Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.07.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.07.05

Barbara E. Borg, Crisis and Ambition: Tombs and Burial Customs in Third-Century CE Rome. Oxford studies in ancient culture and representation.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. xx, 308.  ISBN 9780199672738.  $185.00.  

Reviewed by Dorian Borbonus, University of Dayton (


This ambitious and daring monograph on a deserving subject is likely to stimulate discussion among specialists in Roman funerary culture and imperial history, but it also provides a welcome synthesis for graduate students and scholars who look for an immersion in the funerary monuments and artistic conventions of the time period. Both the main question and the approach to answer it are refreshingly novel: the venture is to raise the third century as a topic of its own and to dispel some of the misconceptions that are used to prove its alleged main characteristic, namely crisis. This reinterpretation is supported by a detailed description of tomb monuments, objects, and painted decoration. The focus is decidedly on the latter: while the characterization of the third century provides the logical framework, the bulk of the discussion describes and characterizes physical remains. The resulting survey of tomb contexts and iconography successfully rehabilitates the third century as a vibrant time period in Roman history with an innovative and original funerary culture that mirrors the particular historical conditions of the time.

The argument is roughly divided into two halves. The first four thematic chapters (2-5) treat the “structure and organization of burial space” (161) whereas the following three chapters (6-8) discuss “the image decoration of these establishments” (161).

After briefly articulating the main questions of the book, its relationship to previous scholarship, and the major methodological problems (especially dating) in the introduction, the first substantial chapter of the book covers “traditional cemeteries and tombs” (chapter 2). The chapter summarizes excavation reports and surveys inscriptions, but it also advances the theories that tomb construction boomed in the Severan period and that tomb complexes and “large tombs” were increasingly built by investors or by “generous” (40) patrons and associations. The third chapter identifies two novelties in the funerary landscape of the third century: the open-air display of sarcophagi and “refined” (41) temple tombs. Chapter Four presents a reassessment of hypogea. Following Rebillard and Bodel, the author questions the idea that catacombs were an inherently Christian form of burial.1 Instead, catacombs and other hypogea emerge as pragmatic burial structures that were commissioned and used by various groups, ranging from families, private associations, and potentially commercial developers to aristocratic, imperial, and Christian patrons. The fifth chapter deals with the continued use and modification of tombs during the third century. The author questions the dismissive assumptions that guide the interpretation of re-use, but acknowledges that necessities sometimes constrained available choices. The main thesis is that burials and tombs were respected as sacred and any re-use or destruction to make room for more burials or for newly built monuments must have been officially sanctioned.

Chapter six presents a comprehensive reinterpretation of the imagery on third century sarcophagi. It counters previous views that interpret the gradual disappearance of mythological narratives as a sign of decline and instead proposes that the concurrent increasing isolation of the mythical protagonists is a celebration of the deceased. The same is evident in images from the life of the deceased that signal a desire to showcase concrete status symbols and virtues and associate them with the deceased who are now represented with portraits. Chapter 7 places the sarcophagi of the previous chapter back in their original context in order to assess their visibility and relationship to the surrounding decoration. A basic distinction is drawn between sarcophagi as “primary features” (i. e. part of the original design) and as “secondary features” (i. e. not anticipated, either at all or in the magnitude in which it was eventually carried out). It is not clear to me that this distinction strictly holds true, nor is its significance clarified. However, the conclusion is sensible: there was a range of attitudes towards the display of sarcophagi, and even sarcophagi with standardized decoration or those that were visible only temporarily (for example, to display the body of the deceased) were consciously used to convey a message. Chapter 8 presents the painted decoration of third century tombs, focusing on a number of case studies. One of the main conclusions is that both Christian and non-Christian imagery communicate similar concepts. The concluding chapter 9 presents the main argument that characterizes the third century as a vibrant time period. Overall, the emphasis is on continuity (e. g. of iconographic conventions, of associations, etc.), but the peculiarities of the third century (e. g. space restrictions, increased circulation of biblical references, economic challenges) are highlighted as well.

The apparatus includes an extensive bibliography with well over 600 entries and an index that is subdivided into a directory of (ancient) personal names and a register of general terms.

The greatest strength of the book is undoubtedly its critical reassessment that challenges one-dimensional interpretations of the past and invariably replaces them with much more nuanced historical reconstructions that account for the complexity of the evidence. For example, the author’s caution regarding the attribution of burials, imagery, and inscriptions to Christian patrons is surely justified and replaces the simple Christian/non-Christian dichotomy with a scenario in which patrons of various religious backgrounds drew on similar iconographic references. Another major benefit of the book is that it compiles and synthesizes a massive amount of archaeological data from publications that are typically written in languages other than English and otherwise difficult to obtain outside of major research libraries. This is complemented by 140 superb black and white images and ten color plates that illustrate the major cemeteries and individual tomb monuments through maps and the most famous sarcophagi and tomb interiors through clear photographs, line drawings, and lithographs. The book does not only cover an ambitiously extensive range of questions and evidence, but this is apparently only the beginning since a closely related monograph on funerary commemoration in the second century CE is currently “in preparation” (xix, 281) and numerous other follow-up projects are announced throughout (e. g. 48, n. 36; 80; 132, n. 47; 146, n. 110; 161; 170, n. 51; 177; 177, n. 76; 205, n. 205; 237, n. 111).

The sheer amount of information covered in this book creates the dilemma of how to organize the argument. Most chapters contain lengthy sequences in which individual monuments, objects, or scenes are described, which works well for readers interested in the minutiae of dating and interpreting concrete remains. It also makes it difficult to track the major historical claims of the book, which may be frustrating to those who are interested in this book for its reinterpretation of the time period. For this reason, it is sensible that the author included conclusions at the end of each chapter that are clearly separated from the technical discussion through subheadings. Another challenge related to organization is that discussions of the same context are often spread over various chapters in the book, which covers the architectural setup, ownership structure, sarcophagi and interior decoration separately. For example, Mausoleum Phi is discussed in three different chapters (p. 11, 135, and 222, similarly Isola Sacra tomb 34: p. 23, 155, 232), which neatly integrates the evidence with the subjects of those chapters but complicates an appreciation of specific contexts and results in a fair amount of repetition.

The argument itself is convincing but a book that ambitiously challenges the status quo will inevitably also provide grounds for disagreement. My own points of disagreement are minor and they do not undermine the overall argument. For example, there are some ghosts of older scholarship that have been treated more critically elsewhere, such as the determination of legal status through single names, Greek cognomina, or “good Roman names” (32). A second example relates to sarcophagi with multiple portraits. The author’s suggestion that these probably held multiple burials is plausible, but there is probably no systematic correlation that would allow inferences about the number of burials based on the imagery (as implied on pp. 203-206). In several cases, there is a discrepancy between imagery and inscriptions (203-4) or imagery and human remains (231-2). The author’s way out of this dilemma is the reasonable suggestion that text and image are complementary (perhaps following a similar proposal by Feraudi-Gruénais 2 which is not cited, however), but that does not answer the question of how portraits and inscriptions relate to actual burials. A final example relates to early imperial columbarium tombs: contrary to the author’s assertion (95) the location of inscriptions inside the columbaria of Livia and of the Statilii has not been documented and the claims made about the order in which people were buried (or rather the lack thereof) are unsupported by evidence. In table 3, “Columbarium Vigna Codini I” (92) is incorrectly attributed to the familia Marcellae and the date of 10 CE in the footnote suggests that the intended reference is to Vigna Codini II. In the same table, “Columbarium Vigna Codini II” should then be Vigna Codini I and cannot be attributed to a “voluntary association” (92). This is problematic because the latter tomb is the only example of a “voluntary association” and its alleged population size is contrasted with that of burial complexes related to imperial slaves and freedmen.

Typographical errors are mostly harmless (e. g. “nimeteenth” (72), “heads” (186) instead of head), but some could affect understanding (e. g. “pls 4a-6” (103) instead of 4a-b, “see below pp. 124-5” (128, n. 34) instead of 224-5, “pp. 286-88” (205, n. 209) instead of 186-8, “above p. 90” (223, n. 44) instead of 101, “fig. 18” (159) and “fig. 3” (181) which refer to the wrong image). Some of the reproduced plans are missing scales (fig. 4, 15, 16, 18, 81) or north arrows (fig. 1, 4, 13, 15, 16, 18, 27, 74, 81, 85, but cf. p. 128, n. 28), but the new plans that the author provides to isolate the earliest nuclei of hypogea are quite clear and instructive.


1.   É. Rebillard, The Care of the Dead in Late Antiquity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), J. Bodel: “From columbaria to catacombs: collective burial in pagan and Christian Rome,” in L. Brink, D. Greens (eds.) Commemorating the Dead: Texts and Artifacts in Context: Studies of Roman, Jewish, and Christian Burials (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2008) 177-242.
2.   F. Feraudi-Gruénais, “Grabinschriften im archäologischen Kontext. Komplementarität von Schrift und Bild?,” in M. Heinzelmann, J. Ortalli, P. Fasold, and M. Witteyer (eds.) Römischer Bestattungsbrauch und Beigabensitten in Rom, Norditalien und den Nordwestprovinzen von der späten Republik bis in die Kaiserzeit (Wiesbaden, Germany: Reichert) 203-13.

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