BMCR 2004.06.47

The Licinian Tomb. Fact or Fiction? Meddelelser fra Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek 5

, , , The Licinian tomb : fact or fiction?. Meddelelser fra Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek ; ny serie nr. 5. Copenhagen: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, 2003. 158 pages, 39 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 28 cm.. ISBN 8774522663.

For more than a century the Tomb of the Licinii has decorated topographical maps of ancient Rome and been linked with some of the finest sculptures ever found in Rome. Because it was discovered at the height of the construction boom after Rome became capital of Italy in 1870, the tomb was never properly excavated or documented. Even worse, its contents were not secured and there are many allegations of theft. (As no law in Italy at the time prohibited the export of antiquities, some of the tomb contents were legitimately sold to two foreign collectors, Carl Jacobsen in Copenhagen and Henry Walters in Baltimore.) In this provocative new study, a team of Danish scholars connected to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, now home to Jacobsen’s statues, explores the many unresolved questions regarding the tomb. They conclude that the Tomb of the Licinii as we have reconstructed it is a fiction. Coincidentally, however, another scholar who works essentially with the same material and archival evidence, argues the opposite view.1 Alas, these contradictory conclusions serve to illustrate how intractable the problem of the tomb remains today — nineteenth-century haste, greed, and possibly, fraud have doomed our ever attaining a full understanding of the Licinian burials.

The authors begin with a brief history of the site and the tomb’s discovery. As various contemporary accounts attest, an underground chamber with funerary altars was found in late 1884 during the course of building on land that had once belonged to the Bonapartes; the property lay within the Aurelian Wall, in the city’s north-eastern sector between the Porta Salaria (now Piazza Fiume) and Porta Pia. Within several months two additional chambers containing marble sarcophagi were uncovered. While some of these sarcophagi rank among the superlative examples of the genre,2 it was the altars that aroused interest due to their historical associations: one belonged to M. Licinius Crassus Frugi, consul in 27 CE and a descendant of the triumvir M. Licinius Crassus; another to his son Cn. Pompeius Magnus, who was related through his mother to Pompey the Great; and a third to a second son, L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinianus, who was named heir and successor by Galba. (His elevation was short-lived, as he was assassinated shortly after Galba acceded to the throne.) As their names indicate, these men claimed descent from some of ancient Rome’s most illustrious Republican families, notably the Crassi, Calpurnii, Licinii, and the Pompeys.

Little about the circumstances of the tomb’s discovery is straightforward or uncontested, however. Even the first reports had discrepancies regarding the description of the chambers and how many sarcophagi stood inside; these discrepancies underscore the chaotic conditions under which the excavations took place. Archival materials testify to confusion regarding the ownership of the tomb finds as well as to their continued disappearance from the building site. Both have implications for any reconstruction of the tomb: theft obviously eradicates evidence but the ownership dispute may also have contributed to the overall loss. One can easily imagine how the aggrieved parties in this dispute — a three-way argument among the contractors erecting the new building, the bank that owned the building, and the Bonapartes who still owned the surrounding land — might have found simple justice by helping themselves to finds. Although some of the altars that had been stolen were subsequently returned, it is today impossible to know with certainty what sculptures actually decorated the tomb. Even if we were to accept all of the 39 works conventionally attributed to the tomb — a mix of altars, sarcophagi, and portraits — we cannot be sure that the number represents the entire original corpus.

The involvement of Wolfgang Helbig in the tomb’s modern afterlife further complicates our assessment. At the time one of the most distinguished archaeologists working in Rome, Helbig today has been dethroned by accusations of forgery in connection with an Etruscan inscription.3 In the Licinian tomb affair he served as agent for Carl Jacobsen, for whom he brokered a deal in 1887 to buy 13 Roman portraits from Count Michel Tyszkiewicz. According to Helbig, the portraits came from the tomb. Can we trust him? Moltesen (pp. 107-8) defends Helbig, using key biographical details to explain the personal animus of his primary accuser, Margherita Guarducci. That the tomb once housed at least several portraits does seem to be corroborated by contemporary sources,4 and the relative portability (and high degree of collectibility) of heads and busts would have made them attractive to the thieves who are said to have been preying on the site.

That said, there are aspects of the nineteenth-century narratives about the tomb that echo the fictions that we know were spun about antiquities in the eighteenth century, when agents and dealers regularly duped credulous buyers on the Grand Tour. In successive reports the three discrete subterranean chambers evolved into the full-fledged “Monumentum” of Rodolfo Lanciani’s Forma Urbis, just as in the previous century finds had been routinely aggrandized in name and function. Indeed one might ask whether the Licinian tomb provided a prestigious, but false provenance in the same way as Hadrian’s Villa or the Villa Negroni in the 1700s. If so, what would be the motive? simply to add cachet or to hide another source, perhaps one being excavated clandestinely? Of course this is speculation, but I raise the issue to counter the tendency of modern commentators to read the archival documents as though they are simple recitations of the truth. One instance of likely editing, for example, appears in a list of sarcophagi published in the Notizie degli Scavi of 1885 (Doc. 8). Ordered chronologically, the sarcophagi are said to be listed according to their actual arrangement in the tomb (p. 57). Such an arrangement seems highly conjectural, if not unlikely, however, in that it presupposes some foreknowledge of the total number of chests to be interred. Because the basic stylistic development of sarcophagi was understood at the time,5 the list could well represent a scholar’s “re-ordering” when making the discovery public.

Much of the authors’ case against the tomb hinges on the archival documents, which they critique as failing to establish connections between the finds and the alleged chambers. In separate essays, Kragelund, Moltesen and Ostergaard chip away at much of the conventional wisdom regarding the tomb. Of the tomb itself — now demolished but recorded in drawings and descriptions — the authors note the discrepant levels of the three different chambers and question whether they actually constituted the same tomb; in their view, the single, multi-room tomb as shown on the Forma Urbis represents an unfounded joining of what were perhaps three disparate spaces. Once the chambers are divorced from one another, we lose the justification for associating the sarcophagi from the second and third chambers with the Licinii, because the family is documented with certainty only on the altars from the first. Ostergaard also argues that the seven altars could not have fit in chamber 1; he concludes that the chamber was a secondary depot. Although his spatial arguments are refuted by Frances van Keuren,6 his point about the chamber’s modest decoration being unsuitable for a tomb of so noble a family as the Licinii carries weight.

On the question of the portraits, linked to the tomb primarily by hearsay, the authors are more lenient. Following Dietrich Boschung, they identify the older Republican man whose “Licinian” portrait (Cat. 26) is known in multiple replicas as the family’s most celebrated ancestor, M. Licinius Crassus, co-consul in 70 BCE and a member of the first triumvirate. Others are identified as M. Licinius Crassus Frugi Pontifex (Cat. 39) and Claudia Antonia, daughter of the emperor Claudius and wife of Cn. Pompeius Magnus (Cat. 31). The portraits of Pompey the Great himself (Cat. 24) and his daughter Pompeia (Cat. 33) gave lasting evocation of the family’s prestigious marital alliances.7

Through a meticulous formal analysis, Boschung has already established the close connections among many of the Tyskiewicz portraits attributed by Helbig to the Licinii. Similarly, the altars can be divided into two groups on the basis of their condition and the sarcophagi into two groups along formal and chronological lines. Unquestionably, many of these marbles belonged together, and we know that at least some of them came from this topographical area (see Figure 9) and that the Licinii possessed property here (p. 21). This study raises serious questions about whether the marbles all belonged to a single tomb and to a tomb that comprised the three chambers found in the Villa Bonaparte between 1884 and 1885. What is a fiction is not the existence of one or more tombs of the Licinii in the Villa, however, but the monument as modern scholars have reconstructed it.

In view of the lack of appropriate parallels, arguments regarding the tomb’s authenticity are virtually all internal. As the authors note (p. 102), “no altars set up for an early imperial Roman family of such eminence as the Licinii Crassi have ever been found in their original context.” Likewise the evidence for portraits combined with sarcophagi in a tomb display is limited: outside of Rome, a second-century tomb near Cologne housed examples of each, while in Rome itself the Tomb of the Sulpicii Platorini contained urns and sarcophagi and the Tomb of the Scipios sarcophagi and portraits.8 Spanning at least four generations, the burials in the Tomb of the Scipios demonstrate that the longevity of the putative Licinian Tomb, whose altars and sculptures range in date over more than two centuries, was not impossible. Like the Scipios, the Licinii could boast an illustrious genealogy and historical prominence. In a chapter at times emotionally moving, Kragelund connects the damage inflicted upon some of the altars to political repercussions against a family regarded as a threat to the emperor. Humble as they are artistically, these damaged altars speak volumes about the court intrigues and political dangers of Rome’s old aristocratic families under the Empire.

Because the book has multiple authors and devotes separate chapters to the various genres of monuments, there are inevitably a number of repetitions in the narrative. Another drawback is lack of an index. Technically, however, the book is beautifully produced. The generously-sized photographs, printed against an inky black ground, superbly evoke the range of textures and details of the marbles.


1. F. van Keuren, “Unpublished documents shed new light on the Licinian Tomb, discovered in 1884-1885, Rome,” MAAR 48 (2003) 53-139.

2. In particular those depicting Victory, the Triumph of Dionysus, and Dionysus and Ariade, now in the Walters Art Museum (here Cat. nos. 21, 22, and 23).

3. The sensational accusations of M. Guarducci, La cosidetta Fibula Prenestina. Antiquari, eruditi e falsari nella Roma dell’Ottocento. RendLinc 1980 have been endorsed by A. Gordon in a review in ClJ 78 (1982) 644-70.

4. Moltesen cites several documents (p. 81) but oddly omits a list of stolen works, including portraits, dated 16 November 1885 and sent by the Banca Italiana to the Ministry of Culture (van Keuren, above n. 1, App. 12 and fig. 9). Nor does it appear in the chapter devoted to documents (Chapter 9, pp. 116-25).

5. On nineteenth-century discussions of sarcophagi see G. Koch and H. Sichtermann, Römische Sarkophage (Munich 1982) 11.

6. Van Keuren convincingly refutes this by her plan of figure 3; she postulates the altars’ location against the walls rather than free-standing and so finds adequate space

7. Figure 7 reproduces a useful genealogical tree.

8. Tomb in Cologne: Römer am Rhein (Cologne 1967) 106-7; J. Deckers and P. Noelke, Die römische Grabkammer in Kölnweiden (Cologne 1980). Tomb of the Platorini: Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae 4 (Rome 1999) 275-76 (F. Silvestrini). Tomb of the Scipios: F. Coarelli, Il sepolcro degli Scipioni a Roma (Rome 1988) and Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae 4, 281-85 (F. Zevi).