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The Funerary Monument of Lucius Munatius Plancus and Aristocratic Self-Representation

Carolyn Tobin

Princeton University

The historiographical tradition has not been kind to Lucius Munatius Plancus. His career has become emblematic of the chaos at the end of the Republic and the treachery required to survive it, as he served under Julius Caesar, Antony, and Octavian from the 50s through the 20s BCE. This paper examines the life of Plancus through the words of the man himself by interrogating both the text of his epitaph and his still extant funerary monument, erected after 22 BCE in ancient Gaeta. With this monument Plancus made a choice to highlight his early accomplishments under Caesar rather than his more recent activities during the early principate while using the monumental form of his tomb to pledge his allegiance to Augustus.      

Art historical scholarship has focused on the typological features of the monument’s frieze (Fellmann 1957) and form (Schwartz 2002), while recent historical scholarship has worked to untangle the development of Plancus’ negative historiographic reputation from his actual career (Watkins 1997, Mitchell forthcoming) in reaction against older scholarship that took his reputation at face value (Syme 1986). This paper integrates these two strands, taking advantage of our remarkable good fortune in having a significant monument survive in situ.

First I consider the text of Plancus’ epitaph. Out of all the offices and achievements mentioned in the inscription, only one – his censorship in 22 – dates after the 40s BCE. The rest of the text focuses on Plancus’ campaign in Gaul under Caesar in 44 and his subsequent triumph and manubial spending in the turbulent three year period surrounding Caesar’s assassination, a seemingly dangerous and unpopular time to evoke.  The inscription’s avoidance of the time Plancus spent serving under Antony against Octavian is unsurprising and often noted (Watkins 1997). However, the lack of acknowledgment of any of his accomplishments after he switched sides to Octavian in 32, apart from his disastrous censorship, is an even more marked choice. The text presents an extraordinary Republican career bolstered by military success abroad, despite the fact that the triumph that enabled his temple building and the foundation of his veteran’s colonies, which took place during the proscriptions of 43, appears to have had a particularly negative place in popular memory (Velleius Paterculus II.67.4).

Next I turn to the monument which houses the inscription and its place within the surrounding landscape, a necessary part of any ancient viewing experience and an equally important part of Plancus’ self-representation. The Doric frieze running around the top of the circular drum of the monument features a series of markedly Gallic weapons and equipment (Fellmann 1957), again celebrating Plancus’ campaign in Gaul under Caesar. The shape of the massive tomb, set on a coastal outcropping visible to the ancient port town, suggests general military dominance to a much wider audience than the detailed frieze, elevated nearly ten meters off the ground atop a steep hill. The most obvious statement that the monument makes, however, is homage to Augustus – its tumulus form is a smaller scale replica of the Mausoleum of Augustus, completed before the construction of Plancus’ monument. This visual acknowledgement of Augustus, broadcasted with the monument’s shape, would be the message that the multifaceted tumulus advertised the loudest.

Despite the tomb’s homage to Augustus at the mascroscopic level, Plancus would not risk his memory venturing into the years of Octavian’s ascendancy and disrupting the new princeps’ authority, with the exception of the imperially sanctioned censorship. Even though his years under Caesar were controversial and bloody, it was safer to appeal to these earlier achievements and to present his career as typically Republican. Plancus’ two veteran colonies in Gaul, founded after his campaign there in 43, were emphasized in the inscription as the height of his career, but would later be claimed by Augustus when he changed their nomenclature to erase Plancus’ name. Even accomplishments from before the princeps’ ascendency could be threatening to the new status quo.

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Roman Political Self-Representation

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