How to Identify an Early Christian Burial in Athens, Greece

Tori Rigsby

Post-Baccalaureate Student at the College Year in Athens,

Graduate of the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

It is easy to assume that most of what is understood about the past stems from literary sources and material culture. However, the dead and their form of burial can reveal facets of life that no other source can. Concerning early Christian burials in Greece, the transition from Pagan to Christian burial began with the spread of Christianity throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. During the first through fourth centuries CE in Rome, a transition was marked by the construction of catacombs outside the capital to house the deceased of Jewish and Christian communities. Historically, scholars believed the distinct mark of Christian burial was cremation rather than inhumation of the dead. Many others agree that inhumation is a common form of burial well before Christianity and cannot be directly linked to the funerary transition within the ancient Mediterranean.[1] In Greece, specifically Athens, the indicator of Christian burials is primarily due to epigraphic evidence on grave stele and material goods buried with the dead.[2]

On the one hand, the Greeks practiced both inhumation and cremation for centuries before the spread of Christianity. On the other hand, Romans primarily cremated their dead throughout the Republic and early empire. When inhumation became more prominent in Rome, it was assumed that the burials were due to new socio-religious beliefs. However, this is contested by many earlier burials that are not Christian.[3] Depending on the ethnicity or cultural standards of the deceased, inhumation or cremation could be how they exhibited care for the dead. The Greeks buried their dead in both forms, so the dichotomy between a standard burial and that of a Christian must be traced through the funerary monuments and burial goods.

 While cremation is primarily attributed to Rome, in Athens, Greece, the practice was expected, but it is not evident enough from the archaeological record to sustain a clear transition from pagan to Christian. Cremation existed commonly among the Romans, but with the rise of Christianity, inhumation by way of catacombs ensured the dead could be buried safely, especially when Christian persecution was on the rise throughout the empire. In Greece, the mark of a Christian burial was ambiguous save for funerary stele with specific names and symbols and goods buried with the dead that provided evidence for a religious burial. Much like Rome, Greece experienced shifting attitudes toward the afterlife, prompting changes in burial practices that weren’t necessarily religious. Thoughts such as those associated with needs in the afterlife concerning the body are nothing new, and it is possible the change in burial was an aesthetic choice and not a religious one.

For example, in Corinth, excavations of the late antique city dating from the early fifth through the seventh century CE reveal over 700 burials, with many designated as Chrisitan.[4] Identifying a Christian grave here is relatively straightforward compared to what one may encounter in Athens. Christian Basilicas are a vital indicator because cemeteries are likely nearby. These graves vary in form, from rock-cut tombs to in-ground inhumation.[5] However, what is shared among many of the assumed Christian graves in Corinth are the burial goods placed in the tombs. Among the goods found are pottery, glass, jewelry, and terracotta lamps.[6] The strategic locations differentiate the burials at Corinth from those at Athens because Christian burials are primarily by a basilica exhibiting both a religious and aesthetic choice.

In contrast, in Athens, a Christian burial can be found near a pagan temple or basilica. The Christian graves in Corinth, located at basilicas, denote the shift among Christians to place their dead on holy grounds. Although the burials at Corinth date a little later than early Christian graves in Athens, the comparison articulates the progress of Christianity and its changing perspective of death and the afterlife in late antiquity. To fully understand these shifts in attitude toward burial in Athens, it is necessary to compare burials to nearby locations in Greece, such as those in Corinth and the Peloponnesus.

Nevertheless, examining evidence in Athens and identifying a Christian burial is crucial to further study of Late Antiquity in the area. A study by John S. Creaghan and A.E. Raubitschek for The American School of Classical Studies on “Early Christian Epitaphs from Athens” examines epigraphical evidence for Christian burials and their separation into distinct groups.[7]  Several early Christian burials were identified in the Agora and associated with an early cemetery of St. Agathokleia. Many other Christian cemeteries were discovered throughout Athens, distinguished explicitly by their epigraphs. What Creghan and Raubitschek found to be an indication of Christian burial is the word κοιμητήριον, meaning “sleeping room,” inscribed on the grave stele.[8] The word is quite common; however, its association with Christian burials in Athens involves single-tomb burials. Most Christian burials in Athens began with κοιμητήριον and the deceased individual’s name in the genitive case of Ancient Greek.[9] Creaghan and Raubitschek suggest another way to designate a Christian burial: occupations of the dead listed on the grave stele.[10] Certain assumptions on behalf of these scholars continue to propose Christians engaged in meaningful work compared to other Athenians. Indeed, non-Christian Athenians participated in many trades without a desire to record this on their grave stele or, more simply, lacked the funds to commission a stele that could do so. Indeed, this is not to say Christians in Athens were more wealthy, but many were inclined to display a piece of their life they may have felt as significant.

Interestingly, many grave steles of both Christian and Pagan burials also list curses and threats to any who should violate their place of rest.[11] The Christian curses are a holdover from the pagan tradition that denote the wrath of God to any who may attempt desecration. Amalgamations of pagan and Christian traditions in burial are commonplace throughout the Mediterranean. Most early Christian scholars understand that many pagan and Christian traditions mixed, such as religious festivals, idols, and burial practices.[12]

Carved images like crosses, foliage, and birds can indicate Christian burials, considering non-Christian graves in Athens depicted people, usually the deceased and a relative, with no assumed religious affiliation.[13] Images showing the Christian religion on the grave stele may only be partially authentic due to Greek and Roman sarcophagi that point to non-Christian religious iconography. Although most sarcophagi were reserved for wealthy patrons, they can still provide insight into the imagery used to depict the deceased and various gods, goddesses, and heroes. Imagery such as that of Greek and Roman mythology points to the relationship between people and their deities with significance tied to the afterlife. The same can be said of an early Christian burial in Greece, where iconography can demonstrate a Christian burial using various symbols.

Survival of pagan sources existed through iconography and literary means passed down for centuries. Timothy Gregory, writing for The American Journal of Philology in 1986 on “The Survival of Paganism in Christian Greece: A Critical Essay,” assumes that pagan traditions survived in Greece through Byzantine and Modern Greek culture utilizing literary devices from ancient texts.[14] Although literary sources are not necessarily religious, the practice in the Byzantine era certainly insinuates a reliance on this specific pagan tradition.

Moreover, Gregory does state that Pagan and Christian communities within Athens had so little to do with each other that religious traditions are unlikely to mix.[15] However, the slow spread of Christianity can also be attributed to the foundation of academic institutions in Athens that cultivated the survival of pagan practices.[16] Although Gregory focuses on socio-religious syncretism, little attention is attributed to death and dying besides the mention of name variations on tombstones from the study by Creghan and Raubitschek that can point to Christian burials. In particular, the names of Adults who converted to Christianity but retained their pagan names. Examples of tombstones are given with an inscribed cross denoting a Christian burial and the names of Athenians who were either born into a Christian family or converted and kept their pagan name.[17] The survival of the pagan name is just one instance of the survival of pagan tradition in the emerging Christianized society, besides various symbols and mythological holdovers depicted in emerging Christian iconography.

Despite abundant epigraphical sources to identify an early Christian burial in Athens, epigraphers, archaeologists, and historians must conduct more work on several aspects. Modern published studies of Christian burial in Athens are scant, and scholars must begin building on previous studies with the following steps. First, the cemeteries from which Christian burials were housed need further study to uncover the significance of the space and why they were specifically used. Secondly, a fresh analysis of the epigraphical and material sources will ensure the burials are appropriately identified and categorized as Christian. Finally, a comparison to early Christian burials in both Rome and Athens, as for other locations in the Eastern Mediterranean, must be revisited to shed light on how local religions, cultures, and politics played a part in influencing these burials.

Further research by scholars of early Christianity and late antiquity must be completed to ensure a proper chronology of burials in Athens. Few studies have been published since Creaghan and Raubitschek’s evaluation of Chrisitan epitaphs in the 1940s. A fresh perspective on the epigraphical evidence, the material goods buried with the dead, and the early research conducted are needed to cultivate a clear picture of a proper early Christian burial in Athens.


Barlow, Jonathan. “Archaeology and Belief in the Roman World: An Iconoclast’s Approach.” Australasian Historical Archaeology 11 (1993): 120–23.

Creaghan, John S., and A. E. Raubitschek. “Early Christian Epitaphs from Athens.” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 16, no. 1 (1947): 1–52.

Gregory, Timothy E., Brian Martens, KATHLEEN W. SLANE, David K. Pettegrew, Nathaniel P. DesRosiers, Lily C. Vuong, Alexandra Eppinger, et al. “The Survival of Paganism in Christian Greece: A Critical Essay.” The American Journal of Philology 107, no. 2 (1986): 229-242. Accessed December 15, 2023.

Ott, Jeremy. “Burying at Corinth in Late Antiquity. Evidence from the Late 5th to the Early 7th Century.” Edited by Stefan Ardeleanu and Jon  C Cubas Díaz. Funerary Landscapes of the Late Antique “oecumene”. Contextualizing Epigraphic and Archeological Evidence of Mortuary Practices. Proceedings of an International Conference in Heidelberg, May 30–June 1, 2019, June 8, 2023, 283–318.

Yeomans, Sarah. “City of the Dead.” Archaeology 61, no. 4 (2008): 55–62.

[1] Jonathan Barlow, “Archaeology and Belief in the Roman World: An Iconoclast’s Approach,” Australasian Historical Archaeology 11 (1993): 120–23,, 120.

[2] Sarah,Yeomans,“City of the Dead,” Archaeology 61, no. 4 (2008): 55–62,, 56.

[3] Barlow, “Archaeology and Belief,” 120-121.

[4] Jeremy Ott, “Burying at Corinth in Late Antiquity. Evidence from the Late 5th to the Early 7th Century,” ed. Stefan Ardeleanu and Jon  C Cubas Díaz, Funerary Landscapes of the Late Antique “Oecumene”. Contextualizing Epigraphic and Archeological Evidence of Mortuary Practices. Proceedings of an International Conference in Heidelberg, May 30–June 1, 2019, June 8, 2023, 283–318,, 283.

[5] Ott, “Burying at Corinth,” 286-290.

[6] Ott, “Burying at Corinth,” 292-294.

[7] John S. Creaghan, and A. E. Raubitschek, “Early Christian Epitaphs from Athens,” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 16, no. 1 (1947): 1–52,

[8] Creaghan and Raubitschek, “Early Christian Epitaphs,” 6.

[9] Creaghan and Raubitschek, “Early Christian Epitaphs,” 6-7.

[10] Creaghan and Raubitschek, “Early Christian Epitaphs,” 7-8.

[11] Creaghan and Raubitschek, “Early Christian Epitaphs,” 9-11.

[12] Barlow, “Archaeology and Belief,” 121.

[13] Creaghan and Raubitschek, “Early Christian Epitaphs,” 13.

[14] Timothy E. Gregory, Brian Martens, Kathleen W. Slane, David K. Pettegrew, Nathaniel P. DesRosiers, Lily C. Vuong, Alexandra Eppinger, et al., “The Survival of Paganism in Christian Greece: A Critical Essay,” The American Journal of Philology 107, no. 2 (1986): 229-242, Accessed December 15, 2023,

[15] Gregory and Martens et al. “The Survival of Paganism,” 232.

[16] Gregory and Martens et al. “The Survival of Paganism,” 235.

[17] Gregory and Martens et al. “The Survival of Paganism,” 239-240.

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