Sleep (Coemeterium - Cubiculum - Peace/Shalom - External Home: Entrance and Exits - Tomb). Excerpt from: Estelle Shohet Brettman, Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World, with Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, & Jessica Dello Russo. Boston: International Catacomb Society, 1991-2017 (rev. 2024).

The Catacombs as Places of Sleep

The manner of construction, the appurtenances, and the terminology employed for areas within the catacombs reflect repeatedly the Jewish and Christian view of death as resembling sleep, before entering the world to come. Appropriate, in this context was the word cubiculum (bedroom in the Latin), applied to a burial chamber opening off the gallery of a catacomb. In the manner of a bedroom, the cubiculum permitted the deceased members of a family to sleep "with his fathers" (II Chronicles 32:33), a concept traditional with the Jews. Such chambers usually belonged to affluent families, and were more numerous in Christian and pagan cemeteries than in Jewish necropolises.

Fig. 1. DAPICS n. 0950

Fig. 1. "By the order of his Pope Marcellinus, this Deacon Severus grateful, has constructed for himself and his [family] a tranquil sojourn in peace where in which to preserve, for a long time, the beloved limbs in the slumber of peace for the Creator and Judge. The maiden Severa, a delight to parents and to family retainers, returned her {spirit) on the 8th Calends of February (January 25); upon her the Lord bestowed from birth extraordinary wisdom and skills. Her body, resting in peace is buried here until it rises again - thee Lord who snatched from her hallowed life's breath her pure, chaste and ever inviolable soul, restores again her spiritual glory. She lived 9 years (and) eleven months and 15 days also: thus she was transported from this generation." Catacombs of S. Callisto, Rome.[1]

While this epitaph, originally a fragment of a transenna from a pagan tomb, includes much of the common funerary vocabulary of the period, it is especially significant for its mention of Pope Marcellino. In this way, the year as well as the month and day (not infrequently included in Christian inscriptions) are made known. Also of interest is the naming of the Deacon Severus as well as the description of a comparatively luxurious type of funerary accommodations.

In the moving epitaphic tribute of Deacon Severus to his daughter Severa, the family sepulcher is referred to as "a tranquil sojourn in peace, in which to keep, for a long time the beloved limbs in the slumber of peace." Also the exhortation to sleep in peace, frequently in abbreviated form, is a standard closing formula in Latin or Greek in both Christian and Jewish funerary inscriptions, and in the latter it is expressed, even though infrequently, in Hebrew and in Semitic examples.[2] A variation of this on Jewish tombstones is the aspiration for the deceased to rest among the pious or just, and on Christian epitaphs for the departed to rest in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in accordance with the Jewish concept of the desired.[3] Curiously, the expression is used in Hebrew in all of these inscriptions. It may connect to the idea of the state in death as being one in which one "slept with his fathers" in the biblical sense of the phrase (II Kin. 20:21).

The Essenes/ Qumran sects, subscribed to the faith that the righteous ascend to such glories: this is also attested (to) in Iranian eschatology as in the epitaph of Antiochus I of Commagene. Both doctrines embrace (the) a concept of judgment wherein the wicked shall suffer their iniquities. This rhythmic epigraph approaches hexameter in most lines like the Jewish inscriptions of Regina (Latin equivalent of the Hebrew, Malcah) and that of Justus (Latinized Zadok) describes the poignant grief of a close member of the family.

Fig. 2. DAPICS n. 3312

Fig. 2. The moving tribute (Frey 358) to Justus, interred in the Monteverde cemetery, includes a section that addresses the passerby, very much in the manner of another Justus from Beth She'arim and in many other examples as well. It reads "Theodotus, foster father to his most sweet child. Would that I who raised (or buried) you, Justus, my child, were able to place you in a gold coffin. Now Lord, (grant) in thy equitable judgment, that Justus, an incomparable child, may sleep in peace. Here I lie, Justus, (aged) 4 years, 8 months, sweet to my foster father? Marble. Sala Giudaica. Vatican Museums.

The dedication of Theodotus' (perhaps a Hellenized version of Jonathan) to his beloved foster son belongs at the end according to Leon while Frey places it at the beginning. The Lord is invoked here -- a rarity for Roman-Jewish epitaphs, although frequent in Christian inscriptions as attested to by Severa's tombstone from the s. Callisto catacomb.

Although the gravestones of Severa and Justus describe a state of repose, "in peace" - thus inferring a condition of suspended animation or continued existence, Justus' plight appears to be less transitional (temporary). In II Esdras (34-35) the Lord will grant the deceased "eternal rest" [and permit that "perpetual light shine upon them"]. The Lord as Judge is alluded to in the latter two inscriptions and perhaps implied in that of Regina, since her hope for life eternal is assured because of her exemplary way of life. 

Fig. 3. DAPICS n. 3074

Fig. 3. Often, particularly in Christian epitaphs, the abbreviated "in peace", is employed as in "Gentilla in pace". The formula is interrupted in a rather critical place by the instrument of Gentilla's trade (or profession?), a loom.

Fig. 4. DAPICS n. 1478.

Fig. 4. Tombstone from the catacomb of Commodilla. The grave marker which Cristor dedicated to his four-year-old daughter, "Criste in pace." The departed soul of Criste is depicted as a fairly mature orant (a standing frontal figure with half-raised arms supporting (terminating in) palms open in prayer; this cemeterial symbol is common to the pagans and faithful Christians and derived from the Roman configuration, Pietas.

Such praying representations may have had antecedents at least as early as the Predynastic Egyptian Period, the Chalcolithic Aegean, and in later images of the Ka, or the hieroglyphic translation thereof. Possible reflections of similar gestures made their appearances in the Late Bronze Age Mycenaean stylized terracotta figurines found in graves and in clay female "idols" from a Cretan ritual context, one with doves on her head. Flanked by the customary doves bearing branches and a container perhaps filled with goods for the rite of the refrigerium in which her father is an active celebrant while a dog often present on such occasions appears to hunger for a morsel. The usual evergreen ivy leaf serves as additional embellishment.[4]

Fig. 5. DAPICS n. 3125 (Frey 733c.).

Fig. 5. There are two Latin Roman Jewish epitaphs, in which only the shortened "in pace" appears; Frey 458 (no longer extant) and Frey 477 from Monteverde and now in the Sala Giudaica of the Vatican. In addition, if Artemidora (Frey 733c.) was a Jewish inscription, her sarcophagus bears the Greek invocation "ev eipnvn" or "in pace".[5]

Fig. 6. DAPICS n. 3279 (Frey 497).

Fig. 6. The Hebrew "Shalom" (or peace) figures on several Jewish inscriptions in Rome as well as at Beth She'arim (it enjoys popularity today --- also as a greeting), and even "Peace on Israel" painted on a tile from the Monteverde catacomb now in the Sala Giudaica (Frey 293). On a tombstone discovered in construction near the Porta Portese (Frey 497), "shalom" is emphasized by its repetition four times. The full text reads: "here lies Tubias Barzahona, and Paregorius, son of Tubias Barzahona. Peace, peace, peace, peace. The Greek name Paregorius is the Hellenized version of Nehemiah or Menachem.[6]

The word cemetery itself was consistent with the idea of death as sleep. Derived from the Latin coemeterium, cemetery meant - as did the Greek counterpart koimeterion - a place for sleeping, here the sleep of death. In Greek mythology, Sleep and Death were the twin offspring of lightless Night. The brothers were often depicted performing their mysterious labors in tandem as in the representation of such legendary warriors as the Lycian Sarpedon, or Memnon, son of Dawn, who died heroically in the Trojan War. Also linking sleep habits of the living with death, the ancient Greek concept of sepulcher/domicile was referred to in 7th century B.C.E. epitaphs, such as the above-mentioned inscription dedicated to Deidamas which bears the words, "For Deidamas his father Pygmas... this house." References included thalamos or the bedroom within the oikos, the house of the dead.

In one of the earliest recorded sarcophagus inscriptions from the Jewish catacombs of Rome, one which is significant for several reasons, Beturia Paulla was described as settled in her eternal home, "domus aeterna," and an inscription of unknown provenance seen at the end of the sixteenth century affixed to the wall of a Roman house and bearing a menorah as recorded by M. Smetius refers to eternal homes for the dead.[7] In an inscription decorated with an ark and four scrolls, for another eminent member of the ancient Jewish community of Rome, Eupsychos, there appears the Greek for eternal home. From an arcosolium in hall L in catacomb 13 at Beth She'arim the oikos of Aristeas from Sidon refers to the entire burial chamber as his home.[8] A red dipinto on a jamb in an arcosolium in room I of hall B of catacomb 13 at Beth Shea'rim states "This is the resting place of Yudan son of Levi forever in peace".[9]

Fig. 7. DAPICS n. 1265

Fig. 7. A unique Jewish artifact, also providing reference to the tomb as house was recovered circa 1881 under the debris near the door of the last cubiculum, not then excavated, in the Christian Catacomb of SS. Pietro and Marcellino. This rare piece of gold glass' bore the following reconstructed Greek inscription: "House of Peace. Take blessing with all of your family."

And in another recent find from the Jewish catacombs in Rome, Fr. Fasola's excavations in the short gallery uncovered an inscription written in charcoal on the tile closure of an intact loculus. The inscription was a supplication that Kerdon find peace in a house YKOC of peace.[10] At the right of the tomb, a glass perfume bottle was affixed. "Be shall enter into peace: they shall rest in their beds, each one walking in his uprightness" (Is. 57:2). Marking in red the arch of the passage to room III in hall G of catacomb 1 at Beth She'arim is the description in the Greek of the graves, collectively, as "Place of peace."[11] It was not until well into the fourth century did Christian inscriptions refer to the eternal home in the Greek and the Latin.[12]

As demonstrated above, the concept of the burial place as a resting place without the finality of death was not limited in antiquity to one culture, one faith, one place, or one stratum of society. An inscription on the tombstone of Sennacherib read, "Palace of sleep, tomb of repose, dwelling of eternity." Not only in inscriptions and in interior structure but often in exterior architectural design, the analogy of the tomb or the material representation of this concept has antecedents at least as early as the late fourth millennium B.C.E. when house-like ossuaries were used for bone collecting in secondary burials.[13]

The pottery model soul-house of the Middle Kingdom would provide housing for the ka of the less affluent Egyptian, as well as nourishment from the offerings in its forecourt. Domiform tombs continued in use through the Middle Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean. The dwelling-type of urn was discovered in Mycenaean Crete, later in Phoenician sites, and was represented by ash urns of the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age in the Levant. Notable examples, occur in such western Mediterranean Iron Age burials, as 8th century urn-filled cemeteries in Rome and the Alban Hills, as well as the Villanovan culture of Etruria, also in central Europe and North Africa. Shaped like miniature houses, these tombs sometimes had roof ridges ornamented with horns or birds' heads and were reminiscent of models of shrines on Crete and other sites in the eastern Mediterranean.

Tombs with palatial house-like features appeared in the Geometric and Archaic periods at Lake Van in Anatolia, on the Greek mainland and islands, and in the colonies of southern Italy and Sicily. Such an elaborate tomb was constructed in the village of Siloam near Jerusalem, possibly for Shebna, one of the ministers of Hezekiah (Isaiah 22:16). Isaiah (3:20) decried the decadence of the fashionable ladies of Jerusalem wearing amulets bearing representations of such images (according to some interpretations).[14] Persian clay or stone astodans have been located in the Asia Minor and Central Asian burials of Zoroastrians. Their counterparts, house-styled ossuaries in stone have been uncovered at later sites including Beth She'arim: a gabled ossuary was discovered in Jerusalem bearing the inscription "Sheol," in the Hebrew and corrupted Greek--a term cited earlier as evocative of the images of Hades.

In addition to representing the shapes of houses in ossuaries and other tombs, the ancients frequently carried over the furnishings of the home to their burial sites. Early sepulchers as well as sarcophagi in the Mediterranean from the Middle Bronze Age on contained the appointments for sleeping. There were biers, beds, coffins (or sarcophagi), and stone shelves. In Mycenaean family chamber tombs the stone shelves were appointed with pillows carved from stone. Similarly, at Beth She'arim (most extensively used from the second to fourth centuries), other Palestinian sites, and in the hypogea of Malta (probably about fourth century), where they have Punic antecedents, stone pillows with depressions have been discovered, a "poor relative" of the often elegant head rests in ancient Egyptian burials which assured not only deep sleep but would safeguard the head in the afterlife.[15]

In the catacombs the sleep-simulating arrangements were generally applied to shelf-like loculi and to niches, or arcosolia. The arcosolia were arches carved out above burials or hollowed into shelves, coffins, or shallow graves in the floors of the catacombs. The arcosolium, which evolved over a long period in Palestine and elsewhere in Hellenistic times, first became evident in Palestine about one hundred years before the fall of the Second Temple. An architectural feature found mainly in galleries and cubicula in Roman catacombs, the arcosolium--when it was found at Palestinian sites like Beth She'arim--was often accompanied by the kokh in the same chamber, or close by. Most likely originally of Phoenician origin but influenced by burials at from Alexandria, the kokh, a tunnel-like variant of the loculus, was a shaft hewn at right angles to the wall. This type of burial was characteristic of Jewish burials in Palestine, where it facilitated bone collection for stone ossuaries, and also of in Rome of the catacomb of Vigna Randanini. Similar constructions were found in certain Christian catacombs in Rome such as that of Panfilo. Differing from the earlier ossuaries, the more ancient burial containers which held bones of entire families, the kokh--as suggested earlier--may have been a natural result of the Jewish doctrine of personal immortality advanced by the Pharisees.

The arcosolium made its appearance slightly after the mid-first century B.C.E. in Palestine; this development can also be seen in Roman and Sicilian catacombs of later date. At this time, in Palestine, burials were often in coffins or ossuaries on shelves under the arches. In the Herodian period burials were placed in the hollowed-out shelves of the arcosolia which became trough graves the face sometimes embellished to resemble coffins, a feature common in Roman catacombs. After the fall of the Second Temple this, by then, common type of interment increased space available for burials by augmenting the number of burials under one arch. This phenomenon was also visible in the Jewish catacombs of Venosa in southern Italy.

Loculi/kokhim had precedents in Greek thekai, boxes carved out of Hellenistic tomb walls, sometimes two in depth. Like the earlier Archaic klinai or couches (often in stone), these provided resting places. The ledges or benches, on occasion were hollowed out and lidded like sarcophagi. They were located along the walls in the arrangement of a triclinium (i.e. a dining chamber with three couches). Such couches or benches may have served sleeping and perhaps dining functions in Aegean Neolithic-era houses.[16] And they were certainly a part of the interior furnishings of the homes of the Iron Age Aegean world. The Jerusalem Talmud described the tombs of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their wives as being arranged in such a manner. This arrangement suggested a celestial banquet or the assemblage of the "Academy on High." Prototypes of this form of tomb were in evidence in the 6th century B.C.E. and in a unique 4th or 3rd century B.C.E. hypogea with two or three tiers of loculi at Anzio, southwest of Rome.

In more ancient periods, niches in the walls of entrance passages dromoi of Mycenaean and, at times, post-Mycenaean tombs accommodated children's burials; and loculi-like cavities, instead of benches, have also been uncovered in the innovative subterranean chamber tombs of Iron-Age Palestine. The plan of these multi-chambered tombs may have served as prototypes for the late Levantine and Palestinian tombs such as those at Beth She'arim, as well as for the Roman catacombs. The tombs were laid out with staircases leading down from an open court to an underground chamber with high ledges along the wall. This chamber opened into still other rooms with benches for the deceased along the walls.

The association of the tomb with the home was also reflected in grave stelae, tombstones, and coffins with architectural reliefs or decorations, as well as in burial pits and cists with tiles forming roof-like gables. The ultimate figuration in this type of home/funerary structure was found in the Hellenistic sarcophagi and in the temple-like facades of monumental tombs in the eastern Mediterranean.

The complex underground tombs of Alexandria--with their access stairways, courts, and light wells open to the sky--were likely direct prototypes in structure and form of the catacombs of Rome and the Jewish catacombs of Beth She'arim. The loculi in the Alexandrian tombs, often of the kokhim-type, were sealed with decorative plastered and painted slabs. On these slabs, the names of the deceased were enclosed in a horizontal Egyptian-type cartouche, somewhat like an ovoid tabula ansata, another name-framing device. These features were all utilized later in the Roman catacombs.

Many Hellenistic and Cypriot tomb plans were also derivative of contemporary houses. Such plans featured a series of chambers clustered around a central court, an arrangement reminiscent of the simpler Classical Period chamber tombs at Pontamo on the island of Rhodes. The Beth She'arim catacombs offered modifications of this plan: a courtyard leading to halls (including rooms), some of which were embellished with elegant architectural devices such as ornamental facades and doors, which in three instances featured "windows" above the lintels. In such ways the funerary practices of the Alexandrian world presented a notable and widespread material articulation of the strong contemporary belief in the comfortable, homey afterlife of the individual, a concept which was to become so prevalent and significant in the late Hellenistic-Roman Mediterranean period, the main concern of this publication.

In one of the two Greek inscriptions, also dedicated to Thyme (the head of the Amase family, affluent emigres from Palmyra), and carved above doorways leading to and from the family funerary chamber, the Greek term mnema meaning tomb and related to memory, is substituted for the word for soul. Also from the same root as memory, the Greek word for monument here transliterated as mnemion appears several times in Beth She'arim.[17]

Important to the remembrance of the deceased, a form of individual immortality, is the mention and recall of the name of the departed. Thus the name became a major part of the epitaph, often a monument of some type, in itself a commemorative element. This belief, continuing on through later Greek periods, is rendered audibly in the Homeric age at the funeral pyre of the dead warrior; "The calling of the name of the departed and the pouring of libations while the corpse was being burned seemed to be another rite illustrated by Achilles. Both were stopped as soon as the body was consumed by the fire. Then the end of the cremation rites was reached; the smoldering fire was extinguished with wine and the bones were collected and placed in an urn."[18] Since the time of the pharaohs the reiteration of the name on the tomb was a bid for immortality. Perhaps this was a reflection of the fact that, the omniscient Egyptian divinity Ptah who knew the names as well as the substance of all things, infused them with life by uttering their names.

Identifying the name of the deceased not only perpetuated his memory but may have acted as an activating force--sustaining his identity after death in ancient thought.[19] In other parts of the Mediterranean, names of the deceased have been found in mid-8th and 7th-century B.C.E. epitaphs for Uriah, Uzzah, and Ophai in the Hebron district of Palestine.[20] In Greece the name of the departed was inscribed on a rock set up by his father for the early 7th-century B.C.E. burial of Deidamas on the island of Amorgos, as well as on tombstones on the mainland in Corinth, Attica, Sounion slightly later in the 7th century B.C.E.[21] Etruscan burials carried on the same tradition -- their names were inscribed on their burials, women including their family name as mentioned above.

In Rome the perpetuation of the concept of separate identity after death was referred to in the works of Cicero, Lucretius, Vergil, Horace, and Livy who described the manes, (literally the good--earlier deified and appeased) as the shades of deceased ancestral individuals. Reference to the efficacy wrought by the appearance of the name on the tombstone was noted From the end of the first century B.C.E. the names of the deceased were added to the customary epitaphic formulae D(is) M(anibus) or D(is) M(anibus) S(acrum)-"this place sacred to the gods or shades of the underworld.[22] Thus, as in ancient times, the name and often the title or profession, of the departed is mentioned at the burial in the catacombs.

The concept of the tomb as a residence for the resumption of life, much as usual, is certainly not a new one, and evidence for it such as domiform ossuaries, dates back to the fourth millennium B.C.E. Since the tomb could be thought of as a "house of eternity" or "house of peace," often using the image of a sacred shrine or edifice, the use of the term cubiculum was appropriate.

Written in charcoal on the tile closure of an intact loculus in the short gallery AS of the upper catacomb of Torlonia, the departed Kerdon is blessed and wished an abode of peace with a blessing. On the right, a small glass vase for "aromas" marks this grave.[23] Opening off the galleries were cubicula, the walls of which accommodated loculi and/or arcosolia, approximately one hundred to one hundred fifty square feet in area, opened off the galleries. These "bedchambers," like the Greek term koimeterion, imply the belief that death was just a state of dormancy, or suspended animation, as did the reference to the tomb as a resting place, particularly favored epigraphically in the Beth She'arim catacombs as well as in later tombs in southern Italy.[24] Pillows carved in sarcophagi and trough graves in the Beth She’arim catacombs, and earlier as in the Etruscan tombs, and the analogous headrests in Egyptian tombs would facilitate a comfortable repose, and thus intimated the same concept.

[1] A. Ferrua, Inscriptiones Christianae Urbis Romae septimo saeculo antiquiroes, nova series, vol. IV: Coemeteria inter vias Appiam et Ardeatinam (Citta del Vaticano: Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, 1964), n. 10183.

[2] J-B. Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaicarum I (Vatican City: Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, 1936), nn. 283, 292, 319, 497, and perhaps 296.

[3] P. Testini, Archeologia Cristiana, 2d. ed. (Bari: Edipuglia, 1980), p.409. Also note that in 4 Maccabees 16:25 "those who die for the sake of God live in God, as do Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the patriarchs, and thus by transference, the deceased who sleeps with his fathers and with the patriarchs lives again in God. In contemporary Jewish funerary liturgy, the family of the deceased who has passed to eternal rest" prays that God will grant him "perfect rest," and that he will be "bound up in the bond of life eternal" with the souls of these patriarchs and their wives.

[4] An Eighteenth Dynasty Egyptian Spell includes the epithet "in peace, in peace". An earlier similar petition "O thou who bringest the ferry boat from deep over yon bad shoal, bring me the ferry boat, attach for me the tow rope, in peace, in peace" appears in the Eighteenth Dynasty. Spell 99, in T. G. Allen, The Book of the Dead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974).

[5] H. J. Leon, The Jews of Ancient Rome (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1960), pp. 344-345, feels that it most likely is.

[6] M. Schwabe and B. Lifshitz, Beth She’arim, 2 (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Society and Hebrew University, 1974), p. 38.

[7] According to Frey, p. 386, but disputed by others.

[8] Schwabe and Lifshitz, Beth She'arim II, p. 144. 

[9] N. Avigad, Beth She'arim III (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society and Hebrew University, 1976), p. 236.

[10] The Greek YKOC was substituted here for the late Empire usage of OIKOC.

[11] Schwabe and Lifshitz, Beth She'arim II, p. 19.

[12] Testini, Archeologia, p. 440, and, for example, Enrico Josi, “Cimitero Cristiano sulla via Latina,” in Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 16 (Roma, 1939), p. 210 and in upper catacomb below the Villa Torlonia: U. M. Fasola, “Le due catacombe ebraiche di Villa Torlonia,” in Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 52, 1-2 (1976), p. 24.

[13] J. Perrot, "One tombe a ossuaires du IVe millenaire a Azor pres de Tel Aviv," 'Atiquot 3 (Jerusalem, 1961), pp. 28-32.

[14] E. O. James, The tree of life. An archaeological study (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1966), p. 220.

[15] E. Becker, Malta sotterranea, Studien zur Altchristliche und Judischen sepulkralkunst (Strasbourg: Heitz, 1913), pp. 21 ff. and pp. 70 ff.

[16] E. Vermeule, Greece in the Bronze Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 12.

[17] Schwabe and Lifshitz, Beth She'arim II, p. 7

[18] A. J. Wace and F. H. Stubbings, A Companion to Homer (London: Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1962) p. 480.

[19] See E. Vermeule, Greece in the Bronze Age, p. 118, and n. 2.

[20] M. Tadmor, ed., Inscriptions Reveal (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 1972), p. 63.

[21] D. Kurtz and J. Boardman, Greek Burial Customs (London: Thames & Hudson, 1971), p. 261; and on the walls of sixth century B.C.E chamber tombs in the Greek southern Italian colony of Cumae: Ibid, p. 312.

[22] J. M. C. Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971), p. 35.

[23] Fasola, Torlonia, p. 24.

[24] Frey, CII, nn. 558, 622, and 630.