Saint NameOptatus/Optatius, martyr of Rome, buried on the via Appia : S02858
Type of EvidenceInscriptions - Funerary inscriptions
Archaeological and architectural - Internal cult fixtures (crypts, ciboria, etc.)
Evidence not before425
Evidence not after450
Activity not before415
Activity not after450
Place of Evidence - RegionRome and region
Place of Evidence - City, village, etcSuburban catacombs and cemeteries
Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)Suburban catacombs and cemeteries
Cult activities - PlacesBurial site of a saint - crypt/ crypt with relics
Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and CustomsCeremonies at burial of a saint
Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and NarrativesEcclesiastics - bishops
Cult Activities - RelicsBodily relic - entire body
Transfer/presence of relics from distant countries
Transfer, translation and deposition of relics
Cult Activities - Cult Related ObjectsInscription
SourceNine conjoining fragments of a marble plaque. Dimensions: H. 0.16 m; W. 0.82 m; Th. 0.03 m. Letter height 0.05 m.
Eight fragments were found in 1863 by Giovanni Battista de Ross, in area A7 and in cubiculum Dd, in the proximity of the Crypt of the Popes, and the Crypt of Eusebius of the cemetery of Callixtus. Published by de Rossi in 1864 and 1867. One more fragment was recorded by Enrico Josi near cubiculum Dd in 1922. Now assembled and fixed on a wall near staircase A5. In 1964 republished by Antonio Ferrua.
DiscussionAt first De Rossi believed that the fragments might come from the epitaph for pope Eusebius, after whom a region in the Cemetery of Callixtus was named. Having assembled more fragments, he, however, had no doubts that the epitaph was for a bishop of Vescera in Roman North Africa (the province of Numidia), and he argued that this was Optatus of Vescera, a Catholic bishop who is last documented in 425: see PCBE 1, s.v. Optatus 4 (he was probably the bishop Optatus mentioned by Augustine in his letters 185 and 220). De Rossi read the inscription as stating that the bishop it commemorates had died in Numidia, not Rome (which is a possible reading, but not the only possible reading, of the fragmentary text), and argued that Optatus must have died sometime between 425 and 428, and that his body was taken to Italy by North African bishops escaping the Vandal invaders, to be buried in the Cemetery of Callixtus. This interpretation has been largely accepted by subsequent scholars.
The translation of his body to Rome would have been a highly exceptional event, and, for de Rossi, could explain the cult of an Optatus in the cemetery of Callixtus, which is documented in two written texts of the 7th c. (see our E04721 and E07892), and by a fresco of the very early 9th c. in the ‘Crypt of the Popes’ that shows a bishop labelled ‘s(an)c(tu)s Optat(us) episc(opus)/saint Optatus, bishop' (ICVR, n.s., IV, no. 9370). We also know, from the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, that a certain Optatus was venerated in Rome on 27 November (E05033), and that one of the bodies that Paschal II reburied in Santa Prassede in the early ninth century was that of a bishop Optatus (though there is no record of which catacomb this came from; Goodson 2010, 327 and 331, note 18).
De Rossi’s conflation of Optatus bishop of Vescera with a bishop Optatus venerated in the cemetery of Callixtus, by way of the epitaph of an unnamed bishop of Vescera, is not impossible, but it is of course hypothetical. The inscription could have been for another bishop of Vescera (and its wording does not suggest particular devotion), and the coincidence of names and places (an Optatus of Vescera, the epitaph of a bishop of Vescera, and a Bishop Optatus in the cemetery of Callixtus) could be just that, a coincidence. The one aspect of de Rossi’s interpretation that we think is highly unlikely, is that which argues that Optatus was brought to Rome only after death; it is much more likely that he, if it is he, came as a living exile from Vandal rule.
Dating: Based on the shape of the letters, de Rossi placed the inscription in the first half of the 5th c., as does Antonio Felle in the EDB. If the deceased is correctly identified as Optatus of Vescera, the epitaph must postdate his death, sometime after 425.
Epigraphic Database Bari, no. EDB20985, see http://www.edb.uniba.it/epigraph/20985
de Rossi, G.B., Ferrua, A. (eds.) Inscriptiones Christianae Urbis Romae Septimo Saeculo Antiquiores, n.s., vol. 4: Coemeteria inter Vias Appiam et Ardeatinam (Vatican: Pont. Institutum Archaeologiae Christianae, 1964), no. 9517.
Hendrichs, F., La voce delle chiese antichissime di Roma (Rome: Desclée & C. Editori Pontifici, 1933), fig. 188.
Diehl, E., Inscriptiones Latinae Christianae Veteres, vol. 1 (Berlin: Apud Weidmannos, 1925), comments to no. 1112.
Josi, E., "Conferenze di Archeologia Cristiana", Nuovo bullettino di archeologia cristiana (1922), 96-97.
de Rossi, G.B., La Roma sotterranea cristiana, vol. 2 (Rome: Cromo-litografia pontificia, 1867), 221-225, also 107 and Tav. 3.
de Rossi, G.B., "I frammenti dell'epitaffio d'un vescovo rinvenuti nel cemetero di Callisto, e in genere degli epitaffi di vescovi nelle catacombe romane", Bulletino di Archeologia Cristiana 2 (1864), 49-54.
Goodson, C., The Rome of Pope Paschal I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
Mandouze, A., La Bonnardière, A.-M., Lacroix, Cl.-H., Lancel, S., Marrou, H.-I, Munier, Ch., Paoli-Lafaye, E., Pellistrandi, S., Pietri, Ch., Pontuer, Fr. (eds.) Prosopographie de l'Afrique chrétienne (303-533) (Paris: Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1982), s.v. Optatus 4.