SEG 59 (2009): 1717
In the mosaic pavement of the church.
Damaged 12-line mosaic inscription.
Πρεσβίες τῆς δεσπ(οίνης)
ἡμῶν τῆς θεοτόκο-
[υ] κ[υρ(ίας?) Μαρί]ας σὺν Θεῷ
4 ☩ ἐγένετο τὸ πᾶν ἔρ-
γον τοῦ δεσπότου ἡ-
μῶν τοῦ ἁγιω(τάτου) Ἰωάν-
νου διὰ Στεφάνου
8 λαμπροτάτου σπα-
θαρίου καὶ τῶν αὐ-
τοῦ τέκνων Λε-
οντακίου καὶ Μα-
12 ρίας καὶ Ἰο[υλ]ιανοῦ. ☩
By the intercessions of Our Lady the Mother of God, Lady Mary, with (the help of) God, the whole work of (the church of) our lord the most holy John was done, through Stephen the clarissimus spatharius and his children, Leontakios, Mary and Julian.
Πρεσβίες is a phonetic spelling of πρεσβείαις. In the language of Byzantine Christians, πρεσβεία, “intercession” is equivalent to εὐχή, “prayer,” and signifies the intercession before the throne of God obtained through the prayers of specially privileged beings: Mary mother of God, angels, martyrs, or men that by their particular holiness have reached parrhsiva, freedom of speech in front of the Most High. Like “God’s help” (σὺν Θεῷ), the prayers or the intercessions of holy beings are often invoked in building inscriptions of churches. In this case the intercessor is Mary Theotokos, “Mother of God,” a title Jesus’ mother acquired at the Council of Ephesus in 431, which provides a terminus post quem for this inscription. In any case, the palaeography and the use of the stigma as abbreviation mark (l. 1) point to a date in the sixth century.
The first half of l. 3 is destroyed, except for a single letter, a kappa, but the letters AC preserved after the gap and the length of the gap itself preclude restoring the formula θεοτόκου κ[αὶ ἀειπαρθένου, a favourite appellation of the Virgin. However, Mary is called κυρία καὶ δεσποίνα for instance, by pseudo-Athanasius in Homilia in annunciationem Deiparae 15 (PG 28: 940), and the suggested restoration κυρ(ίας) Μαρί]ας nicely fills the gap.
The term τὸ ἔργον, followed by the name of a saint, refers as a rule to the building of a church dedicated to that saint. The epithet δεσπότης, given to a saint, is indeed unusual, but the synonym κύριος is applied to St. John in a mosaic from Umm er-Rus in southern Judaea (SEG 8, no. 228), not to speak of the universal use of the Aramaic translation Mar to designate saints in Syropalestinian and Syriac. Thus we shall abandon the identification of “the most holy John” with the bishop of Ptolemais, and the approximate dating of the inscription based on said identification, and adopt the view that the church founded by Stephen and his family was dedicated to St. John, perhaps the Apostle rather than the Baptist, if the particular intercession of Mary has some significance. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus on the cross committed his mother to the care of his most beloved disciple, and she was since considered John’s mother.
Stephen is called clarissimus spatharius, the former being a first step in the ladder of Byzantine honorary titles, and the latter a designation of his office, through which Stephen had probably obtained the honorary title. The spatharii, bodyguards attached to the imperial bedchamber, were as a rule eunuchs, generally imported slaves, for castration was illegal on Roman soil: they were granted freedom on entering the imperial service and could acquire high rank on retirement. Spatharii were also included in the personal staff of the duces, and were sometimes employed in aristocratic households. There are also indications in the sources that not all spatharii were eunuchs. Considering his rank, Stephen in our inscription was perhaps, if not an imperial spatharius, at least a ducal one. Since he had three children, certainly he was not a eunuch. From the fact that Stephen and his children appear in the inscriptions as founders of the church, and no member of the clergy is mentioned, it is evident that the church was a private one, in all likelihood erected on the private estate of the family.
Damaged 12-line dedicatory building inscription of Stephen, in the mosaic pavement of the church.