I. Mossong: Der Klerus des spätantiken Italiens im Spiegel epigraphischer Zeugnisse

Der Klerus des spätantiken Italiens im Spiegel epigraphischer Zeugnisse. Eine soziohistorische Studie

Mossong, Isabelle
KLIO – Beiträge zur Alten Geschichte
Berlin 2022: de Gruyter
XII, 696 S.
€ 133,95
Reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by
Paweł Nowakowski, Faculty of History, University of Warsaw

Isabelle Mossong’s book, "Der Klerus des spätantiken Italiens im Spiegel epigraphischer Zeugnisse", is a timely publication, given the amount of focus that late antique clergy of Western Europe, especially presbyters, have received in recent years. Two major projects – the ERC-funded “CONNEC: Connected Clerics. Building a Universal Church in the Late Antique West” by David Natal[1] and “Presbyters in the Late Antique West” by Robert Wiśniewski[2] – are, perhaps, the most important initiatives of the past decade. These digital-oriented team-based projects followed a series of publications, such as the "Prosopographie Chrétienne du Bas-Empire: Prosopographie de l’Italie chrétienne (313–604)"[3], "Fasti Sacerdotum: A Prosopography of Pagan, Jewish, and Christian Religious Officials in the City of Rome, 300 BC to AD 499"[4], and others. Is there, therefore, any room left for similar investigations? Mossong’s book proves there still is, and it distinguishes itself from its predecessors by its peculiar scope – inscriptions – and structure – a synthetic study followed by a full-text catalog of sources. Its aim is, thus, utterly different than offering a prosopography or even a complete overview of the clergy as a group (since literary and normative sources are limited to the necessary minimum). It is, in fact, a detailed study in source criticism and of the way Italian clergy interacted with a specific means of social communication, represented mainly by epitaphs, buildings, and dedicatory inscriptions. The book tackles the inscriptions from Italy, including Sardinia and Sicily. The author introduces the term “Klerikerinschriften,” which she understands as an umbrella term for all the inscriptions that name a member of the clergy or allow for an indirect identification through iconography or context. In reality, the dossier encompasses inscriptions by very different commissioners – those ordered by clerics as well as their families, officials, or lay people. Therefore, these cannot be used for studying the question “how clergy used the inscriptions” as in some of them, clerics are objects of the epigraphic activity of others, not its initiators.

As for the structure of the book, it is clear that it closely follows the author’s dissertation defended at the Freie Universität Berlin in cotutelle with the Université de Strasbourg. It consists of an introduction, five chapters, a summary, and the already mentioned catalog of sources. Every chapter follows a plan typical of dissertations – after a general overview of the state of the art based on the existing secondary sources and exemplary primary sources other than the inscriptions, the author discusses the contribution of the inscriptions to the topic and relevant entries from the catalog are enumerated, often first regarding Rome (which yields the majority of the evidence) and then the rest of Italy. This perspective has its advantages and drawbacks – it certainly presents original research that is well documented through primary sources, but at the same time, it is less readable. Consequently, the introductory parts of chapters sometimes include very basic details that could be omitted in a typical monograph.

The Introduction (Chapter 1) includes all the necessary information on methods, sources, and chronological framework, as well as a short overview of the rise of the clergy as a new elite.

Chapter 2 deals with the “Klerikerinschriften” as a dossier and a new phenomenon in the history of Roman epigraphy. The author emphasizes the relatively late involvement of the Christian clergy with epigraphy, which, moreover, began only after the golden age of the Roman fondness for inscriptions. The chapter does not lack many interesting observations, such as those on the swapping of the patronyms for ecclesiastical affiliation among clerics (a phenomenon also observable in the East) and on the different patterns for the selection of visual symbols for inscriptions on stone plaques and sarcophagi. A discussion of the language choice patterns in Rome and Southern Italy is also informative.

In Chapter 3, the author discusses the self-presentation of clergy – now a popular trope in works on epigraphy. Women with ecclesiastical titles such as Proba (p. 77), a possible ostiarius of Sicily, the problem of children bestowed with titles, perhaps for honorific reasons, and career drop-outs are an important contribution.

Chapter 4 reviews the social position and geographical and social mobility of the clerics. Where the inscriptions really brim is the study of clergy’s families – wives and children are mentioned frequently in epitaphs of presbyters, deacons, and subdeacons. One part that could use a lengthy treatment is that on the education of clergy. However, any inferences based on the contents of the inscriptions, especially the mentions of and selection of Psalms, are tricky since we are rarely informed who made the selection.

Chapter 5 allows glimpses of clerics’ interactions with the lay world. Not surprisingly, we hear of their involvement in building activities (including in the secular sphere) and charity (with an interesting mention of an institutionalized charity fund at Como). The following section on lay occupations of clergy combined with their office is also limited by the scarcity of available information (some medical activity is mentioned). Evidence for engagement in the economy through slave ownership is described mainly based on non-epigraphical sources. Interestingly, the inscriptions also give ample evidence of the activities of clergy and fossores (who do not technically belong to this group) as purchasers of tombs.

Chapter 6 delves into ideology, as numerous inscriptions emphasize the good/holy/blessed memory of the deceased as the desired value. Some employ euphemistic language, swapping “death” for “dormition” or the act of “leaving this world.”

In the book’s summary, the author postulates the importance of clergy for the functioning of Rome and the municipal societies of Italy. The most important conclusions are rearticulated and clearly presented. This section is followed by an Appendix with a full-text catalog of inscriptions, tables, a bibliography, an index of literary sources, and an epigraphical concordance. There is no index of personal names, so if one is looking for information on a particular cleric, they need to search for this person using the source attestations.

As for the Appendix, it is here that we can fully appreciate the author’s gigantic effort to produce this book. The author rightly defines the Appendix not as a new edition (with revised texts) but rather as a catalog of sources reprinted after a selected edition. Such catalogs usually accompany dissertations. The completeness of this one makes it a valuable addition, with raw material for further studies. Moreover, the author notes that she has listed more figures – 187 named people and 107 mentions of unnamed clerics – than Prosopographie de l’Italie chrétienne. I have only one major issue with the Appendix – the Greek inscriptions receive a much more cursory editorial treatment, and as a result, they contain plenty of typographical (especially accentuation) errors.[5]

To sum up, the publication will certainly be a reference book for anyone seeking to use epigraphy in their research on the Italian clergy of Late Antiquity. Although the book was designed as a study of the use of inscriptions by clerics and of the images of clerics in inscriptions, sometimes one can notice hesitation by the author, who is tempted to go beyond this frame and offer general conclusions on the functioning of early Christian clergy. Though this is not always possible, the book will undoubtedly be an important voice in the debates on the separation of clergy from the rest of society.

[1]https://connectedclerics.com/ (31.10.2023).
[2]http://presbytersproject.ihuw.pl/ (31.10.2023).
[3] Charles Pietri / Luce Pietri / Janine Desmulliez, Prosopographie Chrétienne du Bas-Empire: Prosopographie de l’Italie chrétienne (313–604), vols. 1–2, Rome–Paris 1999–2004.
[4] Jörg Rüpke / Anne Glock / David M. B. Richardson, Fasti Sacerdotum: A Prosopography of Pagan, Jewish, and Christian Religious Officials in the City of Rome, 300 BC to AD 499, Oxford 2008.
[5] Here I note only a few of the spelling errors in Greek: p. 160 note 136: stōn for etōn; p. 223 note 13: presbuter instead of presbyteros (!); p. 310, no. 124: the circumflexes are apparently mistakenly used instead of iota subscriptum; p. 310, no. 140: Babylon not printed with a capital letter, khthonos with a gravis instead of an acutus before a coma; p. 364, no. 237: some Greek words lack accents; p. 413, no. 351: mēni with an actutus instead of gravis; p. 526, no. 587: smooth breathing instead of rough breathing in hēdus; p. 287, no. 88: Khr(rist)i – there is no point in including “r” in the expanded abbreviation since it is already denoted by the Greek rho.

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