Last Words

Gravestones from the Jewish Catacombs of Rome 

Death is the great equalizer. You probably know the saying, and, yes, everyone dies one day, and nobody can live forever. But that’s where this popular wisdom reaches its limits, because people can be as much different in death as they were in life. Science shows that the socioeconomics that have shaped your life find their final expression in your death—your life circumstances will likely determine when and how you die (how early, in your home or hospital, …). This is particularly and painfully apparent during the current pandemic, but we’re not going down that path here. Rather, our focus is on the Jews of ancient Rome.

Jewish Catacombs in Rome

THE JEWISH RELIGIOUS ICONOGRAPHY depicted in this burial chapel in the Villa Torlonia Catacombs in Rome prominently features the Ark of the Covenant, flanked by two seven-branched menorahs, the pomegranate, and the etrog fruit.

Like anywhere in the diaspora, the Jews of ancient Rome lived their unique lives according to their religion and specific customs, which were different from their Christian or pagan neighbors. Seemingly, in death the Jewish community adopted the same way of burying their dead as their Christian neighbors—in catacombs. Yes, catacombs are not a purely Christian phenomenon, since in the first few centuries of our era, the large Jewish population of Rome created at least five such subterranean systems of burial chambers that scholars now recognize as Jewish catacombs.

“More than 600 ancient Jewish inscriptions have been identified from the city of Rome, the vast majority coming from funerary contexts. Epitaphs, or tombstone inscriptions, offer glimpses of people whose names would otherwise be lost to time,” writes Megan Nutzman in her column “Jewish Epitaphs from Ancient Rome,” published in the Winter 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. An Assistant Professor of history at Old Dominion University, Nutzman examines Jewish epitaphs from the catacombs of ancient Rome to look for patterns in these inscriptions and see what they can tell us about the Jews living in the city.

Taking her father’s military headstone as the painful point of departure, Nutzman looks at symbols and phrases, imagery and sentiments that appear on the Jewish funerary inscriptions from Roman catacombs, to analyze the commemorative choices and their possible implications. “Only limited insights about an individual can be gleaned from reading his or her funeral inscription in isolation,” admits Nutzman. She, however, goes on to explain the basic methodology behind her study: “The limited insights to be gleaned from any one inscription are no different among the Jewish catacombs than they are at Fort Snelling, but, by aggregating data from a large number of inscriptions, we can begin to identify patterns.”

To this end, Nutzman examines in what languages the epitaphs are written, whether the age at death or any epithet or ethical qualities or a synagogue title are included with the name of the loved one, whether the name and relationship of the dedicator appear, what burial formulae were selected, etc. She also provides a quantitative comparison with pagan and Christian inscriptions from Rome.

Monteverde Catacomb tombstone with Jewish symbols

THE JEWISH SYMBOLS on this tombstone from the Monteverde Catacombs include the menorah, lulav, etrog, and an amphora. The Greek inscription reads, “Here rest Primitiva and her grandson Euphrenōn. (May) their sleep (be) in peace.”

To learn more about the funerary inscriptions from Rome and what they tell us about the social and religious world of ancient Jews, read Megan Nutzman’s column “Jewish Epitaphs from Ancient Rome,” published in the Winter 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


Subscribers: Read the full column “Jewish Epitaphs from Ancient Rome,” by Megan Nutzman, published in the Winter 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


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A Rare Look at the Jewish Catacombs of Rome by Letizia Pitigliani

No one seems to know why it is so difficult to see the Jewish catacombs of Rome. But it is. The 1929 Concordat between the Italian Fascist government and the Vatican gave the Vatican control over all the catacombs of Italy—Christian, Jewish, and pagan.


The Oldest Hebrew Script and Language by Charles A. Kennedy

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Marble Faun, a novel about young artists struggling to learn their craft in 19th century Rome, a group of painters visits the catacomb of Callistus on the old Appian Way. As they wander through the tunnels, their way lit by flickering candles, one of the young women becomes separated from the rest. She was lured away by the Ghost of the Catacombs!


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