Echoes of Virgil’s underworld in Early Christian inscriptions
The influence of Virgil in Early Christian literature has long been appreciated, but the same attention has not been paid to inscriptions, which have tended to fall between the study of literature and material culture. Meanwhile the concept of Graeco-Roman paideia has only recently been used as a model to understand the reception of the classical past in Late Antique art as well as literature, and epigraphy has once again been largely lost in the gap.
This paper will try to address this gap by focusing on the reception of the underworld of Virgil, a central canonical author in the culture of paideia, in Early Christian metrical inscriptions from Rome. It will consider the various ways in which these inscriptions treat Virgil’s language and imagery, ranging from a straightforward inheritance of ideas about Hades or Tartarus, to a triumphant rejection of the pagan tradition, even when selecting alternative imagery from elsewhere in Virgil.
These inscriptions provide a crucial insight into how elite Christians understood and constructed responses not just to death, but to the classical tradition as a whole, and how traditional literary culture could be used to frame their post mortem triumph as the culmination of Rome’s greatness, thereby writing Christians into Roman history. They also offer an example of how literary culture could be displayed visually and respond to the physical environment of the catacombs, and therefore constitute an important aspect of classical reception in the intersection between literature and material culture.