Crisis & Ambition. Tombs and Burial Customs in Third-Century CE Rome
Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representation
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013
Pp. xx + 308. $185.00.
In this book, Barbara Borg reassesses the third century c.e. by looking at funerary customs and representation in burials. The title gives a good indication of the main argument: she sees the third century, traditionally viewed as a period of crisis, rather as an ambitious epoch, hence in a decidedly positive light. This argument falls well in line with a general movement of revisionist studies of periods that were long seen in a negative way, and Borg is not the first one to reconsider the emphasis put on crises in the third century. She treats the epoch as a “distinct period of major challenges and changes” and follows a “holistic, contextualized approach” (2). As she points out in the Introduction (1–7), there are limits, mainly in the exact dating of specific tombs and sarcophagi, which leaves uncertainty about some arguments. Furthermore, her study treats only the city of Rome itself, and within it mausolea and larger burial structures, mainly the catacombs. Obviously, the epoch itself is complex, and economic, political, and social developments are here only discussed within the contexts of the burials. Generally, the third century might have looked considerably different in other parts of the Roman world. Despite these limitations, Borg has written a very valuable, detailed, broadly convincing, and generally interesting book well worth reading.
The work is built up in seven thematic chapters, with a short Introduction and Conclusions. Borg starts out by discussing “Traditional Cemeteries and Tombs” (Chapter Two), pointing out that style burials had a longer life span than often assumed. Especially the Severan period saw a building boom, and representational considerations generally remained important. As Borg points out, money was not the problem; space was. In “Innovation and New Designs” (Chapter Three), the author presents new trends in burial customs, like free standing sarcophagi, and proposes the re-dating of a number of monuments to the third century. Her propositions are not based on new archaeological evidence, but on stylistic re-evaluation and circumstantial evidence congruent with her main arguments. The following chapter on “Underground Tombs” (Chapter Four) is a substantial discussion of the topics of hypogea and the catacombs, presenting recent [End Page 149] re-evaluations of the catacombs as communal, not exclusively Christian burial sites and discussing different types of hypogea and the roles of persons involved with their installation and management. In “Long-term Use and Re-use” (Chapter Five), Borg discusses the evidence for the re-utilisation of traditional tombs and argues that this was the usual case, presenting among others the examples of the Acilii Glabriones in the Catacomb of Priscilla or the tomb of the Sempronii at Porta Capena. Her main point is that continuity, and with it re-use changing the original setting, that might from today’s point of view be considered negative, need not be when seen as an active choice instead of a circumstantial necessity.
Chapters Six to Eight deal with the accoutrement of tombs and discuss icono-graphic and representational aspects, mainly of sarcophagi and to a lesser extent wall paintings. The main part of Chapter Six on “Sarcophagi” carefully discusses the treatment of mythological scenes in the third century, while Chapter Seven (“Sarcophagi in Context”) discusses questions of visibility. Here Borg convincingly shows that in most cases, sarcophagi must have been accessible and illuminated, and hence were convenient modes of transporting messages about status and of representing social positions. Chapter Eight on “Interior Decoration” looks at sarcophagi in relation mainly to wall paintings and other elements of decoration, especially on the floors, including possible Christian interpretations of certain scenes. In her view, sarcophagi generally fit into the broader decoration but were frequently used as the main element to represent the deceased’s status and social standing. In the Conclusions, Borg reasserts that the view that the third century saw a general decline in its burial customs can no longer stand. She convincingly stresses the representational character of many tombs that attest to the continuous importance of showing one’s social status. Furthermore, she asserts a coherence in conceptions of death and burial between Christian and non-Christian parts of society that did not at all prompt an exclusive, Christian burial community—not yet in the third century in any case.
The book in general gives a number of well-founded reinterpretations of monuments that will in some cases provoke controversy. Specialists for some of the monuments in question might find omissions in the literature and might not agree with some of the interpretations. The large amount of material treated is on the one hand a very welcome source of evidence and is carefully discussed by the author; on the other hand, the book can sometimes be overwhelming in its ambition of presenting the totality of the available evidence for certain types of monuments. This results in some very long chapters and a tiny font. A larger format would have perhaps been a better option, especially for some of the figures, although this is seldom within the author’s power to decide. The material and the sources used in the study are quite diverse and represent a refreshingly broad international coverage of scholarship. She always carefully weighs the evidence and clearly presents her own interpretations and the evidence on which they are based.
Borg has produced through her contextual approach a detailed study of the burial customs of third-century Rome that puts the epoch in a place of its own, worthy of further specialist studies. Her study can also serve as first access point [End Page 150] to many of the main burial monuments discussed. Her main arguments are convincing and open a new view on an interesting transitional period.