|In this fourth century artwork from the Catacombs of the Via Latina, Jesus is shown using a lituus, or wand, as He resurrects Lazarus from the dead.|
To be a Christian in the Roman Empire was to be an outlaw. From AD 64 to 313, Baptism could be a death sentence. Organized persecution, however, was almost always sporadic, usually limited to specific localities, seldom lasting more than a few months. Not until 250, under the Emperor Decius, was an intensive persecution lasting two years unleashed in every province of the empire.
Nonetheless, even in districts having no official policy of investigation and extermination, individuals might still denounce suspected Christians for their being members of a religio illicta, i.e., an impermissible religion. This legal fiction was used to mask the usually tolerant Romans from appearing to make war against a cultus (the Latin word for “religion”).
Throughout the empire, Christians — often accused of being “enemies of mankind” — were always liable to arrest, criminal prosecution and, unless a Roman citizen, sentenced to death in ways that were agonizing, lingering, humiliating, and often grisly.
It became necessary to communicate secretively. For example, during heavy persecution under the Emperor Domitian between 80 and 94 AD, St. John, exiled to the island of Patmos, wrote in Greek about apocalyptic horrors in the Book of Revelation. However, in the manuscript, when he refers to “the number of the Beast,” he writes “666” in Hebrew letters, some of which, as in the Latin alphabet, were used for numbers.
In the numerology known to St. John, the number seven was the perfect number. Since six misses being seven by one, six represented imperfection. Hebrew is a dialect without words of comparative or superlative tenses — good, better, best, or bad, worse, worst — so words or numbers had to be repeated. So “holy, holy, holy” is applied to God as being the Holiest Being. To indicate “the worst,” St. John had to write “6” three times.
The Hebrew characters נרון קסר, when interpreted numerically, represent the numbers 50, 200, 6, 50, 100, 60, 200 — all of which total 666, the number representing the worst. There are no vowels in written Hebrew so, in English characters reading left to right, the Hebrew spells NRON QSR. Adding vowels and adjusting for spelling, the words NERON CAESAR appear. So, by an intriguing coincidence, the infamous Nero, the Beast, is also “the worst” in Hebrew.
Clearly, St. John’s comparison of Domitian to Nero in such an unflattering light was a seditious insult. Should his couriers be stopped and their papers examined both he and they would be sentenced to death. While most Romans could read basic Greek, St. John could be reasonably certain that they lacked the ability to read Hebrew. In this way, St. John could make his point without putting his or his couriers’ lives in danger.
In Rome itself — need it be said? — Christians were necessarily circumspect. Employing shorthand ciphers, initials, and symbols, along with works of art, they could communicate beliefs with each other and even catechize in relative safety.
Care was taken to use symbolic art in the catacombs and even more especially in the local necropolis outside of Rome on the Vatican hill where Christians buried their dead beside pagan neighbors. Right out in the open, able to be seen by anyone, Christian funerary art displayed concealed beliefs and Christ in disguise.
In depicting the appearance of Jesus, it took a few centuries for Roman Christians to give Him a Semitic beard. Jesus was often represented as looking like other Romans: short hair, clean-shaven, and wearing a tunic bearing the Tyrian purple angusti clavi, (narrow stripes) reserved for tunics worn by the patrician and equestrian classes.
|In a catacomb found in Rome on the Via Latina, Christ uses a lituus as He performs the miracle of the multiplication of the bread and fishes. His authority and heavenly status is indicated by the angusti clavi (narrow stripes) on His tunic, while His augur’s chlamys is also edged with the imperial purple.|
As a wonderworker, most notably when illustrating the raising of Lazarus and changing water into wine, Jesus was often attired as an augur, a kind of conjurer in ancient Rome. He is shown, therefore, as wearing the chlamys, a short, Grecian cloak with pointed corners front and back favored by soothsayers. Jesus was also equipped with a curved staff or wand, the lituus, as a sign of His power.
Thus arrayed, Christ’s earthly and heavenly authority was emphasized in a conventional manner understood by Roman Christians. Some commentators have even pointed to the lituus as a possible source for the bishop’s pastoral staff.
By His redemptive death, early Christians thought of Jesus leading righteous souls out of the dark underworld to the celestial glory of heaven. In this belief they saw echoes of the tale of Orpheus, the gentle singer, in his heroic trek to rescue his beloved Eurydice from Hades, as well as his violent death at the hands of the Maenads. St. Clement of Alexandria noted the comparison in a second century exhortation to Greek pagans to adopt Christianity. But St. Clement wrote that, unlike Orpheus, the words of Christ can lift even the most depraved human soul to repentance and heavenly bliss.
|This portrait is of Jesus disguised as Orpheus playing the cithara, a kind of lyre. By His “song” of intercession, Jesus leads the souls of believers to heaven. This example was found on the wall of an arcosolium, the semicircular recess cut into the wall above a burial shelf in the catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter.|
In 2014 the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology revealed a painting recently discovered in the catacomb of St. Callistus, of Christ as Orpheus, the singer surrounded by birds, sea monsters, and flowers representing all creation.
Solemnly condemned by Roman law, disturbing the tombs of the dead was a grave offense (I couldn’t resist the pun). The law, however, didn’t stop spies from prowling through suspected areas like burial chambers so they might denounce Christian families.
|A late second century mosaic set into the ceiling of the Julii family tomb in the necropolis beneath Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome. This is the earliest known mosaic depiction of Christ. This beautiful mosaic has lost many tesserae and narrowly missed being entirely destroyed altogether by excavators in the 1940s, who made their entry into the tomb through the now sealed up hole, partially seen on the left side of the photo.|
Searching the tombs of Vatican Hill’s necropolis for signs of Christ, they would have come across a mausoleum owned by the Julii family. On its ceiling the spies would have seen a figure of Helios, the sun-god riding across the skies in a brilliant horse-drawn chariot. This kind of picture was also a leitmotif of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, the official sun god of the later Roman Empire. In addition, such a mosaic might symbolize Mithras, the favorite god of Roman soldiers, whose festal day was placed on December 25 by the Emperor Aurelian to compete with the date given Christ’s nativity by Tertullian the Roman attorney turned Christian apologist.
The spies, suspecting nothing out of the ordinary, would have moved on, never realizing that this mosaic with the tri-radiant, cruciform rays of the sun behind the head of Helios is really a disguised portrait of Jesus: “But unto you that fear My name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in His wings” (Malachi 4:2).
As demonstrated by these works of art from the early centuries of Catholic history, our Christian forebears kept the faith by keeping on their toes.
Sean M. Wright, an Emmy-nominated television writer, is a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is also part of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita, CA.
To be a Christian in the Roman Empire was to be an outlaw. From AD 64 to 313, Baptism could be a death sentence.