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Saturday, April 11, 2015
Tomb of Eurysaces
In a previous post on the pyramidal Tomb of Cestius, we had occasion to note that tombs could take a great variety of forms. The Tomb of Eurysaces, built c. 20 BC, is another case in point. Like Cestius’ tomb, it seems to have been built to attract attention. Located just outside Rome at the intersection of two roads, the Via Labicana and the Via Praenestina, it was hard to miss. Later it was somewhat easier to miss, dwarfed as it was by the grandiose double gateway built by Claudius c. AD 50, known today as the Porta Maggiore.
The tomb had a number of unusual features. It had a trapezoidal footprint to fit into the angle between the roads. Its profile was odd, too. On a high base and within two wide corner pillars stood pairs of cylinders separated by a narrow central post. Dividing this lower register was a horizontal member bearing an inscription. Above it was the upper register, with three rows of large circular cavities framed by wide pilasters. Above that, below the cornice, a frieze. Then a roof of some sort.
The monument was made of concrete faced with travertine. The eastern faςade has not been preserved, but a full-length marble portrait of a couple found nearby is thought to belong to the tomb. A reconstruction is shown to the right. Below the relief of the couple is an epitaph of Atistia, Eurysaces’ wife: “Atistia was my wife. She was a wonderful woman, and the remains of her body are in this breadbasket."
The tomb becomes a bit less puzzling when one reads the other inscriptions and looks at the frieze. “This is the tomb of Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces, baker, contractor—it’s obvious (apparet)!” Why was it obvious? For one thing, the frieze makes it clear that Eurysaces was running a large baking operation: it shows in detail the whole process: workers are depicted milling grain, sifting flour, mixing and kneading dough, forming loaves, putting the loaves into the oven, stacking the baked loaves in baskets, and weighing them in the presence of state officials. And the cylinders in the lower register? Kneading machines. And the large round cavities in upper register? Again, kneading machines, this time lying on their side, so that one could see the wooden paddles mounted on metal shafts (traces of rust in square holes attest to the presence of the metal mounts—we have evidence for such machines from Pompeii). So Eurysaces created a monument that incorporated the tools of his trade and celebrated his success as the head of a major baking enterprise. He calls himself a redemptor—a contractor—and this must mean that he was somehow working for the state, perhaps in connection with the annona or grain dole (i.e., distributions of food to the Roman people), or in connection with the Roman army.
Finally, a couple of caveats. A good number of controversies surround this monument. What was Eurysaces’ place in the social hierarchy? Was he an ex-slave, as many contend? Should his tomb be understood as an example of “freedman’s art?” Lauren Hackforth Petersen questions that long-standing assumption and argues against the elite/subelite dichotomy in art history generally. For her, Eurysaces presents himself first and foremost as “a baker who fed Rome and as a Roman citizen himself.” See Lauren Hackworth Petersen, “The Baker, His Tomb, His Wife, and Her Breadbasket: The Monument of Eurysaces in Rome,” The Art Bulletin 85/2 (2003) 230-257. Another point: not everyone agrees that “apparet” in the central inscription means “It’s obvious.” But if it does, we may begin to see Eurysaces as a bit of a jokester. When he says that Atistia’s remains are in “this breadbasket,” the breadbasket (panarium) could refer to an urn in the shape of a panarium, or it could be a witty reference to the whole tomb. Indeed, the whole monument has been seen as an architectural witticism.