The Inscriptions of the Jewish Catacomb at Vigna Randanini

Thanks to the amazing Silvia Prosperi at A Friend in Rome, I recently had the good fortune to be able to visit the Jewish catacomb at Vigna Randanini out on the Via Appia. It was a wonderful visit, and I especially enjoyed the chance to see the inscriptions there. These inscriptions were published a long time ago (in 1862 by Rafaelle Garruci, who also found the famous “Alexamenos” crucifixion graffito), but seeing them in person was quite exciting and revealing. While the texts are familiar from publications, the inscriptions themselves as material artifacts are something else altogether. For instance, I did not realize how much similarity exists between the scripts used to copy literary manuscripts and the writing used in these inscriptions. Here’s one example, CIJ I 166 (=JIWE 2 251):

CIJ I 166; image source: Brent Nongbri, February 2022

The details and overall impression of this script remind me very much of the “Roman Uncial” or “Rounded Majuscule” script that was used to copy, for example, the Hawara Homer papyrus.

Hawara Homer; image source: Digital Bodleian

The letter shapes and proportions are quite similar, and also the square modulus of the letters (except the inscribed nu, which is sometimes a bit narrower than the other letters):

These letters seem to me to be aiming for a similar aesthetic. I am impressed by the qualities of the small serifs or thickenings at the beginnings and ends of strokes. They are especially prominent on alpha, delta, and lambda.

When writing on papyrus with a reed pen, these types of serifs are produced with a slight movement of the flat edge of the nib either at the beginning or the end of the main part of the stroke. That is to say, this seems to me to be a case in which the epigraphic style of the stone inscriptions is imitating the style of the pen-and-ink manuscript writing.

Now, what’s especially interesting to me about this is the dating (shocking, I know). For this inscription, David Noy (Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe, vol. 2) offers a date of “3rd-4th century?” which is the date he assigns to nearly all the inscriptions from this catacomb, presumably on the basis of the interpretation of the archaeological evidence of the catacomb itself. Examples of this particular style in pen-and-ink manuscripts are generally assigned to the second century, or to a period of “revival” in the fifth century.

I’ve wondered if the tendency to assign these scripts to either the second century or the fifth century might be a bit restrictive. Might the style not have persisted throughout this period? It would be interesting to learn exactly how secure the evidence is for the dating of the phases of use of the Vigna Randanini catacomb.

It was a fantastic visit, and I highly recommend A Friend in Rome!

This entry was posted in Hawara Homer, Inscriptions, Palaeography. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Inscriptions of the Jewish Catacomb at Vigna Randanini

  1. Jill Deiss says:

    I love your blog.  I really get excited when I see an issue has landed in my Inbox!  Thank you for writing it.
    Yours truly,
    Jill Deiss, Bookbinder

  2. Nicola Denzey Lewis says:

    Totally agree with the late dating, Brent! Great observation on the match between script styles, too. Thanks for that!

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