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The Roman Imperial Mausoleum in Late Antiquity

The Roman Imperial Mausoleum in Late Antiquity

By Mark J. Johnson. Pp. xxxii + 296, figs. 78, plans 46, maps 4. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2009. $95. ISBN 978-0-521-51371-5 (cloth).


Mark Johnson's book offers a valuable and up-to-date survey of extant and otherwise attested Roman imperial mausolea from Augustus to Honorius. The monuments at the heart of the project—the mausolea of the Tetrarchs and of the first generations of Christian emperors—have most often been studied individually, as products of particular reigns. Johnson is surely right to draw attention to the value of studying them as a group, for together they make up a rich corpus for comparative and diachronic analysis. The book concentrates primarily on tracing formal and symbolic connections that the third- to fifth-century C.E. buildings forged to earlier imperial funerary monuments. Though it stops short of working through other pertinent lines of inquiry (regarding, e.g., viewer reception, relationships to representations of the deceased in other buildings and media, or comparisons with contemporary, non-imperial forms of funerary commemoration), the study presents a valuable resource for other scholars who may wish to pursue such questions further.

Organized chronologically, the book offers cogent, succinct summaries of each building reviewed and deftly outlines relevant debates over possible architectural reconstructions. The structures included in Johnson's survey are frequently controversial in date, patron, plan, decoration, or any or all of the above. While some readers may remain unconvinced by certain of his choices—for example, the identification of Sant'Aquilino in Milan as an imperial tomb probably built for Gratian; the identification of the circular, domed room within the villa at Centcelles in Spain as the mausoleum of Constans; and his rejection of the Rotunda of Thessaloniki as neither the actual nor planned site of Galerius' tomb—Johnson nevertheless presents his justifications clearly and acknowledges alternative positions for each of his selections.

Johnson situates the third- to fifth-century monuments within the larger trajectory of imperial mausolea beginning with Augustus. Reviewing this background enables the author to highlight some key aspects of continuity between later and earlier emperors' building practices, as well as to articulate some sharp and significant breaks. The main observations Johnson derives from his survey are as follows: (1) designers of imperial mausolea overwhelmingly used centralized plans, with the large tumuli of the earlier empire (e.g., the mausolea of Augustus and Hadrian) giving way to a preference for smaller circular or polygonal forms; (2) with this shift came increased emphasis on the structures' interiors, which, in the Christian cases, was coupled with new attention to providing for illumination; (3) a key design reference for several later mausolea came not from the funerary realm but from temple architecture, namely the Pantheon; (4) unlike the independent funerary complexes of the early empire, those of the later empire were usually associated with sites of imperial residence (or, in the case of Christian emperors, with churches); and (5) with the third-century antecedent of the Mausoleum of Gallienus, the Tetrarchic period is seen as the main watershed for each of these design transformations.

Some broader religious issues are raised in a short, interpretative chapter, "Sepulcra Divorum: Symbolism and Cult Practices," which follows the three monument survey chapters. Here, Johnson offers a number of provocative suggestions. For example, the author encourages us to read the cult surrounding certain deceased Christian imperial figures in light of preexisting concepts of apotheosis and heroa. It is difficult to disagree with such suggestions on the broadest level, though in their execution, the discussion of such complex and historically shifting concepts as the divinity of the emperor, the precise valence of cultic honors rendered to him at his tomb and elsewhere, and the religious significance of specific elements such as crypts remains underdeveloped. One wishes that more had been made of the opportunity to bring analysis of the Late Antique monuments to bear on a series of critical issues raised in recent scholarship regarding funerary commemoration, imperial cult, and Christian appropriation of pagan architectural and decorative forms. The chapter, for example, skirts the thorny question of just how the divinity of the emperor was understood in comparison with other deified spirits of the dead (dii manes) and to the immortal gods of the Roman pantheon, so productively analyzed, for example, by Gradel (Emperor Worship and Roman Religion [Oxford 2002]). Similarly, it would have been expected and desirable for the study to have responded more directly to the interpretations posed by Davies (Death and the Emperor: Roman Imperial Funerary Monuments from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius [Cambridge 2000]). For example, Johnson's project could have profited from addressing Davies' ideas about the social and political dimensions of imperial tombs, including the role of cosmic allusions to facilitate messages of dynastic succession and the manipulation of visitors' physical access in order to shape memory of the deceased.

The material Johnson examines in this book offers rich fodder for future investigation. Among the potentially productive questions to be taken up are: What are the implications of a consciously evoked "imperial style" in funerary architecture, and what happens when elements of it are found in non-imperial tombs? What roles do the tombs play within larger frameworks of imperial ideology and image crafting? How do we understand the use and access to the different spaces of the monuments, given the communication or lack thereof between them? And similarly, how do we read the imperial graves in light of other tombs, frequently found in or associated with the very same monuments, such as the at least 17 burials in the space beneath the pronaos and stairs of the mausoleum known as the Tor de' Schiavi (95) or the graves of non-imperial Christians set into the floor of St. Peter's that predated the construction of Honorius' mausoleum against the south transept arm?

All in all, Johnson's book admirably achieves what it sets out to do, "to provide a basic study of this group of buildings, a study that includes an introduction to each monument, summarizes the current state of knowledge, and reviews controversial issues to offer new insights" (1). Though the monuments present a number of as-yet unresolved questions, this accessible and informative study should be the first stop for scholars and students interested in pursuing further analysis of Late Roman imperial funerary monuments.

Ann Marie Yasin
Departments of Classics and Art History
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California 90089

Book Review of The Roman Imperial Mausoleum in Late Antiquity, by Mark J. Johnson

Reviewed by Ann Marie Yasin

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 2 (April 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1152.Yasin

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