, pp. 10-15 ff.
[viii] N. Avigad, Beth Shearim 3: Report on the Excavations from 1953-1958: Catacombs 12-23 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1976), p. 261.
[ix] B. Mazar, Beth She'arim 1, pp. 182-184, fig. 15, pl. 36:2; Schwabe and Lifshitz, Beth She'arim 2, pp. 77-80.
[x] 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.
[xi] 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. 
[xii] More professions cited in P. Testini, Archeologia cristiana (2d ed., Bari: Edipuglia, 1980), pp. 374, ff.
[xiii] On the annona system, see D. van Berchem, Les distributions de ble' et d'argent a la plebe romaine sous l'empire (Geneva: Georg, 1939).
[xiv] Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, n. 788. See L. von Matt, G. Daltrop and A. Prandi, Art Treasures of the Vatican Library (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1970), p. 167, pl. 30.
[xv] 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.