I. Christians inscriptions: A Late Antique problem – II. First manifestations of Christian inscriptions – III. The pre-Constantinian era – IV. The late imperial era – V. Devotional inscriptions. I. Christians inscriptions: A Late Antique problem. Even a summary view of the substantial number of inscriptions ca. 70,000 examples, for the most part funerary, that are conventionally defined as Christian allows us to easily verify that even those commissioned by Christians assumed the forms, functions and meanings that characterized Roman inscriptions of Late Antiquity. A funerary inscription, even in its conception and use by Christi fideles, had as its primary aim the commemoratio of the deceased, identification of the burial, its protection, and a response to that final oblivion, the secunda mors; it is the immediate result even if formally mediated and homogenized by the stereotypical formularies of the irruption of death.
It is not, on the other hand at least at the level of general practice the deliberate and explicit affirmation of a creed, or the premeditated reflection of a doctrinal principle; its existence is not due to an autonomous initiative of the new faith, but to an age-old tradition with respect to which to use G. Sanders’s fine expression it appears to be a kind of effect of salvation; within the parameters of that tradition, expressions and signs found space and justification that gave life to a genuinely Christian particularity. In their formal manifestations, these peculiarities do not in general present any traces of system or rigor. Almost a refraction of a work in progress, they seem rather to indicate, at least for common practice, that in the Christian communities neither faith nor culture existed in a pure state, both being the result of mediations, combinations and compromises which constitute the inexhaustible richness of every spiritual conquest G. Sanders. The contraints of a compete self-referentiality appear to be completely foreign to a production in which, for at least three centuries 3rd-5th, there was a simultaneous interaction of symbioses and metabolisms, reuses and transformations: that dialectic between the ancient world and Christianity Auseinandersetzung zwischen Antike und Christentum which is one of the most typical traits of the cultural and spiritual dynamisms of Late Antiquity.
It is moreover an indisputable fact that a very substantial portion ca. 60% of the inscriptions attributable to Christian buyers, and particularly in the 3rd and 4th c., present no traces of elements clearly inspired by principles and practices derived from the Evangelium vitae: for the most part funerary texts exhibited the sole functionality of indicating the physical presence of the deceased and perpetuating their memory via the inscription’s text. The absence of objective textual or figurative elements traceable to a specific religious identity does not prejudice, in principle, the possibility of identifying the commissioning Christian or pagan of formally neutral inscriptions, in cases of course where it is possible to trace the find to an original monumental context subterranean or open-air cemetery, cemeterial basilica, church which, by its location in time and space, morphology, typology, is proposed as the result of a conscious initiative of the Christian community. In the final analysis, this leads to the formation of the principle that an inscription commissioned by or for an individual Christian contrary to what was held for over a century by an essentially partial criticism, with little sensibility for the archaeological dimension of the epigraphical find does not necessarily show specific identifying elements in the text or its accompanying figurative apparatus.