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Religion and Epigraphy in Post-Roman Iberia: The Case of Eleutherius

Santiago Castellanos

University of Leon (Spain)

Emerita was one of the most important cities of Roman Hispania and had been an administrative capital already in the pre-Roman period. Abundant literary, archaeological, and epigraphic evidence attests to the prominence of this ciuitas. Modern visitors to the city are impressed by its Roman amphitheatre and theatre, as well as by its readily accesible archaeological sites. For philologists, archaeologists, and historians interested in the transitory period from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, Emerita is major scientific laboratory. In Emerita one can examine several of the political, economic and religious transformations that took place as the Roman world gave way to the new medieval world.

This paper focuses on a figure known from both epigraphic and literary sources, Eleutherius. Through this individual, I contend, we can examine the religious changes that occurred in one of the best-known cities of the post-Roman West. Based on the case of Eleutherius, I will compare the relevant epigraphic and literary sources, and I will discuss the religious and ideological nature and objectives of both types of evidence.

My starting point will be the basilica of Saint Eulalia, beyond the Roman wall, in the Roman necropolis traditionally thought to be the location of the remains and the memoria of Eulalia, who was martyred in the early years of the fourth century. Archaeologists have found evidence for the construction of a sanctuary in the fourth century upon the memoria martyris, and also of a church in the middle of the fifth century, the last phase of the Roman period. The place became a focal point for ad sanctam burials in late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Study of  Emerita allows us to follow the transition from the traditional Roman religious system to the rise of Christianity, with the control of loca sacra that created a topographic scene for a world in which the main ideological and religious parameters were fast changing. The Saint Eulalia archaeological site is a superb example of this process.

Archaeological excavations in the 1990s led to the discovery of a tombstone—the lid of a sarcophagus— that contained the burials of three members of the city's elite: Gregorius, Perpetua and Heleuterius. Of the three epitaphs, I am interested in the one for Heleuterius (sic). The inscription refers to a "Heleuterius arcidiaconus", who served in the Mérida church—that is, in the episcopal structure. The bishopric of Emerita was one of the most powerful of its time, politically but also economically. After a life spanning 33 years, Eleutherius died in December 604. Remarkably, in his case we have information from a religious source of a different type. The "Lives of the Holy Fathers of Emerita", a five-book hagiography written in the seventh century, informs us both about the city during the post-Roman era and about the conflicts that took place over control of the loca sacra. The fifth book mentions Eleutherius, the archdeacon of the episcopal church. My paper will briefly attempt to demonstrate how the funerary inscription and the hagiographic text are, in themselves, evidence of such conflicts. Eleutherius, who appears in the hagiographic tradition as superbus, or ,excitatus in furia, with very negative terms, was nevertheless buried in the ecclesiastical complex of Saint Eulalia, a central site that was so important in the transition from the Roman era to the early medieval period. Literary and epigraphic evidence supplement each other to reveal this complex situation, as I will be demonstrating in this paper.

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Epigraphy and Religion Revisited

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