Archaeology News

 





EPITAPHS AND ROMAN SOCIAL CLASSES

 

by Doug Ward



OXFORD, OHIO-The Roman Empire of the first century A.D., the world in which the apostle Paul preached the Gospel, had what social scientists call a "highly stratified" society. Social status was very important, and it was clear where each person's place in the hierarchy was.

 

On the bottom level were slaves, estimated to comprise thirty per cent or more of the total population. Some slaves were owned by the state and employed in public works projects. Others provided agricultural labor on the estates of the wealthy, managed a master's business, or taught a master's children.

 

Roman slaves were often treated as subhuman. Violence and the threat of violence were used to discourage them from trying to escape. They couldn't legally marry, and their children were the property of their masters. Some were required to wear collars that identified who their masters were.

 

Slaves were not entirely without hope, however. Some were able to gain freedom, either by purchasing it or as a gift from their masters. Some owners of slaves included in their wills a provision that their slaves be set free when they died.

 

Masters who freed their slaves did not always do so with magnanimous motives. Sometimes slaves were freed because they were old or sick, because they could provide support to the master in an upcoming election, or because they might otherwise testify against the master in a criminal trial.

 

Freedmen-former slaves who had gained their freedom-occupied the next level in the Roman social scale. They could not hold office, but they could legally marry, and their children enjoyed the full rights of citizens.

 

Freedmen maintained close relationships with their patrons, as their former masters were called. This is reflected in their names. Male former slaves typically had three names, two of which came from the name of the patron. Female former slaves had two names, with one coming from the patron. For example, when Marcus Tullius Cicero freed his able secretary Tiro, Tiro became Marcus Tullius Tiro. If Cicero had freed a female slave named Fortunata, she would have become known as Tullia Fortunata.

 

Roman Social Classes in Funerary Art



The class structure of ancient Roman society was especially evident in Rome's tombs and mausoleums. On March 8, 2007, an expert on Roman funerary artifacts, Dr. Linda Maria Gigante, gave a lecture on this subject at the Miami University Art Museum. Dr. Gigante's lecture, which was entitled "Slaves and Freedmen in Rome: What their Epitaphs and Tombs Reveal", was sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America.

 

Dr. Gigante began her lecture by giving information about Roman slaves and freedmen, as I have summarized above. She illustrated this part of the lecture with art from Roman tombs. In one funerary relief depicting a banquet, the class structure she was describing was clearly evident in the postures of the people pictured there. The guests at the banquet recline during dinner, while slaves stand nearby, ready to serve them. In another funerary relief the body of a noblewoman who has recently died lies on a bed. Around the bed a group of her slaves are standing. At the feet of the deceased is her will, which presumably authorizes the liberation of those slaves.

 

Gigante explained that the elite members of Roman society measured their status by the quality of their houses and the number of their slaves. Slaves and freedmen, on the other hand, were very concerned about how they would be commemorated after they died. They sometimes formed organizations whose purpose was to finance the funeral expenses of each member.

 

The concern of slaves and freedmen that their lives be appropriately remembered is reflected in the Satyricon, a comic work written by the first-century writer Petronius. In one part of the Satyricon, a wealthy freedman named Trimalchio stages a lavish dinner party, during which he describes the tomb he has planned for himself.

 

Gigante described how tombs gave identity to Roman freedmen and slaves. Facades of tombs were often carved with likenesses of the people whose bodies they contained. Accompanying epitaphs gave names of people with indications of their status and relationships. Sometimes freedmen who had become friends when they were slaves of the same master were buried together. Sometimes a tomb would indicate the occupation of the head of household. One well known example is the "Baker's Tomb," the tomb of a freedman named Eurysaces and his wife. Eurysaces was a baker, and his tomb is shaped like a bread oven and inscribed with a relief depicting the baking of bread.

 

The Louisville Collection



Dr. Gigante, a professor of art history at the University of Louisville, has devoted several years of study to an extensive collection of Roman funerary artifacts that is housed at Louisville's Speed Art Museum. These artifacts were discovered a little over a century ago by workmen in Rome who were building a Carmelite monastery and church. The workmen uncovered some columbaria, structures whose walls were lined with niches for urns that held the ashes of Romans who lived during the first century B.C. and the first century A.D. Along with urns, the columbaria contained bowls, plates, unguent bottles, and hundreds of epitaphs inscribed in stone.

 

In 1911 Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston, a wealthy Louisville resident, purchased the entire collection from the monastery. The artifacts were shipped to Kentucky in twenty eight huge crates. Thruston kept the crates in storage until 1929, when he donated them to the newly-founded Speed Art Museum. The museum staged exhibitions of some of the artifacts in 1932 and 1940. But after that the crates were largely forgotten until the late 1980s, when their contents at last began to be studied systematically.

 

Gigante has been involved with cataloguing the epitaph inscriptions from the collection for inclusion in the U.S. Epigraphy Project and other large databases of ancient inscriptions. In her lecture, she showed slides of several typical examples, discussing the details of each of them. The names included the following:




Cestia Prima and Cestia Chloe, freedwomen who originally had been slaves of the same owner;



Berulius, a slave who had served as a pedisequus (footman or personal assistant) of his owner;



Secundius, a thirteen-year-slave born in his owner's household;



Marcus and Titiai, a married couple who were former slaves;. Their owner had been a woman named Faustia.



Titus and Pomponia Gnoste and their slaves, including one thirteen-year-old girl who had been very dear to them and whose death caused them "bitter grief."



Garganus, twenty five years old at his death, and Tryphaena;



Mara Fortunata, whose spouse had been a slave in the imperial household.

 

New Testament Reflections



After hearing Dr. Gigante's lecture, I find it interesting to look again at a number of New Testament passages that make reference to the social class distinctions of the first century. Acts 6:9 mentions a Jerusalem synagogue known as the "synagogue of the freedmen." (The King James Version, unfortunately, calls it the synagogue of the "Libertines.") Later in the book of Acts, Paul is able to obtain better treatment after his arrest in Jerusalem by asserting his Roman citizenship. A Roman commander who is himself a freedman treats Paul with respect after learning of Paul's status (Acts 22:22-29). In Rom. 16:11, Paul sends greetings to "those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord." The Narcissus mentioned here is probably a freedman, since slaves were often named after mythological characters, and his "household" would have included his own slaves.

 

Some have criticized the New Testament for not calling for the abolition of slavery. For example, Paul urges slaves to obey their masters and look forward to a reward in the world to come (Col. 3:22-25), and when he writes to Philemon on behalf of the runaway slave Onesimus, he does not insist that Onesimus be set free (although one hopes that was Philemon's response to the letter).

 

Before being too critical, however, we should remember that the first century church was not in a position to effect immediate social reforms. What it did do was establish a community in which human society's class distinctions and prejudices should no longer make a difference, because all are of equal worth in the eyes of God (see e.g. James 2:1-9). Paul writes that a Christian slave is "the Lord's freedman," while Christians who enjoy freedom are, like himself, slaves of Jesus (I Cor. 7:22). In Gal. 3:28, he proclaims, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

 

Sadly, Paul's ideal is not yet a global reality. Almost two thousand years later, slavery is still very prevalent. As long as that is the case, Christians still have much work to do. Working to advance the values of the kingdom of God is the best way to honor the memories of the Roman slaves and freedmen whose epitaphs are preserved in Louisville.

 

Issue 23

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