Christian burial practices at Ostia Antica: backgrounds and contexts with a case study of the Pianabella Basilica
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This study investigates the archaeological and social contexts of early Christian burial practices at Ostia Antica, Rome’s port city, through a case study of the cemeterial basilica at Pianabella. Built on a pagan necropolis in ca. 400 AD, the Pianabella Basilica is one of the few unambiguously Christian monuments from Ostia in the Late Antique period. Consequently, it provides evidence for the continuities and transformations of late Roman culture during the period of Christianity’s rise to prominence. Examination of the construction of the basilica, as well as its rich iconography and epigraphy, proceeds through a social approach within a holistic view of material culture, showing that the physical characteristics of Christian burial were acquired through selective appropriation of common pagan mortuary practices while also adjusting to changing cultural assumptions. The Pianabella inscriptions show the persistence of patronage, while the construction of the basilica and its dedication to a nameless saint show the increasing importance of the suburbium for the city’s religious topography. The semi-monumental nature and advantaged location of this basilica made it an important meeting place for the Christians, whose appropriations can be seen in three aspects: (1) epigraphy suggests that patronage by the institutional church gradually replaced that by important families; (2) patterns of sarcophagus use point to attempts at social improvement while showing clear preference for less iconic forms of sarcophagi; and (3) the arrangement of the burials in the basilica’s main funerary enclosure and epigraphy emphasize the prominence of the saint to whom the basilica was dedicated. The basilica thus took on much of the ritual and social creativity that had belonged to the family tomb, where reunion in death did away with death’s sting, while providing Christians with a sense of community. The organization of funerary space at Pianabella suggests further that the focus of mortuary provision was ultimately on the living. Taken together, it seems that funerary processions to the basilica provided a sphere in which local Christians could benefit from communal meals and the spectacle of status display, while pointing to God as a new and improved type of paterfamilias.