Esquiline Necropolis

The large burial ground of early Rome was established on the Esquiline Hill in the mid-eighth century BC, when the older cemetery in the Forum valley was occupied by the town, forcing the cemeteries to move towards the hill. From this time onwards, a vast area between Via Giovanni Lanza and Piazza Vittorio began to be occupied by a large cremation cemetery. Its valuable grave goods paint a picture of a gradually developing city, to which military conquests brought new riches, luxury goods and valuable objects, and in which different social classes were slowly emerging.

In the sixth century BC, when King Servius Tullius had the Servian Walls built, some degree of organization was probably introduced to the burial area. Funerary spaces, always sharply distinguished from the city of the living, were relegated outside the Esquiline Gate. To the left of the gate, on the northern side of the Via Labicana, the Campus Esquilinus began to develop from the beginning of the third century BC. As Cicero says in his Philippics (9, 17), this was an area where plots of land were granted by the State to private individuals to build the tombs of people who had distinguished themselves by their heroism in defence of the res publica. The funerary monuments belonging to the heroes of Rome recounted their exploits through paintings, accompanied by short inscriptions naming the people represented: this tradition, known as the “triumphal relief”, has the dual purpose of honouring the protagonists but also, and above all, of telling visitors to the tomb about Rome’s victories. Perhaps the most striking of these tombs is that attributed to the family of the Fannii or Fabii, decorated with extraordinary paintings depicting military scenes, interpreted as an episode of the war against the Samnites. The tomb’s owner was probably the general Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus, who distinguished himself in this long war, winning numerous victories in the last quarter of the fourth century BC.

On the south side of the Via Labicana, by contrast, lay the “commune sepulcrum” the area reserved for those unable to afford the cost of a private burial: the poor, slaves, travellers and those sentenced to death. These were probably mass burials that in the last stages of use even came to occupy the ancient ditch of the walls, or simple graves, as suggested by the name the Romans gave to this area, puticoli, from the Latin puteus, or well. The extent to which this area was run down is clear from the account by the poet Horace. In the middle decades of the first century BC he describes it, colourfully, but probably fairly truthfully, as a rough area, with white bones here and there and where at night you might encounter witches and prostitutes. The city expanded massively in the late Republic, outside the boundary marked by the walls, which thus lost their function and were gradually demolished. At this time the necropolis was definitively abandoned and buried under a layer of earth up to six metres thick.