Barbara E. Borg: Crisis and Ambition. Tombs and Burial Customs in Third-Century CE Rome (= Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representation), Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013, XX + 308 S., 17 Farb-, 140 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-0-19-967273-8, GBP 100,00
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This book takes as its theme the material remains of third-century CE tombs and cemeteries in Rome and its environs. It starts from the premise that the third century has been a neglected period in studies of funerary art and archaeology, as in other fields. As Borg argues (1-3), the early decades of the century are often seen as a continuation of second-century trends, while the later decades are seen instead as prefiguring Late Antiquity. The result is that the third century becomes elided in scholarship. Instead, Borg argues that these continuities and foreshadowings are precisely what makes the third century such an important period for study, as "a period that links the high imperial age with late antiquity, explains how the latter came into being, and that deserves to be studied in its own right for precisely these reasons" (278). This is a worthy subject for a monograph, and it is excellently handled here. While there are a wealth of studies on individual aspects of Roman tombs and funerary customs, such as epitaphs, sarcophagi and tomb architecture, Borg's achievement is to combine the fruits of these studies into a holistic picture. Not only does the book add to our understanding of Roman funerary culture, but it also contributes to a wider picture of how Roman society changes in this pivotal period.
The book is divided into seven main chapters, with four concentrating on the architecture of funerary spaces, and three on sarcophagi and interior decoration. Chapters two and three concentrate on individual tombs, looking first at continuities in tomb design, and then at new designs. Chapter four then turns to the underground tombs. While this chapter also considers family tombs, the bulk of it is dedicated to catacombs, providing a detailed reassessment of their nature. Chapter five looks at the continued use of older tombs. Together, these four chapters provide a comprehensive assessment of the different forms of funerary space available in the third century, emphasising both continuity and innovation.
Several important conclusions emerge from this detailed reassessment. The first is that new elite tombs continued to be built in the third century, though families could also continue to use older family tombs, where these existed. New tombs could be in the established styles, such as house and temple tombs, but there was also a shift towards innovative new designs such as cruciform or circular tombs among the elite. Below the elite we see a division between traditional small family tombs and new larger tombs providing for vastly increased numbers which probably reflect the activities of professional collegia. This trend towards multiple burials can also be seen in the development of the catacombs in the third century, which is treated at length in chapter four. In contrast to earlier scholarship which had asserted the primarily Christian character of the catacombs, Borg agrees with recent reassessments given by scholars such as Rebillard that this has been vastly overstated. Instead, she provides a comprehensive re-evaluation which shows that a number of catacombs, such as the Praetextatus catacomb, were probably laid out on imperial land, and reflect a desire to provide burial space for the vast imperial familia, which could then also be opened up to other groups. While Christian burials can certainly be found in these spaces, Borg argues against a strict delineation of funerary space according to religious belief and suggests instead the co-existence of both pagan and Christian burials.
Chapters six to eight turn to the furnishing of these tombs, most notably with marble sarcophagi, and with their painted decoration. Chapter six looks at sarcophagi as a group, analysing the different sorts of decoration to be found on third-century sarcophagi, and the changes they usher in from the second century. Borg argues that a major development in the third-century is the sense of monumentality, and the public self-representational character of sarcophagi. The changes in mythological sarcophagi, which show a tendency to excerpt the central figures and isolate them from the narrative by means of portrait heads is explained by this desire to use the figures to express encomiastic messages about the deceased, rather than to emphasize grief and loss, as on many second-century chests. Borg also looks at the retreat from myth in favour of scenes ushering in comparisons with the emperor, as on lion hunt sarcophagi, or alluding to the career of the deceased, as well as broader references to education, as on Muse and Philosopher sarcophagi. While all of these sarcophagi groups have been well studied individually, as elsewhere Borg's achievement is to provide a synthesis, drawing together and comparing the tastes to show a deeper characteristic of third-century society, which is its overwhelming concern with status and self-representation, particularly among those sarcophagi securely identified as belonging to senators or equites.
Chapters seven and eight integrate this reading of sarcophagi into the wider context of the tomb. Chapter seven analyses a number of contexts where the placement of sarcophagi can be reconstructed, again showing a concern for visibility and monumentality, as well as respect for earlier burials. Chapter eight focuses instead on painted decoration, arguing that in most cases this set up a generalised backdrop against which the sarcophagi's more individual messages could be read. Borg also returns here to the question of religious identity, challenging notions of uniform Christian imagery in many tombs, in favour of a recognition that imagery could include both pagan and Christian themes, and might indicate either mixed religious beliefs within an individual family or group, as well as perhaps a taste for Christian narratives even among non-Christians.
The main themes of the discussion are well summed up in the conclusion. The overall picture is not one of decline, but one of a society where the wealthy elites continued to build tombs, or occupy ancestral ones. Those of more modest means, however, seem to have found their burials primarily in collective spaces, either in large complexes built in existing cemeteries, or in the catacombs, while some also took on the tombs of their ancestral patrons. The lines between pagan and Christian seem to be blurred, with many examples where both groups could have been buried in close connection to one another, raising the suggestion that family or group identities might have been as important for some as asserting religious affiliations. Borg's conclusions cohere with a major trend in contemporary scholarship, which has sought to complicate more traditional pictures of decline, and religious exclusivity. Her achievement is to give a thoughtful re-assessment which draws together a vast range of scholarship to present a holistic picture. This allows us to see how architecture, inscriptions and decoration worked together to serve the self-representational needs of those at a range of different levels in Roman society.