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Columbarium Tombs and Collective Identity in Augustan Rome

April 2017 (121.2)

Book Review

Columbarium Tombs and Collective Identity in Augustan Rome

By Dorian Borbonus. Pp. xvi + 294, figs. 71, tables 17. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2014. $99. ISBN 978-1-107-03140-1 (cloth).

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Beginning in the Roman Imperial period, individuals from a broad social spectrum could afford a decent burial in a built-up tomb and an inscription that perpetuated their memory. In the city of Rome, the bulk of funerary inscriptions commemorated the lives of men, women, and children of modest means and humble social status. From a strictly historical perspective, some of the most interesting tombs in Rome are large, collective burials. These brought together mostly unrelated individuals, who, while they could not afford a mausoleum of their own, could pay for a spot in one. Some of the largest of these tombs are Rome’s columbaria, cavernous subterranean burial chambers, which housed the urns of the deceased in rows of dovecote-shaped niches that came with a short inscription. In these inscriptions, the term columbarium only applies to the niches themselves, which were individually sold or assigned. This raises the question whether the tombs we call columbaria out of archaeological convention were considered a discrete type of burial in antiquity. Nonetheless, Borbonus takes a typological approach toward “columbarium tombs” and turns a category of archaeological classification into one of historical interpretation. He aims at providing the first comprehensive formal and historical study of “closed, collective funerary monuments that deposit cremation in ash urns and niches on their interior walls” (20). To Borbonus, the use of such “formal and descriptive” criteria for defining his subject eliminates the “risk to tailor the definition toward interpretative goals” (19). Yet, his analysis of columbarium tombs is not just shaped by the formal criteria he chooses. It is also rooted in a long-established tradition of studying Roman tombs primarily as a tool of status- and self-representation and as a reflection of the political situation during the time of their construction (see below). Still, Borbonus’ book has put the study of nonelite tombs in Rome on a new footing and makes a valuable contribution to the use of these tombs as a window into Roman social history.

After a short first chapter on the place of columbarium tombs in archaeology and ancient history, Borbonus offers an architectural analysis of columbaria in chapter 2, deals with the use and evolution of columbaria in chapter 3, analyzes columbarium inscriptions in chapter 4, and attempts to find “niches in society” for the occupants of columbaria in chapter 5. A short summary of Borbonus’ main findings and a catalogue of the monuments under discussion conclude the book.

Borbonus makes a lot of the fact that the inscriptions and decor of columbarium tombs face inward, whereas showy Late Republican tombs engaged the public strolling down a “street of tombs” (40–55). This inward-outward dichotomy is based on the trope that elaborate Late Republican tombs reflected the intense social and political competition of the period. There is, undoubtedly, some truth to this. For all their architectural splendor, tombs like that of the Roman bread baron Eurysaces lacked a proper burial chamber and focused on perpetuating the public persona of the deceased. Yet, even under the republic, some tombs not only faced outside. For instance, the elogia from the subterranean family tomb of the Cornelii Scipiones, which Borbonus quotes as an example for the competitiveness of Republican funerary culture (40), were inscribed on sarcophagi, which were only visible to those allowed inside the monument. This suggests that commemoration in senatorial family crypts may have had more in common with columbarium tombs than Borbonus suggests. Still, any comparison between the tomb of the Scipiones and columbarium tombs is historically misleading because they belonged to different lifeworlds. Almost all high-capacity columbarium tombs were used by individuals of modest means and humble social status, those who could not hope to aspire to the wealth of rich freedmen like Eurysaces or the prestige of families like the Scipiones.

One of the strengths of Borbonus’ book is his documentation that large columbarium tombs were used by a wide variety of people from the lower rungs of Roman society. They were built by social clubs that were organized around the domestic staff of senatorial families, such as that of the Statilii (109–12), but also by professional and other associations (12–14, 130–32), and possibly by investors, who provided “open-access columbaria” (122) to anyone who could afford a burial niche. Unsurprisingly, those buried in the tombs of household associations were mostly slaves and freedmen. In all tombs under discussion, 21% of the deceased were commemorated as freedmen, about 5% as slaves, and less than 2% as freeborn. In keeping with the epigraphic habit of Augustan Rome, most funerary inscriptions did not make an effort to clearly distinguish between the freeborn and the freed (119).

The servile background of so many columbarium users may point to why high-capacity columbarium monuments emerged in the first place. Borbonus shows that large collective burials emerged in big, cosmopolitan cities with transient populations, like Alexandria and Rhodes (56–60). In these relatively anonymous urban societies, foreigners and ex-slaves without extended family networks and only modest means joined associations for sociability and support, which included provisions for a decent burial and the cult of the dead. Borbonus is right that these clubs stressed collectivity. This not only applied to the tombs but also to the clubhouses and the sanctuaries they built. While clubhouses and sanctuaries grew in size over the first two centuries C.E., large columbarium tombs were almost exclusively constructed under Augustus. Borbonus argues that this was because Rome’s urban transformation under Augustus inspired “marginalized” groups like slaves and freedmen to participate in the discourses of Romanitas and public dignity by collectively building monumental tombs with official-looking inscriptions (112–16, 136–42). Such tombs would then have decreased in size because later generations opted for more “competitive” forms of funerary commemoration and because senatorial families were politically marginalized under the emperors and no longer cared for supporting a large clientele in Rome (142–46). Both explanations are problematic.

First, Augustan Rome was not defined by a “rigid class structure” (118) that enforced “impenetrable class boundaries” (136), restricting slaves and ex-slaves to expressing their social ambitions to subterranean tombs. Even in Rome, ex-slaves of high economic class like Eurysaces could build monumental tombs that stressed their service to the community as public contractors and apparitores. In terms of wealth and influence, such rich and well-connected freedmen stood above almost all freeborn citizens, not least because their freeborn offspring could aspire to become knights, as did, for instance, Horace. Second, senatorial families under the empire continued to maintain very large households and patronage networks in the city of Rome, even if they may have been less invested in their urban clientele. Also, it is by no means clear that senators ever helped with the construction of large columbarium tombs for the associations of their domestic slaves and freedmen, even under Augustus (51).

Based on Borbonus’ analysis of later and smaller aboveground columbarium tombs, it rather seems that, with the passage of time, Romans of modest means also decided to invest more heavily in their final resting place, which led to smaller mausolea with larger niches that could be individualized and more easily equipped with marble urns and funerary altars (142–46). This development would track the general development of Roman funerary art, which became increasingly more interested in tomb interiors and marble burial containers. Such an explanation would tie the short-lived popularity of large columbarium tombs not so much to the conditions of the early principate but to patterns of broad cultural change.

Emanuel Mayer

Book Review of Columbarium Tombs and Collective Identity in Augustan Rome, by Dorian Borbonus

Reviewed by Emanuel Mayer

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 2 (April 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1212.Mayer

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