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The origins of  Benedictus

· Between names and nicknames, Christianity’s entrance into name-days of the first centuries ·

The introduction and establishment of Christianity into Roman society caused changes in mentality, habit, organization and management of spaces and of material structures, which occurred with varying speed and intensity. The needs of the new faith led to decisive and sometimes rapid transformations in the form and function of sacred buildings and funeral structures, in the presence of new themes and subjects in figurative art and in inscriptions, yet these changes did not so rapidly enter into the individual and family sphere, such as that of the personal name.

Writing on the topic of Christian name-days for the Vatican newspaper, it is natural to look at the name of the Pope, Benedictus , which is particularly interesting in its origin and successive diffusion. In our collective imagination this anthroponym is perceived as having a genetically Christian formation, but its history indicates without a shadow of a doubt a completely different origin and journey.  Both the adjective, benedictus and the anthroponym of derivation, Benedictus – at the base of which there is a semitic tradition of the type Baruch, past participle of the verb, Barach (to bless – benedire) – are found at the end of the second century, at various levels of society, as indicated by some inscriptions of the second and third centuries which attest to its use in servile environments, as well as naturally among the ingenui , or those born free. The name Benedictus naturally presupposes the adjective benedictus , largely attested to in Roman funeral epigraphs as a personal attribute signifying, “worthy of praise,” “well-loved,” “famous,” “celebrated.”

Unlike other Latin names, it is not a translation from the Greek because the corresponding Greek, Eulogius, is much more recent (not before the 3rd century) compared to Benedictus , which can therefore be assumed as a name of purely Latin origin and almost certainly exclusive to the city of Rome, where it finds it largest attestation. The use of this name also furnished the occasion for a play on words as is found in a third century inscription in which the defunct – called Benedetta – is defined as such in name and in fact: the survivors wanted to remember her as “good soul” and therefore, “predilect,” which is what, in fact, her name means: d(is) M(anibus)/anima sancta/cata nomen/Benedicta (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum , vi, 13545) – observe the Latin use of the Greek, kata , corresponding to the Latin, secundum .

In this same semantic environment, there is the elegy for a defunct named Restiuto: d(is) M(anibus) /Restituti/animulae/bonae et/benedictae/sit tibi terra levis ( Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum , VI, 25408)

In the Christian environment, especially in Rome in chronological terms and in terms of diffusion, the qualifying adjective, benedictus seems to precede the use of the anthroponym of direct derivation, as eloquently indicated by the epigraphic documentation of the anonymous cemetery of via Anapo (via Salaria Nuova) which was active for nearly a century between the last thirty years of the third century and the end of the fourth. Here there is a high concentration of the use of benedictus as a personal qualifier associated with the name of the defunct and never inserted in the sequel of the normal epithets, such as dearest, sweetest, and so on. (Inscr. Christ., ix, 24641, 24642, 24658, 24660, 24677, 24680, 24704, 24705, 24710, 24721, 24722, 24725, 24739, 24745, 24753, 24767, 24789, 24793, 24796, 24810).

These texts, generally very succinct, do not allow us to clarify the meaning assumed by benedictus in this, as in other Roman cemetery, contexts: the traditional one or the one identified in a Christian sense? The Christian meaning is clear, however, in at least three cases: one in an epigraph in the cemetery of Giordani (Inscr. Christ., ix, 24357: Calledrome benedicta in Chri(isto )) and in two inscriptions in the catacombs of via Anapo: the dedicatory Anastasi/o filio benedicto (Inscr. Christ., IX, 24641) and the acclamatory Aureli Varro/dulcissime et desiderantis/sime coniux pax/tibi benedicte (Inscr. Christ., IX, 25010).

This documentation definitely indicates that in Rome in the fourth century benedictus/Benedictus reach a discreet diffusion and contextually began to assume, in the communitarian perception a connotation of “identity” which emerges in the catacombs of via Anapo, which could – although it has been historically anonymous –legitimately call itself the “catacomb of the benedetti .”

In Rome, Italy and Europe a vigorous and unstoppable increase in the use of Benedictus occurred with the end of the ancient world. Its extraordinary fortune is thanks to the equally extraordinary work of Benedict of Norcia (480-547), founder of the monastery of Montecassino and promoter of monasticism in the West. Its immediate diffusion – at least in the course of the 6th and 7th centuries – remained essentially in ecclesiastical circles: in Rome with Pope Benedict I (575-579) and in a place of new conversions like England with Benedict Biscop (628 – 690) who came five times to Rome and founded the monasteries of Wearmouth and Yarrow in England, dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul.

From the 8th century, Benedictus spreads rapidly in both masculine and feminine form with particular incidences in the Lazio area around Rome and southern Italy where it is third in frequency of use after Iohannes and Petrus. Currently, the area where the name is most in use is Sicily (36%), but from the 1970’s, there has been a decline in the overall use of the name, although a slight increase in the use of female form.




St. Peter’s Square

Sept. 19, 2019