Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Dorian Borbonus, Columbarium Tombs and Collective Identity in Augustan Rome. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xvi, 294. ISBN 9781107031401. $99.00.

Reviewed by H. Sigismund Nielsen, University of Calgary (

Version at BMCR home site


[The author apologises for the lateness of this review.]

Anyone who is tired of reading about death and burial is tired of life itself—and Dorian Borbonus, in his excellent Columbarium Tombs, demonstrates the truth of this rusty adage. Borbonus focuses his attention on the neglected topic of the Roman columbarium, a distinctive form of burial structure designed to cater to the non-elite, especially in the city of Rome. Within the columbarium tomb building the walls exhibit many small niches designed for the deposition of cinerary urns. (Borbonus in his chapter 1 defines columbaria simply as "closed, collective funerary monuments that deposit cremation ashes in urns and niches on their interior walls"). Columbaria could be built above ground, but most were underground. ("Early imperial columbaria," Borbonus qualifies in his chapter 1, "are all subterranean or partially subterranean tombs whereas the ones of the later first century CE were all constructed above ground … in the second century CE aboveground columbaria gradually change to inhumation tombs"). The cinerary urns belonged in most cases to the non-elite classes. Their popularity extended from the time of Augustus to that of Hadrian and their genesis, Borbonus argues in his chapter 2, was partly Hellenistic and partly Augustan.

Borbonus maintains that, through the burial institution of the columbarium, non-elite classes themselves initiated "a collective mode of burial" that was designed to display, as well as to achieve, "their autonomy in shaping their own community". This need became especially sharp in the Augustan period. Why? He suggests in his chapter 5 that "the Augustan social transformation amplified the contradictions in the social experience of freedmen and slaves, because it simultaneously created new opportunities for social recognition while reinforcing the legal boundaries between established orders and the traditional value system that upheld social hierarchy." The denied social mobility for these classes could be rectified to a degree, he believes, "through social integration in associations (collegia)". It comes therefore as no surprise that it was these collective organizations that organized most of the columbaria. In this manner was provided the means for the non-elite to display their achievements to their peers in the afterlife, at least within the egalitarian confines of the subterranean columbarium. Borbonus claims powerfully (again in his final chapter 5) that the disappearance of the collective ethos amongst the non-elite during the first century of our era may be related to the movement of the columbarium from below ground to above ground and to the personalization of burial places within these columbaria—such later tombs come to reveal "a more competitive mode of commemoration". This eventually leads to the decline in the columbarium mode of burial altogether. Interestingly, Borbonus notes that as the culture of the columbarium began to disappear, the Christian catacomb began to appear: "they [sc. columbarium and catacomb] both symbolized the solidarity and integration of their inhabitants."

Dorian Borbonus believes that the very vocabulary of inscriptions within his columbaria mirrors this solidarity (argued in chapter 4 in a tight analysis of the language within the physical form of individual cinerary niches). Despite their frustrating brevity, these jejune "name tag" commemorations have much to say. Borbonus believes that "columbarium epitaphs … articulated individual and social identities ... each individual was valued as a member of the community." How does this come about? "In a collective environment where funerary inscriptions abounded, lengthy texts that recorded information thoroughly were not the most effective way to communicate. A short and clear inscription … may convey less information, but it was more readable and more noticeable than a lengthy and complicated one. The resulting vocabulary is noncompetitive … the burial collectives [whose tastes and social needs condition these inscriptions] were social environments that complemented families when it came to burial and commemoration." His vision of the burial solidarity of the lower classes is a very optimistic one.

If this solidarity is reflected in the language of the columbarium inscription, it is also enforced by the very architectural design of the burial places themselves (argued in chapter 3). Borbonus makes two points to clarify the egalitarian nature of the earliest columbaria: "first, their ready-made identical or near-identical niches were … templates that outlined the visual properties of individual burials. Second, all or at most burials were typically visible from any vantage point in the burial chamber. Their cumulative appearance thus determined the visual character of the entire tomb chamber." And this character, as Borbonus' comments indicate, was resolutely based on collective egalitarianism and uniformity. (Over time, however, this changed and there seemed to appear a "growing desire to achieve visual distinction over collective background"—but this change signals the decline of this transient type of funerary architecture.)

In this slim book on death, Borbonus brings the world of the columbarium tombs to life. Columbarium Tombs and Collective Identity in Augustan Rome has a great sense of place—Rome and Italy breath through its narrative—and, with this, a very enlightening summation of the less read Italian contributions to the history of non-elite burial tombs. This vivid book aims convincingly to correct the most widely held view of the function of the columbarium, that of the late Keith Hopkins (Death and Renewal, Cambridge 1983: 211-17; he follows Campana, the nineteenth-century excavator of the Vigna Codini columbaria ["Di due sepolcri romani del secolo de Augusto scoperti tra la Via Latina a l'Appia presso la Tomba degli Scipioni," DissPontAcc 11: 263-405]). Hopkins, Camapana and many others believe—and it is a most commonsensical hunch, it must be said—that the columbarium tomb emerged in late republican Rome as a "direct response" to the rising population and to the cost of "suburban real estate". Borbonus sensibly stresses that if this were the case then the columbarium should not have become popular in the same period in less populated centres such as Ostia and Puteoli (chapter 1). Something else must be happening and he believes, as we have seen, that this unexpected sepulchral enthusiasm has its origins in the nascent egalitarian class-consciousness of the non-elite. His argument is a very convincing one—though the belief of Nicholas Purcell ("Tomb and Suburb", in Römische Gräberstraßen, ed. H. von Hesberg and P. Zanker, Munich 1987: 38-40), that these tombs were designed primarily for a privileged subgroup within society, the staff of elite households, is still a very tempting one. The great strength of Borbonus' argument, in contradistinction to those of Hopkins and Purcell, is that it manages to harmonize archaeological, epigraphical, and architectural evidence to make an overarching explanation for the sudden emergence of this sepulchral form. No other interpretation manages as successfully to draw together the three strands.

What have I learned from this book? The very heart of Borbonus' approach to Roman burial may be understood from the following succinct formulation: "if social conditions shape funerary culture, then the material remains this culture produces should in turn mirror these conditions, if only vaguely." The formulation echoes, in my opinion, the approach of Philipe Ariès to funerary monuments. There is probably no need to rehearse the many objections that have been made to Ariès' conceptualizing approach to historical artifacts and to their periodization. Ariès tends to shoehorn historical remains into his evidential stratigraphy and to ignore those elements that do not fit, not unlike his great contemporary, Michel Foucault. Notwithstanding the easy objections that can be made to an approach such as that of Borbonus, it is invigorating, in my opinion, to read Borbonus claiming of columbaria that "their underground position pushed the limits of tradition as much as any other Augustan tomb by rejecting the competitiveness of republican funerary culture." It is fair to say that Borbonus' method has revivified what most of us had thought was dead and buried.

It is inevitable that there are some reservations. It is possible that the comparison Borbonus makes between the burial practices of the wealthy, which stress clan and personal individualism, and those of the non-elite, which stress corporate egalitarianism, is over-ingenious, as the non-elite would not have had the money or opportunity for the display of the aristocrats. Is it possible that the rigid link he makes between class ideology and burial practice is exaggerated. Did lower classes really share the ideology of the elite? The later development of household tombs and "Gräberstrassen" that we see for example at Isola Sacra between Ostia and Portus does not reveal any competition with the elite but rather pride in its own accomplishments and, importantly, its own work. And there do seem to have been differences in the execution of plaques within the columbaria. In columbarium one from Vigna Codini there are considerable differences between the plaques put up under the loculi. Some are beautifully decorated with little garlands and highly professional letter cutting. Others look as if the commemorator had cut them at home. In the egalitarian setting of a columbarium even small differences in the design and execution of a funerary plaque must have been noted by those who frequented the place. It was presumably a question of what people could afford. And so it might be with the choice of the columbaria tomb style. Romans must have known for hundreds of years that it was both easy and cheap to dig out tufa. Later during the more wealthy Pax Romana more people would be able to commission above ground household tombs with columbaria for their dependents.

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