SciELO - Scientific Electronic Library Online

vol.36 suppl.23The reception of Apphia in the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. author indexsubject indexarticles search
Home Pagealphabetic serial listing  

Services on Demand



Related links

  • On index processCited by Google
  • On index processSimilars in Google


Acta Theologica

On-line version ISSN 2309-9089
Print version ISSN 1015-8758

Acta theol. vol.36  suppl.23 Bloemfontein  2016 

Christian prisoners: Fifth and sixth century inscriptions from Corinth1



C. Breytenbach

Humboldt-Universität Berlin & Stellenbosch University, South Africa. E-mail:




Among the inscriptions from Corinth (in publication), there are graffiti carved into the floor of a prison in Corinth. They shed interesting light on the hopes, beliefs and opinions of Christians from late antiquity. This study offers an overview of the insights to be gained from these graffiti. Now that IG IV2 3 Fasc. 3. Inscriptiones Corinthi, regionis Corinthiae is available, the evidence on Christian prisoners in the later Roman Empire will be easily accessible.2 The texts consist of graffiti on limestone floor tiles. They were found at the back of the "Boudroumi" arches.3 The vaults were shops north-west of the agora of ancient Corinth. Currently, these fragments of the limestone slabs that are still available are kept in the museum's storerooms.

Keywords: Early Christianity, Corinth, Inscriptions, Prisoners

Trefwoorde: Vroeë Christendom, Korinte, Inskripsies, Gevangenes



The decision to focus on the prisoners was determined by the occasion,4 although one has to expand on the term "Early Christianity" to some extent. It is notoriously difficult to date inscriptions, but, in these instances, there is material from the fifth or sixth centuries. By this time, the majority of the Corinthian population were Christianised. Nevertheless, I have found the following observations on graffiti that can be classified as Christian on the basis of crosses as well as specific Christian names and terminology. However, the focus on prisoners should not create the impression that the majority of Corinthian Christians were imprisoned.

The occupations of the Christians match those of Corinth in late antiquity.5 Funerary monuments from Corinthia inform us about people who were craftsmen, for example, a tailor (IG IV2 3 no. 1521), another one selling textiles (ICG no. 2610), a cobbler (2638), and somebody selling sandals (2613). There were shopkeepers (2616) selling vegetables (2655), a butcher (IG IV2 3 no. 1468), a livestock fattener (ICG nos. 2633 and 2651), as well as sellers of goat's meat (2647), pheasants (2653), and brine (2631 and 2642). Apart from those who were officials (excubitor 32, 2650), there is evidence of a barber (IG IV2 3 no. 1279), a furrier/pelt monger (ICG no. 2564), a coachman (2621), a wagon owner (2573), a cattle ringer (IG IV2 3 no. 1604), a veterinary surgeon (IG IV2 3 no. 1340), a bathhouse keeper (ICG no. 2625), and a gravedigger (2647). A few instances mention the deceased's function in the church. We learn about a presbyter (2667), a reader (2639), a choir member, and the "driver" of the bishop's mule (IG IV2 3 no. 1486).

The carceraria are graffiti, carved by hand into limestone slabs. The occupations of those who were imprisoned are rarely mentioned. We can only guess the reasons for their imprisonment. Sometimes they carved their names into the floor, sometimes also those whose accusation sent them to prison.

Formally, the texts are invocations, addressing the Lord. In general, God is invoked; he should listen. The drawing of an ear and the words εσκουε (= εΐσάκουε) illustrate this clearly: "God, listen! Lord, help your servant!"6 The Latin cross introducing the inscription and the nomina sacra clearly mark the monument as Christian. Do "God" and "Lord" refer to the same person of the Trinity, or to the Father and to the Son? There are other instances where Κ(ύρι)ε is followed by ο Θ(εό)ς. In this instance, the nominative is determined by the article, because it is used as a vocative.7 In these cases, further qualifications of the addressed show that the focus is on God as creator8 and judge.9 This is also the case when only ο Θ(εό)ς is used.10 When Κ(ύρι)ε stands alone, it probably refers to the first person of the Trinity.11 In one instance, however, "Lord" indisputably refers to Jesus Christ.12 In either case, God or Jesus Christ is invoked as Κ(ύρι)ε, ruler. This is important, because the prisoners were detained, awaiting trial or to enforce payment of debt. The decision on their future pending, they prayed that the Lord will come to their aid.

The content of the prayers can vary considerably. The three pieces of a white limestone plate preserve the prayer of two Christian brothers, Budios and John, bodyguards (bucellarii) of the prefect (of Illyrium). Marking the beginning and the end of the inscription with Latin crosses, they asked the Lord, God and pure justice, to release them from this place, the prison.13 The prayer ends with a Biblical amen. The use of the verb λυτρόω could signify that the supplicant was confined in order to enforce payment of debt. If no ransom is paid, he could be sold into slavery. But the verb could also, more generally, express the petition to be rescued.

Even when a petition to be rescued or ransomed is not expressed directly, it is included in the prayer for help, as in the case of Kosma, servant of the Lord, Jesus Christ: Κ(ύρι)ε Ί(ησο)υ Χ(ριστ)έ, βοήθι τω δούλου σου | Κοσ[μ(&)] | + αμήν. +14 The use of the verb βοηθέω reflects Biblical tradition. Introducing invocations with phrases adapted from the Psalms in the form of θεέ, κύριε or Χρίστε (or the nominative with article as vocative) and βοήθι, with a dative of the person calling for help,15 is common in Christian funerary inscriptions from late antiquity.16 The Biblical αμήν ending the inscription is known from several other Christian monuments, in both Corinth and Attica.17 It is appropriate as the end of a prayer.

Why would the supplicants be imprisoned? It is important to note that, in imperial times, prisoners were awaiting trial, not serving punishment. Creditors could confine their debtors in order to enforce payment. Corinth, a Roman colony since 44 BCE, was under the rule of Roman law. It is likely that the person invoking the Lord could have been an addictus, debtor in a process of legal action, who, after being convicted, had not paid the sum owed within 30 days and had consequently been brought before the magistrate by the creditor by means of manus iniectio and had been handed over by the magistrate by addicere to the creditor for enforcement of payment.18

If the debtor failed to pay or to give guarantees, the creditor could take the addictus home with him and hold him prisoner. In compliance with regulations, the creditor could, after sixty days, sell him as a slave or even kill him. The original location of carceraria supports the hypothesis that supplicants could be addicti. The "Boudroumi" arches were vaults among the shops north-west of the agora of ancient Corinth. It is likely that merchants kept the addicti in enclosed rooms adjacent to these vaults where they themselves had their shops.

The supplications expressed in the inscriptions confirm the hypothesis that the prisoners were awaiting trial. To ask for help is not the only perlocution engraved into the limestone plates. In several instances, the power of the Lord or of God or of Jesus Christ is invoked to punish those whom the supplicant holds accountable for their imprisonment.

An inscription, in which the initial cross Κ(ύρι)ε is followed by ο Θ(εός (as vocative), draws on the tradition of Genesis 1:4-5. The Lord, God, the Creator who separated (διαχωρίζω)19 the darkness and raised the light throughout the world (οικουμένη), the Godbearer (Θεοτόκος),20 is asked to deliver (άποδίδωμι) Marinus, who placed them here,21 and shall interrogate them and their Petronia22: + Κ(ύρι)ε ο Θεός ώ το σκό|τος διαχορίσας κέ | φδς άνατήλας διά | της ύκουμένης, άπό||δος, θεοτόκε, άπό|δος Μαρίνου του | βαλότος ίμας | οδε κέ πύσο τος | ίμας χ' ίμα||ς τήν Πετρου|νίαν. +23 The bottom left corner was already missing when the prayer was carved into the limestone, leaving space only for a final cross, and not for the usual final amen. In this instance, the Lord God as creator is invoked to deliver Marinus, whose accusation led to the imprisonment of the supplicant. It appears that the latter does not want to be interrogated by Marinus. Petronia's role is not clear.

We are tempted to ask if the attitude towards Marinus reflects the ethos of Christianity. However, love for the enemy is indeed absent from the next prayer. One of the two pieces of the limestone plate has survived, but crosses ending and closing the text and nomina sacra suffice to classify the monument as a Christian prayer. The God of justice who judges rightly is invoked to quickly flog the Greeks and to destroy the enemies of [---] yrus and Marinus, sons of John, the barber: + Θ(εὸ)ς τῆς̣ δίκης τῆς̣ δικα|ζούσης ὀρθῶς, φλα̣[γέλ]ωσον τάχος | τοὺς Ἕληνας Τ̣- -c.5- -ΡΟΥ ποτε κ(αὶ) ἀπώ|λ̣εσον τοὺς ἐχθρ̣[οὺς - -c.6- -]υρου κ(αὶ) Μαρ̣ίνου || [τῶν] υ̣ἱ¨ῶν Ϊ[ωάννου τοῦ κ]ουρέος +24Both supplicants have Latin names, but this does not suffice to detect reasons why they ask that the Greeks be flogged soon.

In despair, someone scribbled on another limestone slab: "Lord, make them to die a bad death."25 The last lines of a fragment left it to God (?) to "judge between me and my enemies".26 But this is the exception. The tendency is rather to pray that God punishes the opponent.

Another text ends by even negating the most basic Jewish-Christian supplication: "Lord, do not have mercy toward those who put us here."27 In fact, this is not part of a prayer, but the last two lines on a limestone slab. The text of the first line forms an acclamation: "May the good fortune of those who are plunged into28 this illegal place overcome."29 The case is still pending and the wish to win the case is expressed.30 It is a place of injustice and the Lord should not pity the creditors.

The two potential outcomes of the trial are also reflected in the two parts of an inscription written by two hands. In the first part, the wish is expressed that Georgius and Eumorphias should win the trial. After the cross, in a second hand, the supplicants air their anger against the accuser in prayer: "Lord destroy Leonianus through whom we came in here."31 Another fragmentary text shows the dual structure. The Holy --- is invoked, followed by the petition to save Andreas and Georgius from this place. Then follows "destroy ...".32

Our penultimate example is particularly interesting, but difficult to interpret. Is it a Christian monument? In the first line, the tau could be in cruciform. The limestone slab was found with other Christian monuments. The inscribed text is an acclamation: νικά ή τύ|χη τον καλόν | κορασίον | τον φιλόν||τον τούς | άγαμους.33 "May the good fortune of the beautiful girls who loved the unmarried (men) prevail." Were the girls imprisoned? If so: Why would the καλά κοράσια be imprisoned? Is this an example of Early Christianity curbing the infamous Corinthian prostitution? In that case, the last lines would make sense. The beautiful girls are not guilty of adultery; they loved the unmarried. What if the alleged cruciform tau is merely the result of damage to the limestone?

In our final example, only part of the text to the right of a drawing is legible. This fragment is indecipherable.34 The rough drawing to the left of the fragment of text is an image of a young girl wearing a dress. It is not known why her image was found among the carceraria. Perhaps she was the beloved of one of the prisoners.

This short review of inscriptions from Corinth in the fifth and sixth centuries illustrates that Paul's advice that the Corinthians should not deliver each other towards the worldly judges, has by now become obsolete. Christianity was the determining religion in the dwindling empire. People were still causing the imprisonment of others. The prisoners seek help from God, whom they regard to be just. He is invoked to enable their release or to let those who accused them suffer, or both.



Blass, F. & Debrunner, A. 2001. Grammatik des neutestamentlichen Griechisch: Bearbeitet von Friedrich Rehkopf. 18th ed. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Rupprecht.         [ Links ]

Breytenbach, C. 2012. PsalmsLXX and the Christian definition of space: Examples based on inscriptions from Central Asia Minor. In: J. Cook & H.-J. Stipp (ed.), Text-critical and hermeneutical studies in the Septuagint (Leiden: Brill; VTSup 157), pp. 381-394.         [ Links ]

Danker, F.W. 2000. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian literature: Based on Walter Bauer's Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.         [ Links ]

Krauss, F.A.K. 1895. Im Kerker vor und nach Christus. Leipzig: Mohr.         [ Links ]

Liddell, H.G., Scott, R. & Jones, H.S. 1968. A Greek-English lexicon compiled by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie and with the co-operation of many scholars. With a supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press.         [ Links ]

Paulus, C.G. 2006. Addictus. In: H. Cancik & H. Schneider (ed.), Brill's New Pauly (Leiden: Brill Online).         [ Links ]

Sironen, E.2016. Inscriptiones Graecae. Vol. IV2 3, fasc. 3: Inscriptiones Corinthi, regionis Corinthiae. Berlin: De Gruyter.         [ Links ] [Forthcoming.]

Walbank, M.B. 2010. Where have all the names gone? The Christian community in Corinth in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine eras. In: S.J. Friesen, D.N. Schowalter & J.C. Walters (eds.), Corinth in context: Comparative studies on religion and society (Leiden: Brill; NovTSup 134), pp. 257-323.        [ Links ]



1 The research for this paper was done within the research group B 5-3 of the Excellence Cluster 264 Topoi: The Formation and Transformation of Space and Knowledge in Ancient Civilizations ( I thank Erikki Sironen and Klaus Hallof for making the material in IG IV 3 available to me in advance and Dr. Marina Veksina of the ICG Project for valuable comments. ICG refers to the database Inscriptiones Christianae Graece ( at the Institut für Christentum und Antike in Berlin, developed with the support of Topoi.
2 Cf. IG IV 3 nos. 808 and 810, 812-814, 817-821, 662-663. This study addresses only full texts and larger fragments. For the photos, cf. the coming edition. The inscription on a limestone plate found in Paul's Basilica (IG IV 3 no. 809) and the prayer of a presbyter on the lid of a fragmented marble bowl (no. 815) do not belong to the carceraria.
3 In modern Greek,
μπουντρούμι means "prison" or "dungeon". The word is borrowed from Turkish and could derive from the Greek ύποδρόμιον.
4 Paper read at an international conference on "Perspectives on the socially disadvantaged in Early Christianity", 23-24 October 2014, Faculty of Theology, University of the Free State, South Africa.
5 Cf., in general, Walbank (2010:257-323).
6 IG IV 3 no. 1271: +
Θ(εο)ς εσκουε | auris I + Κ(ύρι)ε, βοήθι του δ|ούλου σο. The reading εσκουε is problematic. Should one read έπ<ά>κουε or εΐσάκουε?
7 Cf. Blass & Debrunner (2001:§147).
8 Cf. IG IV 3 no. 1275.
9 Cf. IG IV 3 no. 1270.
10 Cf. IG IV 3 no. 1279.
11 Cf. IG IV 3 nos. 1269, 1273, 1276 and 1277.
12 Cf. IG IV 3 no. 1272.
13 IG IV 3 no. 1270: +
Κ(ύρι)ε ο Θ(εό)ς και δίκ[ι] κ[α]θαρα | λυτρόσε του τόπου τούτου | τούς δύω αδερφούς | X Φ X Βούδιν καί Ίωαν||νιν τους βουκελλαρίους | ου του έπαρχου, αμίν.+
14 IG IV 3 no. 1272. Cf. the inscription of an unknown presbyter on a bowl found on the agora (IG IV 3, no. 1267): +
Κ(ύρι)ε, βωήθ[ι του δούλου] σου Λ-----πρεσβυτέρου · αμήν. +
15 Cf. Psalm53:6 (
ιδού γάρ ο θεός βοηθεΐ μοι); 69:6 (ο θεός, βοήθησόν μοι); 78:9 (βοήθησον ήμΐν, ο θεός ο σωτήρ ήμων); 93:18 (κύριε, βοηθεΐ μοι); 108:26 (βοήθησόν μοι, κύριε ο θεός μου, σωσόν με κατά τό ε'λεός σου); 118:86 (βοήθησόν μοι); 117 (βοήθησόν μοι, καί σωθήσομαι).
16 Cf. Breytenbach (2012:383).
17 Cf. ICG no. 2659. For Attica, cf. ICG nos. 1885, 1901, 1943, 2094 and 2150.
18 Cf. Paulus (2014).
19 Cf. Genesis 1:4-5:
καί ειδεν ο θεος το φως δτι καλόν. καί διεχώρισεν ο θεος άνα μέσον του φωτός καί άνα μέσον του σκότους. καί έκάλεσεν ο θεος το φως ήμέραν καί το σκότος έκάλεσεν νύκτα. καί έγένετο εσπέρα καί έγένετο πρωί, ήμέρα μία.
20 Cf. LSJ (1968:s.v.) "mother of God".
21 Read
βαλότος ίμας οδε as βαλόντος ήμας ωδε. For βάλλω cum acc. in the sense of "to put, place", cf. LSJ (1968:s.v. 6).
22 IG IV 3 no. 1275. The text is difficult. Read line 8:
ωδε καί έπίσω δος ήμας καί ήμΐν.
23 Cf. Kraus (1895:92, 355).
24 IG IV 3 no. 1279.
25 IG IV 3 no. 1273:
πόησον Κ(ύρι)ε μόρω κακω άποθάνε τους.
26 IG IV 3 no. 1281: [
νικα ή] τύχη ΟΙΥ | 3 lines vacant | Δ[.]ΙΜ[. .]APA δίκα|σον άνά μέσο(ν) | έμου κέ των έκθρον | μου.
27 IG IV 3 no. 1277:
νικα ί τύχι τον καταπ|ονουμένον έν το | άνόμου τόπο τού|το·Κ(ύρι)ε, μί έλείσις τον | βαλότα ήμας όδε.
28 The verb is unclear. If the verb is
καταποντόω, it means (as -ίζω) "to sink", "plunge into"; cf. LSJ (1968:s.v.); Danker (2000:s.v.).
29 Cf. previous note for the text.
30 In a legal context,
νικάω expresses the notion of winning a legal case. Cf. LSJ (1968:s.v. 5).
31 IG IV 3 no. 1276: I.
νικα ή τύχι Γεοργίου κ(αί) Εύμο|ρφίας. + Λεόμυθος | II. Κ(ύρι)ε, άπόλεσον Λεωνιανό(ν), διά | τίνος Ισήλθαμεν όδε. For Ισήλθαμεν read είσήλθαμεν. The name Leomythus was added by the second hand.
32 IG IV2 3 no. 1280: +
ἅγιε - - - - - - - - - -| ζωμεν- - - - - - - - - -| ἀπὸ τοῦ τόπ̣[ου τούτου] | Ἀνδρέαν, Γεώρ̣[γιον, - -]-|| + τ̣ο̣ν, κ̣(αὶ) ἀπόλεσο[ν - -] | - - - - - - - - - - - - - -. For the invocation with ἅγιε, cf. also no. 660.
33 IG IV 3 no. 1274.
34 IG IV 3 no. 1286.

Creative Commons License All the contents of this journal, except where otherwise noted, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License