In early May, archaeologist Dorian Borbonus drove two visitors from central Rome out to the countryside and parked. A stray dog wandered the edge of an ancient wall as we got out and stretched our legs. Beneath our feet were dark, glass-smooth stones the size of manhole covers laid by Roman workers two millennia ago. We were at the bottom of a hill on the ancient Appian Way, one of the most important Roman roads. The incline we were about to climb, Borbonus explained, was formed by 260,000-year-old lava flow that originated in the Alban Hills and stopped at this very spot.
We began to make our way uphill on Via Appia Antica. Ahead of us, our destination peeked out over the tree tops against a blue sky. We were coming to see what was meant to be the last resting place of a woman named Caecilia Metella.
Caecilia Metella is today one of the most widely known women of ancient Rome. Yet, experts know almost nothing about her. Every trace of evidence about the life she lived is lost to history except one, which stood on the crest of the hill we were approaching. It is a funerary monument erected after her death, a cylindrical mausoleum about three stories high and 100 feet in diameter ringed with limestone slabs.
Caecilia Metella’s tomb is one of hundreds of Roman funerary sites that Borbonus, a UD associate professor of history, has visited during more than a decade of research. Few are as grand as hers, but then few Romans lived in the luxury she presumably did. Mausoleums such as this were for members of Rome’s elite families, which numbered several hundred families in the first century. But Rome’s population reached as high as a million in that period. The vast majority of people were buried more simply. As was the custom of the time, they were cremated, and their ashes were placed, by law, beyond the city walls.
While scholars have studied individual sites, none has so far done what Borbonus spent the 2016-17 academic year in Rome laying the groundwork to do. His vision and plan is to develop the first-ever study of life in ancient Rome over a 400-year period as it can be understood through its changing burial practices. If Borbonus is successful — and he openly admits he is not sure he will be — his history will slash across social class because it will have at its roots the one experience inescapable for everyone rich and poor, free and slave, high and low. Everyone dies.
Caecilia’s family must’ve thought she was very special, I speculated.
Maybe or maybe not, Borbonus replied. “This is just meant to be a super-public tomb. It’s hard to get the whole tomb in your point of view, and it really exploits its position on top of the hill.”
The real point of the monument was how it displayed the family’s importance, he said. They wanted everyone who passed by to see their wealth and power.
We bought our tickets and went inside. Her crypt was empty, likely looted centuries ago.
Mausoleums, crypts, remains.
Why study funerary culture? Borbonus admits it can be a macabre and sometimes creepy experience. Descending into the underground tombs so common in Rome can feel “otherwordly,” he once wrote.
One reason is that studies of ancient Rome suffer from an understandable bias toward elites. Emperors, senators and families like Caecilia Metella’s are the people about whom Tacitus, Seneca and such wrote. Much less is known about the vast majority of Romans who were not elite. For many, a funerary inscription is the only writing about them that survives, if it exists at all. Even in their absence, funerary practices offer other clues. Are tombs hidden or monumental? Are people buried singly or with others? What do decorations suggest was important to them? The ways in which even anonymous people were buried offers a rare avenue for learning about their lives.
Borbonus finds himself empathizing with people whose inscriptions he reads while at the same time seeing how different their social experience was from ours. This recognition allows him to step out of our modern life and reflect on it from afar.
“One of the things I think about death and burial in antiquity is that it’s much more integrated with life,” he said. “I can recognize this only by studying it and reflecting on modern societies and being struck by how, you know, old people don’t live with their families anymore but are in a home, for example. We try to push old age, the process of dying, death and how to cope with it away. Or, at least it’s compartmentalized much more than in ancient society. I think I learn something about modern societies by studying the Romans.”
The chief difficulty with studying funerary culture in Rome is partly administrative — five bureaucracies manage the sites around the city — and partly historical. Roman ruins have been excavated and put on display for centuries. But excavation, Borbonus said, is an act of destruction. Once someone digs out a site, no one else can redig it.
The American Academy in Rome sits atop Gianicolo, a hill just west of the Tiber River that offers sweeping views of the city that often make the covers of tourist guidebooks. The academy traces its history to the late 19th century, when a group of American scholars sought a European base for studying classical art. Today, it hosts residents, fellows and, each year, up to 30 recipients of the prestigious Rome Prize, which provides a stipend, room and board and other benefits for 11 months to support innovative scholarly and creative projects.
Borbonus, a German citizen, snagged the only 2016-17 Rome Prize available to a non-U.S. citizen. Midway through his time in Rome, his spouse, Myrna Gabbe, a UD associate professor of ancient philosophy, and their two children joined him. The couple met in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, where their first conversation was about her upcoming interview for a faculty position at UD. She landed the job, and he followed, eventually earning a full-time position in the history department, where he teaches courses on ancient Greek and Roman history.
In a courtyard in the American Academy’s main building, Borbonus stood in front of inscriptions on marble slabs on the wall, many just a little smaller than a standard diner booth tabletop. To my untrained eye, they were fascinating but inscrutable. With his arm outstretched from the sleeve of his black leather jacket, Borbonus pointed and began deciphering what many of them had in common. The giveaway was the writing at the
top of many of them, either “DM” or the words that these letters abbreviate: “Dis Manibus.”
“It means ‘to the spirits of the deceased,’” he said. These were all funerary inscriptions that once adorned burial sites. “This invocation probably honors both the deceased mentioned in the inscriptions and potentially all other deceased ancestors of the family.”
The inscriptions on the slabs hanging here have value, but for Borbonus it’s limited. He illustrated the point two days later in Villa Borghese, a rambling public park in central Rome. As we walked along a gravel path toward a playground, families pedaling four-seater carriages like bicycles rolled past. “There’s a monument just up ahead,” Borbonus said.
I looked, but all I saw was a small fountain.
“This is it,” he said as we came up to the fountain. At the top, springwater flowed from the mouth of a man flanked by two fish on his shoulders. The water fell into a rectangular marble box with reliefs carved on the side. It was the size of a small steamer trunk. “You see here. This is definitely a sarcophagus.” He was pointing at the marble box. “The top is a later addition, obviously.”
I’d heard that “obviously” before. He used it at Caecilia Metella’s tomb and another shaped like a pyramid. “Obviously” was his linguistic tool for dismissing a Renaissance or modern — and, hence, irrelevant to him — element of a structure. The additions were never obvious to me, but his adverb became an entry point into understanding how he reads evidence. Where I saw a single fountain, he saw an assemblage of historical phases that told him a story over time. But, as was the case here, not every story they told was much help to his research.
This sarcophagus, he said, had likely been unearthed centuries earlier, in medieval or even ancient times. Were it uncovered today, archaeologists would record significant data to establish its provenance. The sarcophagus was likely brought here to Villa Borghese sometime during the Renaissance, when this land was part of the estate of a wealthy cardinal and famed art collector. When this artifact was moved from its original location, it was separated from the context that gave it any archaeological meaning. Borbonus couldn’t even say whether the sarcophagus had probably come from somewhere near Rome.
Like the slabs hanging on the wall of the American Academy, this was a relic without a context. Despite the cost and care that went into creating it 20 or so centuries ago, it was now more useful as a fountain decoration than as an object for archaeological study.
Archaeologists, treasure hunters and thieves have been excavating Rome for centuries, but there remain places that are little-touched. Borbonus became interested in one narrow category of them when, working on a collaborative research project with his adviser, he was studying maps of the land along the Via Appia. The maps recorded a number of ancient, underground vaults recessed into walls for the burial of ashes — called columbaria — where nonelite Romans, often slaves and freed slaves attached to an aristocratic household, were buried. One intriguing aspect of this style of columbaria was how suddenly it appeared during the reign of Emperor Augustus and then, a generation or two later,
almost as suddenly disappeared.
In a book-length study of them, Borbonus described a typical one: “High interior walls are covered with an unbroken grid of little arched niches that give access to terra-cotta urns, usually two, immured in the wall, and their occupants are identified by little plaques with brief funerary inscriptions below the niche.” These columbaria, he further wrote, “may be less spectacular than the monuments of Rome’s political elite, but they are no less original.” Unlike the sarcophagus at Villa Borghese, this was evidence he could work with.
When Borbonus looked into them more, he found very little information. “There was not a ton published, and everybody said the same thing. The same three or four pieces of information were repeated over and over again.”
Finding them to study firsthand can be difficult. They’re often recognizable from above ground only by tell-tale undulations in a grassy field. Once found, they’re not easy to access. “None of them is open to the public, so you have to get a special permit. They’re all on private property, sometimes in the most exclusive suburbs of Rome, so it can be difficult to get in. Once I got in, I would have maybe 20 minutes to an hour to look at one of them,” he said.
In the first columbarium he climbed down into, he looked around as quickly as he could, reading inscriptions and looking for changes in the architecture over time.
“But then I ran out of time,” he said, so he simplified his tactics in his next visits. “I just reverted to taking pictures. Digital cameras were new. I only had a film camera. I developed so much film. I would survey the entire tomb just taking pictures I could look at later on. That was the best way to study them. It’s not ideal.”
In his photos from multiple columbaria, he examined the architecture, the size and composition of inscriptions, the drawings and any other decorative elements. The earliest columbaria show great architectural simplicity and regularity, epitaphs are brief, and decoration is minimal. Furthermore, they are underground. All of this data, he wrote, “squarely inverts the keen demand for attention” demanded by sites like Caecilia Metella’s monument. In the columbaria’s collective burial, Borbonus saw egalitarianism that signaled a moment of collective identity and social cohesion among Rome’s non-elite.
But it didn’t last long, just a few decades.
“At some point, people start to change the architecture,” Borbonus said. “You actually see that the columbaria style became outdated very quickly, and another style of burial became popular, namely, a marble object with nice decorations sculpted and an inscription right on it. A marble object is
always costly, right? So it becomes sort of more flashy. So you see that they introduce a hierarchy later on.”
With time, members of this social class of Romans began retrofitting existing columbaria to match emerging styles, making alterations to accommodate larger urns and building new types of funerary sites.
“They want a tomb with a large niche in the center where somebody who thinks they’re more important for whatever reason can be buried, whether it’s the owner of the tomb who has his slaves and freedmen buried on the sides or whether it’s somebody whose loss was particularly heartfelt.”
One possible explanation for the change, he suggests, is that these occupants “never solidified into a coherent social class,” perhaps because of the diversity of their circumstances.
Just as Borbonus used close STUDY of these columbaria to make conclusions about a narrow class of Romans over a short time period, he is now working to expand his scope to 400 years of Roman funerary culture at the height of its power, roughly 200 B.C. to the second century after Christ’s birth.
During his Rome Prize fellowship year, he visited every funerary site in Rome to which he could get. As with his early, feverish attempts to photograph columbaria on 20-minute visits, analysis would come later. The fellowship year was all about data gathering. Some sites are well-known, but others required special permits or pleading with reluctant landowners. And, every once in a while, a just-right opportunity came along.
Nine months into his 11-month fellowship with the American Academy of Rome, Borbonus stood outside a fence in the shadow of San Paolo Fuori le Mura, the second-largest of Rome’s four papal basilicas. Underground somewhere near his feet ran the ancient Via Ostiensis, a Roman road that led to an ancient port through which centuries of grain and other goods flowed from the empire’s far reaches to its center.
Like the Via Appia, this road out of the city was once lined with cemeteries. One of them — called Necropoli San Paolo, excavated a century ago and largely left alone since — was just on the other side of the fence in front of Borbonus. He’d secured a permit and funding to spend two weeks of intense study here, which he’d begin in a few days. He was eager to get started.
The site had roughly the same footprint as Liberty Hall on UD’s campus. It sat sunken in the ground but would have been at street level in Roman times, before centuries of Tiber River flooding added silt and 10 or so feet of elevation. Inside was a wealth of arches, urns, decorations, inscriptions and walkways that Borbonus would piece together into a story about how Romans used this tomb.
Two weeks was not a lot of time, but it was comparatively luxurious for him, so he indulged in a form of super-notetaking. Using specialized equipment, he gathered thousands of photographs and minute measurements, data points sufficient for creating a three-dimensional digital version of the cemetery. With it, he could study the cemetery more intensely later or, he dreamed, make it available online to other scholars and students. He suspected he could even simulate what it would have been like during one of the infamous floods of the Tiber.
The data he gathered here became one star in a constellation of data points about Roman funerary culture that he hopes will coalesce into a previously unseen story. Its outlines are not yet apparent to Borbonus, who returned to Dayton in July to begin his analysis and resume his teaching. It may be another 10 years before he has another opportunity like this, he said.
“I’m not solving the world’s problems,” he said. “It’s not going to change the world dramatically, but [through it] I think we can learn something about the world’s past and something about ourselves today.”
“It’s something that everybody faces, no matter who it is, where they live, no matter which time period they come from. It’s something that people faced in antiquity. It’s something that people face today. It’s a human experience.”
Matthew Dewald is a writer and editor based in Richmond, Virginia. In 2009, he reported for this magazine from Barombi, a small village in Cameroon, West Africa, on six UD engineering students who worked with villagers to construct a pipeline to supply fresh water to the village. The pipeline is still operating today.