20 February 2010


τοῦ Ἰούδα [καὶ τῶν λέγοντων]
ἆρον ἆρον σταύ[ρωσον αὐτὸν]
. . . of Judas [and those saying]
Away with him! Cru[cify him!]
John 19:14

A year ago I wrote about a late antique tombstone found near Argos. It is now Lent in both the Eastern and Western rites, and a good time to revisit the Argos tombstones at a more serious level. 

The image here is from the Byzantine Museum in Athens, but it represents six of the fourteen or fifteen Christian epigraphs from the 5th and 6th centuries in Argos. It is a small thing: all but one of these Argos epigraphs are somewhat smaller than a piece of printer paper, 2/3 the width of my computer screen.  

In the ancient world, grave-entering -- robbing or using someone else's grave -- was an impious act of major importance, and the guilty were to pay fines to the municipal treasury. For a thousand years before Christianity, Jewish, Greek, and Roman epigraphs had called on the gods of the Greeks and Persians, on enraged Apollo, and on the iron broom and the flying sickle to punish the guilty. Constantine's divorce law of 331 considered grave-entering grounds for divorce. In 447 a law of Valentinian said that one who would harass the buried dead was an enemy of light itself. Some thought the clergy were particularly guilty of grave-entering, others said it was the people who carried the body to the grave.

Christian gravestones took up their own warning, often the anathema, or the curse of God on Judas and on those who cried Crucify him! when Pilate asked what to do with Jesus. Significantly, they used the form found in the Gospel of John, the most anti-Semitic of the gospels, and a longer form than those used in the other three. This anathema was quite popular in the Justinianic period, with the Greens using it in their court oaths and shouting it at the Blues. Justinian included the anathema in his law about perjury in 535.

What is striking here is the percentage of Christian epigraphs from Argos that use the anathema -- 6 out of fourteen or fifteen.  There is another from Hermione, in the Argolid.  None have been found at Sparta. We are dealing with survivals, but counting the Corinth epigraphs, I found only 2 out of 162, and at the Argos rate there should have been 50.  I found three from Athens, and at the Argos rate there should have been dozens. The anathema shows up very rarely in epigraphs from Italy, twice out of the thousands from North Africa, one from Asia Minor. [I did this work 10 years ago: it is likely that many more epigraphs have been discovered since, but someone else will have to do the numbers.] 

The Argos use of the anathema crossed class boundaries.  It is found in a monastic burial vault; on the grave of Rhoda, daughter of Kyriaki who must have been poor; on the grave of a member of the city council; on the grave of a Syrian resident; and on two other working-class graves. We know nothing about what was going on in Argos in the 6th century, except that there may be a clue on the epigraph for a Christian of Jewish origin. It says
+ κοιμητήριον
Ἀραβάννας ἀγό
ραστον + ὁ ἠγό
ρασεν Σολομών +

[this] resting place
of Arabanna [is] paid
for + Salomon,
bought [it]+

Some, but not all of the Christian epigraphs have crosses: this has the most, three.  It also states twice that the grave site has been paid for.  Does these things reflect an uneasiness on the part of Jewish Christians about their status among Greek Christians?  Two other Jewish epigraphs have been found.  One is seriously eroded and has not been reconstructed.  The other, that of Aurelius Joses, quotes the Theodosian Code at 16.8.13 in asking that his tomb not be entered.

It was perfectly possible for Christians to protest grave-entering without vulgarity. 
-->One from Parori, outside Sparta, began with the Trisagion -- "Holy God, Holy Immortal" -- and concludes, "by this power, do not disturb this tomb. Another, from Corinth, says mildly, "Therefore let no one have designs against them and exhume them, and involve themselves in penalties." The Jew, Aurelius Joses, set a standard no Argos Christian met:

I, Aurelius Joses, pray
the holy and great
power of God and the
power of the Law and the
dignity of the patriarchs and
the dignity of the ethnarchs and
the dignity of the sages and
the dignity of the worship offered
each day before God that
no one will break up my tomb
which I built with much labor.

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