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Part IX: Cities of the Dead

In this video, Dr Matthew Nicholls explains how the deceased were remembered by tombs and funerary inscriptions in ancient Rome.
We’ve encountered Rome as a living city of a million people going about their daily business. But around the core of this living city stretched cities of the dead, tombs jostling for position, trying to catch the eye along the major roads leading in and out of the city. And the tomb behind me is a particularly interesting one, the biggest tomb in the Roman world, the resting place of the first emperor Augustus.
This huge tomb, like many tombs in the ancient world, stood alongside a busy road, the Via Flaminia, the main road into Rome from the north. So lots of people would have seen it. And in its scale, its opulence, its magnificence, this tomb is doing something new and different. It’s making a claim of permanence, of dynasty, of longevity. Remember, that it was built very early in Emperor Augustus’ reign from 28 BC, and he carried on reigning until AD 14. So for all of those decades, this tomb was standing there saying when he’s gone, his dynasty and his name will live on forever as a permanent part of the city’s landscape.
And when you look at the architecture of the tomb, you can see how it made that claim. It might look a little bit dingy now behind this railing, but when it was new, the drum of the tomb towered up to about 150 feet in the air. It was clad in brilliant white travertine stone. On the top it had a gleaming bronze statue of the emperor that would have caught the eye in the sunlight from miles away. And a Greek writer called Strabo, who saw it around 7 BC, tells us that it was clad also in trees rising up the cone of the drum of the tomb, much as the modern planting tries to recreate.
And a tomb of this scale, this, size, this design might be modelled on other important royal tombs from the ancient world like the tomb, in fact, of Alexander the Great in Alexandria in Egypt. So it was making a real boast of royal power, dynasty, commemoration, and the same writer Strabo tells us that around and about the tomb here, and what was at that part of Rome was an open parkland full of trees and groves. So he tells us it was an open area where people could come and stroll about and see the tomb. So it was very much part of a commemorative parkland on the edge of the city.
Other emperors also built tombs. Across the river from Augustus’ Mausoleum is Hadrian’s great circular tomb, mirroring it and carefully not exceeding it in size. It’s now the Papal Fortress, the Castel Sant’Angelo. And successive generations of later emperors were buried there. Something that seems to have unified people’s beliefs, rich and poor, is that being remembered by the living is fundamentally important for the dead. You want people to know who you were, what trade or profession you pursued, how old you were. So if you can, you put that information into an inscription on your tomb.
So as you approach the city or leave it, you’re passing through these miles and miles of tombs that stretch onto the roads into and out of Rome. And they want to tell you something about themselves through text. So what do we learn from funerary inscriptions? Well, the one thing we don’t learn from funerary inscriptions is what actually happened. We tend to look at inscriptions as historical documents. And because they’re monumental, many of them in stone or executed in metal, they seem to have an air of trustworthiness that comes with them. They’re so old. They’re so venerable. They haven’t changed over 2000 years unless they got physically damaged. So we are inclined to trust them, but we shouldn’t.
Very much, like you just said, they tell us what these people wanted us to tell. So we’re talking about texts and objects that communicate how people wanted to be remembered. If we talk about the funerary sphere for example, we’re talking about texts that belong to, that communicate self-representation. Texts that create an image of someone, how they wanted to be remembered or more likely how their relatives or friends or family wanted them to be remembered, and that’s an important difference. So quite often these tombstones tell us a bit more than a modern tombstone might do where we might just expect dates and ‘dearly beloved husband’.
Quite often they seem to want to go into detail about who these people were in life. They are often trying to come up with something that is special, and if they have nothing to say about themselves, it might still be a sentiment, an expression that tells us something about how they might have thought about life and death in general and tried to give you some advice or something to think about. And unlike very many of, in fact, the majority of modern tombstones, many of these texts would be prepared to say something outrageous.
So what we have here is a tombstone of an ordinary person, a person of no great status. In fact, a child of twelve years old, and it’s tombstones like this with their simple inscriptions that we find in their thousands from Rome, and cities around the Roman empire. And the information on them tells us quite a lot about the ordinary people, the everyday folk. Here, for example, small as the stone is, we see quite a lot of information packed into it. It starts with DM. That stands for Dis Manibus or ‘to the spirits of the departed’. And is a totally standard Roman formula at the top of this tombstone, a bit perhaps like our RIP.
And then we have her name Domitia Eucarpia, so that’s who’s buried here. And it tells us that she lived VIX [it] AN [nos] XII, she lived for 12 years. So this is a girl cut off just before her adolescence. And the next names are her parents. Domitius Eucarpus, that’s a man’s name, very like the girl’s name. That’s her father, Domitius Evcarpus. And then lady’s name, ‘ET and Domitia Chresime, Domitia Chresime her mother. And we’re told that these are the PARENTES, the parents, and what have they done? FECERUNT, they have made, this tombstone for poor Domitia Eucarpia. So these poor people, erected this simple grave marker for their girl of twelve.
And it’s tombstones like this, simple as it is, that gave us huge amounts of information for the names and ages and deaths of people around the city.

Being remembered by the living was fundamentally important to the dead, and tombs were an important commemorative gesture for both the rich and the everyday people of ancient Rome.

Rome is home to huge mausoleums built by emperors such as Augustus, keen to cement their dynasty and legacy in the landscape of the city. But on a smaller scale, as you approach the city you pass miles and miles of tombs of ordinary Romans.

I discuss these tombs in more detail with Professor Peter Kruschwitz, who adds a note of caution about interpreting what inscriptions can tell us about the past. We’ll explore some of these inscriptions in closer detail in the next Step.

As you watch the video, you may like to think about the following:

  • Why do you think the tomb for Augustus was built before he died?

  • What would have travellers to Rome have thought as they passed miles upon miles of tombs on the roads leading into the city?

Share your thoughts in the discussion area below.

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