Inscriptions Mutilated by Christians

Damnatio memoriae frequently involved the removal of the names of ‘bad’ emperors from public inscriptions. This was a relatively easy procedure, but usually left behind some awkward gaps in the texts. One of the most famous examples of this is the honorary inscription on the Arch of Septimius Severus, where the name of Geta was erased. The modification of the inscription is more obvious today, as the original bronze letters have disappeared.

A phenomenon that has received considerable less attention is the Christian removal of names of pagan gods in inscriptions. I have already mentioned a couple of examples from Ephesus, and there are further cases from Aphrodisias, including the inscription seen in the photo below.

Lines 1-6 of the inscription. From Jones 1981: fig. 5.

The inscription is a so-called agonistic epigram that honours an athlete. His name, Aurelius Achilles, is known from a decree inscribed on the statue base’s other side. It has been translated by Christopher Jones as follows:

“…And if you wish to proclaim…of Varianus…I defeated him and hold the crown of olive; or if you wish to extol the youth (Arion?) superior to grown men, against him too Zeus gave me the olive. In all the stadia of the nations…I am as great as none of my compatriots (ever) claimed to excel (?); and the number of crowns…of others(?) to the stone portrait, my image. For often have I won the Pythia and the divine Olympia, defeating my rivals, glorious in repute, with no contesting my victory as to confront a second time a contest with him against whom he appealed (?).”

Quite an ego trip! But the most interesting is what is missing in the poem: Ζευς has been erased in line 4, as well as Πυθια and Ολύμπια in line 9. Similar erasures, for example of the name of Aphrodite from an inscription in the theatre, are seen elsewhere in Aphrodisias. They all come from areas of the city that were inhabited in the Byzantine period, and it is very likely that Christians were responsible for them. The name of Aphrodisias was itself changed to Stauropolis, ‘city of the Cross’, during this period.

Lines 6-12 of the inscription. From Jones 1981: fig. 6.

Another interesting thing about the erasures is that they also point to not only literacy, but also at least some knowledge of Classical education (paideia) among the ‘attackers’. This is quite different from Christian texts that occasionally confuse the attributes of pagan gods. It also goes to show that part of the ‘language’ of damnatio memoriae was taken over by early Christians in their attacks on paganism.

Christopher Jones. 1981. “Two Inscriptions from Aphrodisias”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 85: 107-129.

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