Pagan-Christian Burial Practices of the Fourth Century: Shared Tombs?
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Pagan-Christian Burial Practices of the Fourth Century:
Shared Tombs?

This study examines one of the problems of fourth-century burial customs: whether or not Christians and pagans shared tombs. An examination of Roman law and church decrees concerning funerary practices shows no legal basis for the forced separation of pagan and Christian burials. Nor is there any concrete evidence from patristic writers that such an action was universally banned in the early Church. In the last section, archaeological evidenced is adduced to demonstrate the development of Christian cemeteries from pagan burial grounds and the fact that in the fourth century such mingling of Christians and pagans in the tomb still occurred. Therefore, paintings with pagan themes such as those in the Via Latina Catacomb in Rome may be taken at face value, without the need to find some underlying Christian meaning.

Much has been written about the “pagan-Christian conflict” of fourth-century Rome and the gradual christianization of the largely pagan society. 1 One aspect of this religiously polarized society which remains somewhat unclear is whether or not this conflict extended into the grave. That is, was it permissible in the fourth century for Christians and pagans to be buried side by side in the same tomb? That this question has remained unresolved at present is highlighted by the continuing debate [End Page 37] over the interpretation of the frescoes of the Via Latina catacomb in Rome, discovered in 1955. 2 Do some of the scenes have a pagan content or are the figures such as Hercules merely Christian interpretations of pagan mythological figures? Rather than continue the iconographical debate over these images, this study proposes to examine an area which has not received consideration in the debate. If the evidence shows that Christians and pagans were not buried in the same tomb, then the Christian interpretation of the Via Latina ensemble must be accepted. If, on the other hand, it can be shown that “mixed” burials were not banned by the Church and indeed, took place, then the pagan interpretation of certain scenes in the Via Latina catacomb must be entertained as a real possibility. Such a conclusion would also speak to the larger issue of religion and society in late antique Rome and whether or not the distinctions between pagans and Christians were as sharply defined then as they often are in modern scholarship.

There are two basic questions to be answered: first, was it legally permissible for pagans and Christians to share a tomb? and, second, what evidence is there that such co-burials might have taken place elsewhere? The answers may be found by examining the following: law, both Roman and canon as expressed in the pronouncements of Church councils; the writings of contemporary Christian authors; and the archaeological finds which have bearing on the issue. As a cautionary note it should be recognized that, as with any other historical problem of this period, the sources are quite limited, while in the case of the [End Page 38] archaeological evidence, the scarcity of physical evidence has often been worsened by poor scientific techniques and reporting. 3

Under Roman law, the tomb was considered a sacred place, a res religiosa. 4 The monument itself was not sacred until a body had been placed in it and then only that part which contained the corpse: “non qui sepulturae destinatus est locus religiosus fit, sed quatenus corpus humatum est.” 5 Because of the religious nature of the tombs, they fell under the jurisdiction of the pontiffs who oversaw the regulations concerning their construction and use. 6 Even after the advent of the Christian emperors, the pontiffs continued to exercise jurisdiction. An edict of Constantius II, dated 349, states that tombs may be dismantled for repairs provided that permission had been obtained from the pontiffs. 7 A letter of Symmachus documents their role at Rome as late as 385. 8

Due to the religious nature of burial places, they were protected from violation by several laws. 9 An inscription from the time of Augustus and purportedly from Nazareth prohibits the destruction of tombs or the removal of bodies since it was “obligatory to honor...