My Walk along the Via Appia (part 8)

Relief of a heros along the Via Appia.

This is part 8 of my report about my walk along the Via Appia, from the Circus Maximus to the Villa of the Quintilii some 8 kilometres further to the southeast. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 can be found here.

After leaving the Complesso di Capo di Bove, I walked along one of the most gorgeous and at the same time quietest stretches of the Via Appia. Expect mostly pedestrians and cyclists here, if you encounter anyone at all. Some parts of the road still have their original pavement consisting of large blocks of basalt, other sections have been repaved with modern cobblestones. There is hardly any motorised traffic here and in some parts cars and motorcycles are probably not even allowed as they might damage the ancient basalt blocks (and I somehow doubt that driving here will be beneficial to a car’s suspension…). A walk along this part of the Via Appia truly feels like a walk in the country and a leap back in time. Archaeologically, apart from the road itself, there is not much to see. You will have to walk for almost a kilometre before you arrive at an ancient relief of a heros (look up Bassorilievo maschile on Google to see where you can find it).

The Via Appia with the original pavement.

I continued my walk and just 75 metres further down the road I arrived at the remains of the tomb of Marcus Servilius Quartus. What we see is not really a tomb, but rather a 200 year old brick wall with older blocks of tuff, decorated with pieces of ancient marble. Near the top of the wall is a piece of an ancient cornice which features the name of the aforementioned Marcus Servilius Quartus. The text proudly declares that this man had his tomb built using his own money: DE SVA PECVNIA FECIT. The present ‘tomb’ owes its existence to Antonio Canova (1757-1822), the famous Venetian sculptor. During the pontificate of Pope Pius VII (1800-1823) he had been appointed chief inspector of antiquities along the Via Appia. Canova believed that ancient tombs and their decorations should be preserved in situ as much as possible, so in 1808 he had the aforementioned wall built and had it adorned with what was left of Servilius Quartus’ tomb (which was admittedly not much).[1] The names of Canova and Pope Pius can be found on a plaque that was attached to the wall.

Tomb of Marcus Servilius Quartus (detail).

Many tombs along the Via Appia are now hardly recognisable. Some 200 metres after the tomb of Marcus Servilius Quartus, we for instance find a circular mausoleum (Mausoleo circolare), which is little more than an overgrown clump of stone. It is now impossible to determine whose tomb this was.

The beauty of the Via Appia.

Mausoleo circolare.

I moved on and arrived at the tomb erected by Sextus Pompeius Iustus. This is close to where the fourth milestone would have stood, so I was now some six kilometres outside the Porta Capena, the gate where the Via Appia started. The aforementioned tomb is another nineteenth century brick screen into which an ancient marble plaque with a text has been inserted. The man responsible for the reconstruction was not Canova, but Luigi Canina (1795-1856), an archaeologist and architect who was originally from the Piedmont region. It is clear that the plaque was dashed to pieces once and had to be reassembled. Some text has been lost, but specialists have been able to reconstruct the missing parts, although there are still a few uncertainties (see here for a reconstruction). It is clear, though, that the text is a poem by Iustus in which he laments the death of his children, a boy and a girl. If I understand correctly, both died before their first birthday (‘aetate in prima’). The girl was named Pompeia Eleuthera and the boy had apparently not been given a name yet. This suggests that the boy was just a few days old when he died, as a Roman boy was usually given his praenomen on the ninth day after birth.[2]

Tomb erected by Sextus Pompeius Iustus.

Behind the tomb, but barely visible, are the ruins of a small temple. One interpretation is that this used to be a temple dedicated to Jupiter[3], but the structure is now barely recognisable and hard to see from the road. I therefore continued my walk and arrived at the tomb of one Hilarius Fuscus some 175 metres further down the de Via Appia. This tomb was also reconstructed by Canina in the nineteenth century and now features a copy of the original relief (which was moved to the Vatican Museums). We have no idea who Hilarius Fuscus was, but he must have been well-off: the relief features five people, likely Hilarius himself, his wife and their three children.[4]

Tomb of Hilarius Fuscus.

Up ahead I passed by another tomb that was reconstructed by Canina. It features the name SECVNDVS and the letters LIB, which means that this Secundus was a freedman (libertus). Many of the tombs to be found along this stretch of the Via Appia were those of freedmen. Noble born Romans would have been buried a lot closer to the city, not between the fourth and fifth milestone. The fragments that have been preserved also mention other names: Flavia Eirene, Titus Claudius Secundin(us) and Claudia Secundina. There is a possibility that the people buried here were freedmen of the emperor Claudius. The emperor employed freedmen for his administration of the Empire and if my eyes do not deceive me, I believe that we can still see the word SCRIBA or scribe on the inscription.

Tomb with the name SECVNDVS.

Temple-like tomb.

Not far from the tomb of Hilarius Fuscus is another temple-like structure, but unlike the presumed ‘Temple of Jupiter’, this building was likely a tomb (you can find it on Google if you search for Sepolcro a tempietto). The tomb dates from the middle of the second century. It had two storeys; the upper storey was used for funerary ceremonies, the lower one was a crypt where the sarcophagi or funerary urns were kept. The entrance to the crypt was at the back.

One of the highlights along this section of the Via Appia is the tomb of the Rabirii, another reconstruction by Canina. The tomb features a relief that depicts three people, the freedman (note the letter ‘L’) Gaius Rabirius Postumus Hermodorus, his wife Rabiria Demaris and one Usia Prima. She may be the couple’s daughter, although her name surely suggests otherwise (and note that the part where we see her name looks like it was added later). What is fascinating is that Usia was a sacerdos Isidis, a priestess of Isis. Her priesthood is emphasised by the presence of an Egyptian rattle and a bowl used for libations. Mind you, this is not the original relief. The original was moved to the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, not far from the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli.

Tomb of the Rabirii.

We do not know much about the deceased themselves, but quite a lot about Hermodorus’ and Demaris’ former master. His name was Gaius Rabirius Postumus and he was the posthumous son of Gaius Curtius – hence the name Postumus. Cicero called his father the princeps ordinis equestris, the foremost man of the equestrian order.[5] He added that the man was a publicanus, a tax farmer. Young Postumus was subsequently adopted by his uncle, the undistinguished senator Gaius Rabirius. This was the same Rabrius who, in 63 BCE, was prosecuted by Titus Labienus for perduellio or high treason (see this post for a detailed discussion of the trial). His adopted son took the name Gaius Rabirius Postumus and ran a business as a wealthy and successful banker. Postumus lent huge sums of money to the King Ptolemaios XII Auletes (‘the flute-player’) of Egypt, who had been deposed by his daughter and wanted his throne back. When Auletes had successfully completed his mission, Postumus moved to Alexandria in Egypt, where he began to behave as the king’s minister of finance. This led to a conflict and Postumus was forced to flee back to Rome. In 54 BCE, he was tried for extortion, but defended by Cicero and acquitted.

What is interesting is that Postumus’ brief stint in Egypt apparently had a profound influence on Usia Prima, who became a priestess of Isis. The cult of Isis was already known in first century BCE Rome, but it seems to have been suppressed in 53 BCE. Cassius Dio claims that the Senate ordered all temples dedicated to Isis and Serapis to be demolished.[6] No reason is given, but the Senate was always wary of foreign influences on the Roman state religion. It should be noted that the cult of the two deities had little to do with that practised in ‘classical’ Ancient Egypt. Both Isis and Serapis were firmly Hellenised. The latter was basically a fusion of Osiris, Apis and Hades. Worship of the two gods continued outside the pomerium, Rome’s sacred boundary. Already in 43 BCE, the Second Triumvirate voted a new temple to Isis and Serapis[7], although it is not clear when exactly it was built.

Tomb of the Rabirii.

Tombstone with Semitic names.

From the tomb of the Rabirii I walked another 500 metres or so along the Via Appia and found another example of foreign influences on life in Ancient Rome. An inscription at the foot of a large vertical clump of stone mentions three names that are clearly non-Roman in origin. The three deceased were liberti, freedmen, and they were originally named Baricha, Zabda and Achiba. When their master Lucius Valerius manumitted them, they took his name. It is likely that the men were Jews. Perhaps they were prisoners of war from the First Jewish-Roman War (66-74), which led to the capture of Jerusalem by the future emperor Titus.

To part 9


[1] See Fik Meijer, Via Appia, p. 132.

[2] Adrian Goldsworthy, Caesar, p. 42.

[3] Filippo Coarelli, Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide, p. 394.

[4] The name ‘Hilarius Fuscus’ was found on an inscription, but this is no longer part of the monument.

[5] Cicero, pro Rabirio Postumo 2.

[6] Cassius Dio 40.47.

[7] Cassius Dio 47.15.

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