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Crisis and Ambition: Tombs and Burial Customs in Third-Century CE Rome

Crisis and Ambition: Tombs and Burial Customs in Third-Century CE Rome

By Barbara E. Borg (Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representation). Pp. xx + 308, figs. 140, color pls. 10, tables 3. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013. $185. ISBN 978-0-19-967273-8 (cloth).

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The great achievement of Borg’s new book is its exclusive focus on the third century C.E. as “an exciting period of experiment, novelty, and creativity” (7). In a contextual approach, burial customs in Rome and its harbor cities Ostia and Portus are reevaluated. After an introduction (ch. 1) that mainly addresses methodological problems (esp. dating), the book is divided into two parts: chapters 2–5 discuss tomb architecture, while chapters 6–8 deal with the furnishing of tombs, especially sarcophagi (chs. 6, 7) and interior decoration (ch. 8). Chapter 9 summarizes the book’s general conclusions.

Chapters 2 and 3 discuss, respectively, “Traditional Cemeteries and Tombs” and “Innovation and New Designs.” Borg notes a continuous building activity throughout the third century and makes out two trends: freestanding monuments aboveground, such as sarcophagi on high pedestals, and temple tombs and cruciform mausolea, whose conventional later dating she challenges. Chapter 4 treats “Underground Tombs,” beginning with smaller family hypogea. The chapter’s main focus is on catacombs, whose Christian or pagan origin Borg rediscusses, establishing a set of criteria for its identification. In chapter 5, Borg investigates the “Long-Term Use and Re-Use” of some well-documented tombs. She assumes that the long-term use of tombs was actually the ideal, following the example of senatorial sepulcra gentilicia.

Chapter 6 (“Sarcophagi”) analyzes certain mythological narratives, focusing on coffins with portraits, and treats multiple burials. Chapter 7 discusses “Sarcophagi in Context.” A main focus are sarcophagi hidden from view underground or encased inside the tomb. Borg differentiates between sarcophagi that were completely inaccessible after the burial, probably as a means of protection, and those whose lids remained visible and removable aboveground, for which she finds no satisfactory explanation. She further suggests that the corpse may have been displayed on top of the coffin during the funeral—a very interesting explanation for the flat lids of third-century sarcophagi. Chapter 8 (“Interior Decoration”) reevaluates the conventional Christian interpretations of some tombs’ interior decoration, concluding that Christians and non-Christians drew on the same visual and narrative repertoire and “shared some fundamental ideas of what constitutes a good life on earth, and a desirable existence after death” (243), especially the locus amoenus and somnus aeternus. Borg does not link the wish for everlasting quiet to the invisible sarcophagi, though (cf. K. Meinecke, “Invisible Sarcophagi,” in S. Birk and B. Poulsen, eds., Patrons and Viewers in Late Antiquity [Aarhus 2012] 101).

Throughout the book, Borg notes several general tendencies in third-century burial customs: one is a lack of space in the necropoleis, which resulted in tombs being built smaller than in earlier centuries and perhaps also in an increase of underground burial chambers. Another recurring point are parallels to first-century C.E. columbaria. For example, Borg proposes that non-Christian catacombs replaced the columbaria, as they perhaps were primarily created for slaves and freedmen of the imperial house or for collegia. A third observation is the increasing focus on the individual. Sarcophagi on pedestals or those larger in size were meant to secure permanent visibility without respecting pre-existing burials or interior decoration—a phenomenon I have labeled a “loss of piety” (K. Meinecke, Sarcophagum posuit: Römische Steinsarkophage im Kontext [Ruhpolding 2014] 96, 142–43, 148). In sarcophagus iconography, Borg notes a shift from the dramatic loss to the praise of individual qualities and self-representation, a topic already discussed by Russenberger (“Pathos und Repräsentation,” in S. Faust and F. Leitmeir, eds., Repräsentationsformen in severischer Zeit [Berlin 2011] 146–78), not quoted by Borg. The images on the sarcophagi may have illustrated the praise of the deceased in funerary speeches, whose delivery Borg convincingly proposes as an occasion when the (later perhaps invisible) sarcophagus could be presented. Her observations on sarcophagus iconography nicely complement the conclusions reached by Birk in her studies on portraits on sarcophagi (most recently Depicting the Dead: Self-Representation and Commemoration on Roman Sarcophagi with Portraits [Aarhus 2013]), again not quoted by Borg.

Unfortunately, many of Borg’s conclusions derive from rather speculative hypotheses. Smaller inaccuracies, which may lead to distorted results, include her assumptions that the open-air display of sarcophagi was much more common than is attested by preserved or documented examples or that multiple burials were frequent in sarcophagi, although—as Borg herself admits in a footnote—the amount of sarcophagi containing several bodies is rather small, as the evaluation of skeletal remains shows (Meinecke [2014] 121–25, 374–77, table 8). Other problematic interpretations include a tomb near Porta Capena with a sarcophagus set up by the senator M. Sempronius Proculus for his daughter, which Borg links to the famous republican family of the Sempronii and declares a continuously used, “well documented [example] of sepulcra gentilicia” (131), disregarding the fact that a titulus inscription for a family of Aelii was found in the older burial chamber of the complex (E. Brizio, “Scoperte nella vigna Casali,” BdI [1873] 12–13). Similarly doubtful is that the collegium, which took over the older so-called Tomb of the Pancratii on Via Latina, valued the possible aristocratic background of the tomb, whose highly speculative attribution to C. (not P. [146–47]) Valerius Paullinus by Coarelli (“L’urbs e il suburbia,” in A. Giardina, ed., Società romana e impero tardoantico. Vol. 2, Roma, politica, economia, paesaggio urbano [Bari 1986] 47–8) Borg accepts as a matter of fact. Regardless of whether this attribution is true, Borg’s interpretation totally ignores that the burial chamber of the tomb’s founder was probably inaccessible when the Pancratii owned the tomb in the third century, as older sarcophagi were haphazardly disposed inside (L. Fortunati, Relazione generale degli scavi e scoperte fatte lungo la Via Latina, dall’ ottobre 1857 all’ ottobre 1858 [Rome 1859] 56–7, 59).

Each chapter begins with lengthy descriptions of tombs or sarcophagi, without explaining according to which criteria the monuments were chosen. Some monuments are treated in several chapters, leading to a lot of repetition. A separate catalogue and a focus on the analysis of the collected data in the text would have been an advantage. Borg’s effort to synthesize previous literature must be emphasized, though part of the literature she used is somewhat outdated, and she could not yet include more recent research. In addition, the study omits more simple cemeteries, which may have added to the overall picture of the century. Joined together, this book and other recent studies create a vivid picture of third-century burial customs. The book is thus especially recommended as a supplement for scholars of Roman funerary culture interested in alternative interpretations of known monuments and phenomena of the third century, which are worth considering, yet await more proof.

Katharina Meinecke
University of Vienna
Institute for Classical Archaeology

Book Review of Crisis and Ambition: Tombs and Burial Customs in Third-Century CE Rome, by Barbara E. Borg

Reviewed by Katharina Meinecke

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 1 (January 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1201.Meinecke

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