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Bill Thayer

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She Was the Lord's

[image ALT: A large stone with a two-word Roman inscription and the incised design of two doves.]
Epitaph in the wall of the porch of S. Giorgio in Velabro, Rome. Photo taken in 1998.
For an idea of the size of the inscription, see the inscriptions homepage.

By the time Rome was ruled by emperors, the area around S. Giorgio — the Velabrum and the Forum Boarium — had become a Greek neighborhood: as a result, the church contains many Greek inscriptions, and this is one of them.

Greek? Well, an inscription doesn't have to be long to be interesting; and there are two intertwined points of interest here.

The first is that this is indeed a Greek inscription. Yet for starters, it's clear that this woman's name was Antonia, a nice Latin name. Cyriace, on the other hand is definitely Greek; and strictly speaking, it may not be part of her name. Mind you, two-barrelled names like this are common enough: slaves and freedpersons, whose real name, often Greek, is preceded by a form of their owner's name, which is almost always quite Latin.

Now there is no way of telling for sure, but what you see here is probably the tombstone of no slave or freedwoman at all — after all, where is ser or lib that almost invariably marks the tombs of slaves and freedpersons? — but of a woman named Antonia (wouldn't be surprised if she were the widow of an Antonius) who chose to be called Cyriace.

Why? You can say that a little bird told you. . . . The second interesting item here is of course the doves on either side of Cyriace's inscription. Commonly seen in the catacombs, they mark her as a Christian.

Careful, though. A Christian dove today is the Holy Spirit, but not necessarily back then. A reading from the Old Testament:

After forty days Noah opened the trap-door that he had made in the ark, and released a raven to see whether the water had subsided, but the bird continued flying to and fro until the water on the earth had dried up. Noah waited for seven days, and then he released a dove from the ark to see whether the water on the earth had subsided further. But the dove found no place where she could settle, and so she came back to him in the ark, because there was water over the whole surface of the earth. Noah stretched out his hand, caught her and took her into the ark. He waited another seven days and again released the dove from the ark. She came back to him towards evening with a newly plucked olive leaf in her beak. Then Noah knew for certain that the water on the earth had subsided still further. He waited yet another seven days and released the dove, but she never came back. And so it came about that, on the first day of the first month of his six hundred and first year, the water had dried up on the earth, and Noah removed the hatch and looked out of the ark. The surface of the ground was dry.

Genesis 8.6‑13, New English Bible

If in the 21c we now routinely associate doves with olive branches and think of peace, it's mostly because the Christian symbol has lost its richness. On this tombstone, here is how I "read" the doves with their twigs of olive: Cast adrift on the ocean of this world, I am now free at last. In this life, I was like a passenger on an ark; now I live life unconfined.

Cyriace? In this context, clearly this woman adopted a self-descriptive name from her Christian community, predominantly Greek: ΚΥΡΙΑΚΗ, "she who belongs to the Lord."

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Page updated: 3 Dec 17