Brent D. Shaw, "Seasons of Death: Aspects of Mortality in Imperial Rome,"
Journal of Roman Studies
86 (1996) 100-138 (at 103):
The anniversary of one's biological birthday had been celebrated by 'pagans' with
great festivity. The Christians reversed this perspective. They tended to denigrate,
devalue, and even ignore secular birthday celebrations; now it was the precise time of
one's death that became the centre of a new sense of celebration. The point of transition
from the deathly pall of this existence to the eternal reward of perfect life was the time
that was important and deserving of memory. Christians, therefore, placed particular
emphasis on the precise date when a person died. Christian rhetoric was marked by an
ironic reversal (typical of many rebellious ideologies) which asserted that death was
actually the point of birth into life. Hence Christians frequently refer to the day of one's
death as the day of one's birth (natus) or birthday (dies natalis).14 The actual number of
years one had traversed in this life — a shadowy and evil thing configured by sin and by
demonic forces that had systematically to be exorcized at baptism — was of less concern.
The first transition in this time towards one's new life was marked by the liminal ritual
of baptism. It was then that one began the process of being born again. Hence the
frequent identification of a Christian in our inscriptions as either a neophytus or a
neophyta — a person who was a 'new growth'.15 What was much more worth remarking
upon and recording on one's burial-marker, therefore, was the temporal point of the
transition into one's genuine life, a reality that required no measurement since it would
be eternal.16 The place of burial became significant for this reason. It was a temporary
place of repose, or sleep, where the true relatives, the 'brothers' and 'sisters' of the
deceased's Christian family, would come once a year to celebrate his or her birthday. As
Tertullian phrased it, 'on the anniversary of their death we make ritual offerings to the
dead in celebration of their birth' ('oblationes pro defunctis pro nataliciis annua die
14 Consider: 'natus in pace': ICUR 9046 (for death);
'natus': 9060 (death); 'natale suo': 9228 (day of death);
'quo et natus est cuius anima cum sanctus in pace':
15634; 'natus in pace': 24060 (day of death); 'qui
natus': 24180 (death).
15 J. Janssens, Vita e morte del cristiano negli epitaffi
di Roma anteriori al sec. VII (1981), I.1.5, 'I neofiti',
26-32, notes how often Christians took care to
emphasize the ritual of baptism, even when performed
shortly before death itself.
16 On the new ideology see A.C. Rush, Death and
Burial in Christian Antiquity, The Catholic University of America Studies in Christian Antiquity I
(1941), esp. pt. I, ch. 3, 'Death as Birth. The Day of
Death as Dies Natalis', 72-87. See also A. Stuiber,
'Geburtstag', RAC 9 (1976), 217-43, esp. 220-33, on
the ways in which Roman practices were redefined
and designated by Christians in connection with the
absolute value that they placed on life-after-death,
especially as exemplified by the deaths of the martyrs.
17 Tertullian, De Corona 3; cf. De Exhortatione
Castitatis I 1; and De Monogamia 10.