BMCR 2020.10.34

Roman tombs and the art of commemoration: contextual approaches to funerary customs in the second century CE

, Roman tombs and the art of commemoration: contextual approaches to funerary customs in the second century CE. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xxviii, 341. ISBN 9781108472838 $120.00.


As Barbara Borg notes in the opening line of the volume under review, “[t]ombs are among the best-studied remains of the Roman world” (p.xv). What is at once surprising and satisfying about Borg’s examination of this well researched topic — based on her 2015 Carl Newell Jackson Lectures at the Department of Classics at Harvard University — is her ability to identify the theoretical and methodological fault lines that run through the claims made in the often extensive scholarship about the form and function of second-century CE tombs in the city of Rome and the harbour towns of Ostia and Portus. As felicitously, she is not only able to explain where learned consensus in relation to customary practices during this historical period may have been established on sometimes shaky ground, but also to offer revised or new interpretations of material and written evidence, both very familiar and excitingly fresh. Throughout, Borg’s study is direct, highly lucid, and firmly based on a comparative study of metropolitan funerary monuments, a contextualized approach to Roman commemorative practices, and a critical openness to the possibility of distinctions in ideology and practice between different social classes in Roman society.

Chapter One (“In Search of Deceased Senators,” pp.1-76) examines tombs and burial customs of the first two orders in Roman society. While at first glance this might appear to be a matter of rehearsing the available source material and related historical research, it quickly becomes apparent that Borg has identified a topic to which the surviving literary evidence fails to give any significant attention and modern scholarship has eschewed in large part in favour of the funerary milieu of wealthy freedmen and their descendants and, especially over the last few decades, the burials of the urban poor. To counter the prevalent view that there is simply insufficient evidence to support any useful body of knowledge about post-Claudian senatorial tombs and commemorative practices, Borg assembles a collection of pertinent information not previously studied solely on the basis of its relatively poor preservation. Beyond the traditional references to a limited corpus of funerary inscriptions, this evidentiary sample includes inter alia a free-standing altar on a tall podium honouring M. Antonius Antius Lupus as well as the tombs of C. Valerius Paullinus (cos. 107), usually referred to as the Tomba dei Pancratii, Herodes Atticus (cos. 143), M. Nonius Macrinus (cos. suff. 154); and P. Cluvius Maximus Paullinus.

Following on from this initial presentation of the relevant archaeological and epigraphic evidence, Borg then overlays a carefully considered analytical grid (tomb location and monumental decoration) by which to approach two related, if conceptually opposed, questions: does the comparatively poorly attested evidence for later senatorial tombs reflect a change from conspicuously public commemorative practice (along the major metropolitan extramural roads) to the construction of intentionally private funerary monuments (adjacent to periurban and regional villas)? Conversely, in the absence of sufficient well preserved second-century CE senatorial tombs with which to test the continuing expression of elite competition through visible monumental display, is it reasonable to substitute any gaps in our knowledge of burial practices with the markedly large corpus of examples from wealthy sub-elite tombs? Having amassed a portfolio of evidence for senatorial tombs erected during the second century CE, Borg dispenses with the opening element of both questions. She then proceeds to chart the location of these monuments, determining that, whether near to or at a greater distance from the Imperial city, the remains of these tombs faced one of Rome’s major roads or were built within line of sight of those passing by. Similarly, she identifies the materials of tomb construction and thematic motifs common to the exterior and interior decoration of the monuments, which reveals that, whether of marble, brick, or a melange of materials, the remains of second-century CE senatorial tombs reflect the same kind of ostentatious exteriority very much on display in the highly ornate and ambitious elite mausolea of the Julio-Claudian and immediate post-Claudian periods; and, when compared with the formal inscriptions, interior decoration and design of altars and sarcophagi, second-century CE senatorial tombs explicitly mirror the underlying principles of elite Republican competition (ancestral lineage and family reputation, public offices and honours, and the virtues of piety and generosity).

Chapter Two (“Reviving Tradition in Hadrianic Rome: From Incineration to Inhumation,” pp. 77-122) explores the change in the method of bodily disposal after death supposedly adopted throughout elite Roman society during the second century CE — from a widespread preference for interment in ollae or cinerary urns to burial of the deceased in marble or terracotta sarcophagi or arcosolia, whether in niches or shaft graves. As part of this study, Borg tests the validity of the primary reasons advocated as informing this widespread transformation of burial practice (religious and/or cultural changes arising from Greek intellectual models, or a pervasive change of fashion) and the variety of monumental and associated commemorative adjustments adhering to such change (tomb typology and decoration, adoption and use of sarcophagi sporting mythological motifs). Given the plethora of possible social and cultural drivers for such a significant shift in practice on such a scale, not to mention the paucity of evidence for any related changes in decorative schemes on the designated receptacles for bodily remains, Borg dismisses the explanatory value of religious and socio-cultural hypotheses.

To reconsider this apparent upheaval in funerary practice, then, Borg examines the evidence for inhumation in the poorest and wealthiest sectors of Roman society over the first and second centuries CE, revealing a gradual pattern from adoption and spread of, to extended participation in, the practice of inhumation across all classes. Adducing a range of written and archaeological evidence, she places the final nail in the argument for philhellenic influence as a determinative factor, noting: that the social elite and wealthiest Imperial freedmen continued to choose inhumation even when cremation was the major practice (the late Republican period and into the first century CE); that sarcophagus burials spread well before the introduction of mythological decoration, as did the continued use of plain or extremely sparsely decorated sarcophagi throughout the second and third centuries CE; and, intriguingly, that it may have been the case that the developing use of inhumation radically accelerated as common practice among Rome’s social elite following its adoption by the emperor Hadrian — not, as has been suggested, under the influence of philhellenic thinking, but rather as a style of burial harking back to “the tradition of the great old Roman gentes, the Romanus mos of the Republic and even the Roman kings” (p. 120).

Chapter Three (“Family Matters: The Long Life of Roman Tombs,” pp. 123-190) outlines a stimulating new thesis in relation to the role of the family in commemorative practice, one which Borg applies not solely to funerary contexts of the second century CE but more broadly to all social classes regardless of the period under consideration. In a nutshell, she argues for a reappraisal of the evidence for the nuclear family as the social unit which determined burial and commemorative practices — a view aligned closely to the preferences of successive generations, a perceived contraction in the relevance of the gens in Roman society, and an increasing sense of individual identity among the lower classes. Borg’s rationale for questioning what has been for many decades now a broad consensus standpoint is threefold: the very different story expressed consistently in the literary sources, the undeniable evidence for widespread polynomic representation in the epigraphic record, and the lack of social advantage adhering to a declaration of personal individuality among the sub-elite classes. Despite the considerable force of formative scholarship arrayed in support of the “nuclear” hypothesis, Borg appeals to methodological reasoning in order to mount her case for contextualizing the limited information provided by funerary tituli in relation to the evidence for tomb use as a multigenerational phenomenon. In other words, it is important to recognize that previous detailed studies of the epigraphic sources represent non-contextualized collections, analyses, interpretations and presentations of data pertaining to the relationship between commemorator and commemorated in epitaphs, and that as a result fail to provide a satisfactory understanding for both the intended and de facto use of a tomb.

This is not to say that Borg denies out of hand the importance of the family as a crucial institution in Roman society. Rather, she demonstrates through close study of elite burials — the Tomb of the Scipios, the Plautii Tumulus, the Tomb of the Licinii and Calpurnii — and sub-elite tombs — from the evidence provided by tituli to the tomb of C. Valerius Herma, the Iulii plot and Consortium Tomb on the Via Appia, Mausoleum F in Vaticano and Mausoleum 75-76 in Isola Sacra — that “the ideal of an extended family and a long family line that preserved a name (in the full range of its significance) did not fade throughout the imperial period” (p. 184). Whether housing deceased family or familia, elite and sub-elite tombs should be understood as commemorating the longevity and dignity of a family and therefore as representing a social process rather than a historical moment in time.

Chapter Four (“Straddling Borderlines: Divine Connotations in Funerary Commemoration,” pp. 191-290) reframes rationalist and ritualist approaches to religious practices and beliefs, confined in large part to literary studies, in relation to Roman funerary art and architecture.To do so, she unpacks at length and in considerable depth evidence for belief in the divinity of human beings (in particular, portraits in divine costume), for the form and function of so-called temple tombs of senators and wealthy freedmen as arising from and imitating temples for the imperial divi and divae (especially the Templum Gentis Flaviae), and for images of apotheosis as reflections of secular status (for example, images of the deceased on an eagle or tombs in the shape of podium temples).

By approaching reliefs, busts and statues that present their subjects in the guise of a god (in formam deorum) or hero without the weight of modern prejudice against the authenticity of rhetorical or genuinely espoused meaning of the divine associations they represent, Borg first explores theomorphic representations of deceased elite, wealthy freed and sub-elite men and women in private houses, public spaces and funerary contexts. She then outlines the case for Roman belief in human divinity by reference to literary and epigraphic texts as well as evidence for cult practice, reaching the preliminary conclusion that portraying deceased human beings in divine costume reflected a distinctively Roman habit; dating to the Republican period and well established in Imperial iconography, it was intended not only to represent a person’s character traits while living as somehow surpassing ordinary human limitations, but also to indicate that, once deceased, the person portrayed in theomorphic form should be acknowledged as having acquired divine status. The final section of this already extended discussion of human divinity in funerary contexts examines the monumental category of the temple tomb, an architectural type associated in particular with the imperial divi and divae, in turn: treating the origins of the tomb, especially in relation to the Templum Gentis Flaviae; surveying a range of examples from the Mausoleum of Priscilla and the Haterii Mausoleum to tombs on the Via Latina, near the Theatre of Marcellus, in Ostia’s Porta Romana necropolis, and the Servilii tombs on Via Latina and Via Tiburtina; and establishing the meaning and significance of the building type in relation to ideas of apotheosis and cult. She concludes with an overview of Roman beliefs relating to apotheosis and the afterlife, leaving the reader to ponder the distinction between “the officially recognised, emphatic divinity of the Roman emperors” on the one hand and the range of achievable acknowledgements for private individuals after death, “from the recognition of specific divine qualities to the accumulation of honours that were typically awarded to gods without turning the honorand fully into a deus or divus” (p. 286).

As Borg observes (p. xxv), this volume is grounded in research conducted over almost ten years – and her detailed references to a wide range of source material (archaeological, artistic, documentary, epigraphic, glyptic, literary and numismatic) as well as the extensive bibliography (pp. 291-334) are proof of her ongoing engagement with the primary evidence for Roman tombs and burial customs during the first three centuries CE and the pertinent collections, reports and interpretative studies. In this regard, Borg’s critical apparatus affords a consistent, critically informed and representative frame underpinning and enhancing her developing topical arguments as well as providing an invaluable source of current evidentiary and scholarly detail for the invested researcher and interested reader alike. In addition to the wealth of information she includes within the covers of her study, Borg’s approach to organization of content by reference to specific research questions is logical and methodical, her description of tombs and related material culture and articulation of often complex conceptual or methodological issues are clear, and the combination of prefatory overview and synthetic chapter-by-chapter conclusions furnishes explanatory touchstones from the outset that draw together the interrelated elements of the book. 94 carefully chosen figures and illustrations, 4 familial stemmata, an index nominum and general index reflect the volume’s structural coherence and the author’s scrupulous attention to detail.