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Mapping Funerary Monuments in the Periphery of Imperial Rome

Dorian Borbonus

University of Dayton

In the periphery of Rome, the “world of the dead” and the “world of the living” were famously both distinct and intermeshed at the same time (Erasmo 2001). On the one hand, burial was relegated to outside the pomerium on religious grounds; on the other, funerary monuments were regularly visited, their epitaphs commonly address passing travelers directly, and burial took place within the city at least occasionally (Volpe 2017). The boundaries between the living and the dead were thus permeable and they also changed over time as the pomerium was successively expanded (Patterson 2000).

The relationship between the world of the living and the dead is also shaped by the placement of funerary monuments. It has been observed, for example, that the placement of tomb monuments maximized their visibility in the late Republican period, followed by an increasing “internalization” during the imperial period (von Hesberg 1992). This reconstruction is plausible, but it also postulates that one normative practice gave way to another one – in this case self-representation to internalization. There are also counterexamples that do not fit the pattern: for example, Augustan columbarium tombs are predominantly oriented towards the interior and reverse the public face of tomb monuments long before the alleged internalization process started (Borbonus 2014).

Atypical cases like this indicate that actual behavior is more nuanced than rules and generalizations suggest, but simply emphasizing variability and context instead can also lead to an impasse. The challenge is to chart a course between excessive attention to context and overly broad generalizations. One way to differentiate our understanding of Rome’s funerary periphery is to map it at different scales. On the macroscopic level, the locations of all known or documented monuments around the city provide a panoramic view on an urban scale. The resulting distribution confirms a correlation with extra-urban roads, but it also shows different trends over time, such as the increasing clustering of dense funerary zones. These necropoleis indicate a tendency to separate burial functions from the surrounding landscape and thus consign interactions between the living and the dead to designated areas.

On a more detailed level, the micro-topographical development of these necropoleis often spans several centuries. Old monuments stood in close juxtaposition with new constructions and access to specific burials could lead through serpentine paths. The development of these cemeteries was clearly ruled by numerous factors, at least some of which were specific to individual sites. Local conditions could affect the development in unpredictable ways, for example by the burial of entire monuments in mudslides or the gradual rise of the ground level through repeated flooding.

In general, the two mapping scales recognize the global patterns and the unique situations that characterize the use of Rome’s periphery for burial and commemoration.

Session/Panel Title

Blurring the Boundaries: Interactions between the Living and the Dead in the Roman World

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