Hypogeum of the Aurelii

The Tomb of the Aurelii was discovered in 1919 during work to build an underground garage on the corner of Viale Manzoni and Via Luzzatti. The funerary monument stood next to one of the main roads into the city, not far from Porta Maggiore, inside the area enclosed by the Aurelian walls in AD 273. This tells us that the tomb was built before the construction of the walls, since according to a very ancient Roman law tombs were relegated to areas outside the city.

The tomb consisted of a large room on the ground floor and two vast underground spaces; the latter are now the best preserved. Built by Aurelius Felicissimus, as stated in an inscription found inside, it was also intended to house his siblings and fellow freedmen, Aurelius Onesimus, Papirius and Aurelia Prima. Scholars have long debated whether these individuals, all freedmen, were members of a single family, or of a sect or confraternity. However, the most interesting feature of this monument is the painted decoration of the walls and vaults, on whose interpretation scholars still disagree: it has been interpreted both as clear evidence of Christian worship, and of membership of a heretical sect, a variety of philosophical schools or of pagan worship. Others have suggested that the multiplicity of symbols reflects the belonging of the deceased to different religions. The truth may be even more fascinating to our eyes: in the very free religious climate of the time – probably during the principate of the Severan emperors in the early decades of the third century AD – the distinctions between paganism, Christianity and the Eastern philosophies were much weaker than they later became. In this changing religious context, the afterlife imagined by the wealthy and cultured family of the Aurelii is a completely original paradise, a locus amoenus, a pleasant place combining faith and philosophy. Here we find the Good Shepherd, a formerly pagan symbol appropriated by the Christians, side by side with the episode from the Odyssey in which the witch Circe transforms Odysseus’ companions into pigs, and with a variety of other scenes and characters whose identity remains uncertain.