Reading Faith and Occupation in Late Antique Graffiti

Last month, Bill Caraher posted a working draft of a paper on the Christian landscapes of the Corinthia  in which he discusses a variety of Christian graffiti–crosses,  fish, Chi-Rhos, and prayers inscribed in stone–scratched in mortar and stone on churches, baths, walls, and villas of the Late Antique Corinthia.  Bill argues that these symbols shed light on the new regional contexts of power that craftsmen faced in the fifth and sixth centuries.  Since Kostis Kourelis wrote an interesting response to Bill’s paper, and Diana Wright followed up with handprints in Argos, I can’t help but add something to the discussion.

I’ve been thinking a bit about low-status individuals of the (late) Roman a lot this semester, in part because I’m working on a paper on peasants, in part because I have been teaching a first-year seminar at Messiah College titled “Faith, Education, and Vocation in the World of Late Antiquity.”  In that class, we’ve been exploring how the Christianization of the Roman world and the theological language of calling influenced the way that people thought about work and occupation.  Under the influence of ascetic currents of the later 4th century AD, many aristocratic Christians abandoned otherwise normal and respectable occupations like oratory and the law courts to join religious communities or make a home in the desert.  St. Augustine’s famous conversion, for example, occurred in conjunction with his renunciation of career as teacher of rhetoric and with the recognition that he could ‘serve the Lord with his pen.’   By exploring the concept of vocation in the past, students reflect on the different forces today that shape their life occupations.

The theme of the class works well for a school like Messiah, where vocational language and the ‘sense of calling’ frames campus-wide discussions.  But the theme also works well historically for framing discussing of a range of Christian texts of the 3rd-5th centuries.  For Christian authors of this period frequently thought and wrote about the calling of the Word to salvation and its specific consequences for work and occupation.

A major problem, however, is that most of our stories are written by and about aristocratic men, and even the few sources written by or about women—e.g., Egeria’s pilgrimage to the holy land, Perpetua’s martyrdom, or the letters of Jerome—tend to describe and refer to elite renunciations of elite lifestyles.  We have very little information about the rest of the population, the 95% who were not elite but spent their lives working in the fields, creating craft, constructing buildings, and laboring in skilled and unskilled occupations.  Did the ascetic revolution of the fourth century have any impact on how the majority of Christians understood the meaning of their occupation?

We only get fleeting and deflected glimpses of the rest of the population through texts of the period.  John Chrysostom, preacher of Antioch, for instance, speaks to the artisans in his congregation and tells them that they too have the responsibility of pursuing a life of virtue for “even Paul was a tent-maker…Let no one, therefore, of those who have trades be ashamed.” (In 1 Cor. hom. 5.11).  Chrysostom says that the  working artisan can be truly happy when he applies  himself entirely to the task at hand, thinks of work as a kind of asceticism, and uses his gifts (the ability to construct) to preserve life (In 2 Cor. hom. 15.4-5).  But in such sermons, we are seeing the potential vocation of the craftsman reflected through the eyes of an educated bishop.

Enter the Corinthian archaeological material, which provides no clear window.   This image shows a fish on the Hexamilion wall across the Isthmus, but what exactly does it mean and why did the builder insert it?


Many such religious signs were not even intended to be seen, but, like the concrete body of this modern church in the village of Sophiko in the southern Corinthia, the religious language (in this case, the Greek abbreviation for “Jesus Christ conquers”) will eventually be covered by a marble or brick façade.DSCN7730

In the context of late antiquity, what would have gone through the mind of a craftsman who scratched such patterns in the work he was creating?  Since such signs appear so frequently in 5th and 6th century contexts, they must be part of a common language of finishing monumental buildings.

Here is what Bill has to say about the meanings of these symbols in a late antique context.  I quote (with his approval) from his paper (pp. 17-18):

“These markers in the mortar of the exterior wall of the basilica would have been visible for only a short period of time as they would have almost certainly been covered with either a layer of finer stucco or the surrounding ground level when the building was completed. The symbol of the fish may have religious significance as it was one of the earliest symbols associated with Christianity. We have no idea whether these symbols were set to mark out these buildings as ‘Christian’ (as if this was necessary for the Lechaion Basilica), to serve some kind of as apotropaic function or to mark the work of a particular crew of laborers. These modest graffiti might well suggest that the same groups of workers or, perhaps, the same organization provided labor for both buildings.

Whatever their function, it is clear, however, that the monumental architecture of the Corinthia not only projected power across the region and onto (and through) the bodies of laborers, but it also provided a new context for the everyday actions Corinthian workers. The subtle traces left by individuals working on the walls provide a glimpse of the physical labor responsible for the construction of imperial authority on the Isthmus. The appearance of the graffiti fish in inconspicuous places on a number of contemporary buildings suggests a division between the explicit message made by the architecture anddecoration and the simpler, hidden graffito.”

While Bill suggests that these actions reflect on new contexts of power and resistance, it is obvious that a craftsman would also have understood his action most immediately as imprinting the language or signs of faith on his work.  Moreover, in  certain contexts, like the construction of the monumental religious building of Late Antiquity—the enormous Lechaion church, for instance—he could only have felt himself directly contributing in his trade to a monumental and communal expression of faith albeit one that reflected the hierarchical social world of his day.  I wonder, too, whether, he may have thought about the metaphors of building in the language of the bible, and in particular, the temples.  Would he have made (or been instructed about) any connection to Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 3:9-10?

“You are God’s building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care.”

How exactly he thought about this participation is totally beyond our grasp, but here we have one tiny arena where a potential connection between ordinary work and the faith of the builders is visible.  These connections would have naturally intersected with the social and political dimensions of building.  Participating in the grand project of ecclesiastical church building would have intertwined thoughts about the bishop, the emperor, the nature of building, and the triumph of Christ.

In the last two weeks of class, we’re dedicating some class time to discussing these kinds of problematic glimpses into the worlds of ordinary occupations.  When I asked my first-year seminar today what they thought about the fish and the cross graffiti buried in the plaster, they commented on the significance of its invisibility (not for show), the meaning of the act of construction, and the probability of some association with the faith of the craftsman.  One student commented that the builders sought to leave a piece of themselves in the work.  That observation may be as close as we get in a local context to understanding the connection of faith to the work of the builder.


  1. “I know that many artisans, belonging to mechanical trades, are crowding around me. A day’s labour hardly suffices to maintain them; therefore I am compelled to abridge my discourse, so as not to keep them too long from their work. What shall I say to them? The time which you lend to God is not lost: he will return it to you with large interest. Whatever difficulties may trouble you the Lord will disperse them. To those who have preferred spiritual welfare, He will give health of body, keenness of mind, success in business, and unbroken prosperity. And, even if in this life our efforts should not realise our hopes, the teachings of the Holy Spirit are none the less a rich treasure for the ages to come. Deliver your heart, then, from the cares of this life and give close heed to my words. Of what avail will it be to you if you are here in the body, and your heart is anxious about your earthly treasure?”

    Basil of Caesarea, Hexameron 3.1

  2. I did a paper in graduate school where I looked at occupations on tombstones. The appendix with all the names, occupations, and actual statistics has gone missing, but I found a far higher ratio of occupations on identifiably Christian tombstones than I did on non-identifiable or pagan. I looked at Corinth, Athens, & Argos for these. A relevant paragraph:

    “Christian graves tend to mention occupations, something pagan graves rarely do, so that from Corinth we get teamster, deaconess, servant, bath-attendant, pickle-maker, guardsman, city councilman, and goatherd Compared with the broad social spectrum represented in the Corinthian epigraphs, the four from Argos are at the extremes: there are a silentiarios and a tribune, a maker of lampwicks and a cluster of monks–the only ones named although suppositions can be made about some of the others–city councilman, dyer, a foreign trader, and a fishmonger.”

  3. Thanks to both of you for these follow up comments. Diana, I may assign some of these Christian epitaphs from Corinth during the final week.

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