Notes from Underground
by Mike Aquilina
Back in May, I joined my friend and sometime co-author Scott Hahn in leading a pilgrimage to Rome. For me, a highlight of any trip to Rome is its very lowest point-when we descend into the catacombs, the network of ancient Christian burial chambers at the outskirts of town. This time we visited the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, which probably date from the early third century.
Many pilgrims are moved by the high-profile saints who were buried there-St. Cecilia, for example, and a whole roomful of early popes. It’s amazing for any history buff to consider that the dust he’s breathing could be the mortal remains of the heroes from his favorite bookshelves.
I’m more impressed, however, by the democracy of it all. Yes, there were three different types of burial, which certainly were graded by price and prestige. But time has shifted our attention, and some of the more interesting inscriptions are not the elaborately chiseled epitaphs or the relatively lavish private rooms, but rather the crude, semi-literate tributes hastily scratched or scrawled by the poor. It’s lovely to think that a barely discernible boat-rendered perhaps by a child at the grave of his mother-now outshines the monuments of the wealthy. Immortality is a grace that cannot be bought.
As our group emerged from the tombs, I wandered into the souvenir shop, where a whole wall was taken up by a new book available in many different languages. It was The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions, co-authored by three members of the Pontifical Commission on Sacred Archeology.
A lavishly illustrated coffee-table volume, this book is the stuff of which obsessions are made. I could write columns on it for years and never want for good material. Certainly the book benefits from the depth of the knowledge of its authors, who are there on site, living, teaching, and noting correspondences in the many miles of underground corridors.
One fascinating section deals with the names bestowed and taken by the Christians of Rome. How many took biblical names? How many were named after early martyrs? And how many Christian parents stuck with the old, traditional Roman names-the names of pagan deities?
A subsection covers what the authors call "humiliating names." These names, they explain, "were sometimes used by some faithful as a life-long act of modesty, precisely because of their unpleasant significance . . . This is the case of Proiectus and Proiecticus, which meant ‘exposed,’ and the unpleasant Stercorius, [which] can be understood as ‘abandoned in the garbage.’ . . . At the Catacomb of Pretestato, one of them was in fact named Stercorinus."
The authors are being polite. Stercorius means, literally, "crap." It’s most accurately translated by what kids call "the S-word." Thus, Stercorinus (the diminutive) means "Little S***," or "Dear S***."
Why would Christians bear such a name? It is likely that these particular Romans were, as infants, rescued from the dungheap-the place where Romans abandoned "defective" or female newborns. They were exposed there, like trash, to die quickly from the elements or the claws of the scavenging beasts. After all, as the pagan philosopher Seneca said: "What is good must be set apart from what is good-for-nothing."
Again, a few of these "good-for-nothings" were rescued. They were lucky to be alive, but surely they had to suffer the taunts of playmates who were pleased to remind them of their lowly origins.
Some became Christian-especially, I’ll wager, those who were rescued by Christians. And when they approached baptism as adults (according to the custom of the time) they could begin again-and even choose a new name. You’d think that they’d be eager to shed those insults forever.
But, apparently, many did not, for they fill the gravesites in the catacombs. In the fourth century, St. Hilary even names a Stercorius among his fellow bishops!
Historians believe that some kept their foul nicknames as an act of humility-or triumphant irony. The joke, after all, was on the pagan world, which would soon enough die out for the crime of murdering its young. These children who were dung in the eyes of Imperial Rome knew that they were precious in the sight of God.
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