How Christians made tattoo cool in Ancient Rome

Naiara Leão
5 min readJun 12, 2018

“I bear on my body the marks of Christ.” Tattoos went from being a form of punishment for criminals and slaves to a symbol of political and spiritual rebellion.

The naturally mummified body of a 7th-century Sudanese woman. She has a monogram of St. Michel tattoed. Photo: British Museum

In Ancient Rome, in the first centuries AD, tattoos meant the same as for the majority of society a few decades ago: a habit of criminals and outlaws. The Romans were using it as public punishment for slaves and convicted criminals when Christians decided to mark their skins too, but spontaneously. Some claimed their stigma (Latin for mark, tattoo or scar) wasn’t made, but appeared, as in a miraculous experience that referred to the wounds of Christ or the first martyrs. And that is when things took a turn. From political subjugation, stigma went to being a sign of divine election.

“In the discourse of martyrdom and the figure of the crucified Christ — ancient Christians subverted symbols of domination and submission, activity and passivity, honor and shame, appropriating the identity of slave or criminal,” says the North-American historian Virginia Burrus in an article about Macrina. A nun from the 4th century turned into a saint, Macrina’s life is told in the first female biography of the ancient world. The author, her brother, tells that while preparing her dead body for the funeral, he found a scar “like a stigma made by a small needle.” The nun who accompanied him, a friend of Macrina, explains that the sign showed up after she was miraculously cured of a serious disease and reveals: “This is left on the body as a reminder of the great help of God.”

A brief story of tattoos
Obviously, neither Christians nor Romans invented the appreciation for the tattoo. This comes from pre-history and is common among native groups from America and Oceania. Even in the Ancient Mediterranean (ap. 4.000 B.C.E to 700 C.E, South Europe/North Africa/Near East), a context dominated by Greco-Roman culture, certain groups tattooed their god’s priests. This practice, however, was criticized by the Greco-Roman elite, who categorized as “barbarians” cultures who saw tattoos in a positive manner.

On the other hand, Roman elites signaled slaves with scuff marks on their backs and criminals with the name of their crimes on the forehead. It was a strategy to make them easily identifiable. As the historian Sarah…

Naiara Leão

Nomad. PhD student of Religion, early Christianity and Women's and Gender Studies. Follow my IG @academicanomad