Tomb of Eurysaces

The monumental tomb of Marcus Virgilius Eurysaces, a wealthy Roman baker who lived in the first century BC, stands at the junction between the Via Casilina and the Via Prenestina. It survives almost intact thanks to a fortuitous event: in the early fifth century AD, the emperor Honorius incorporated the tomb into one of the towers built during the restoration of the Aurelian walls, hiding it completely until 1838, when Pope Gregory XVI destroyed the later buildings and uncovered the monument.

As was often the case for the graves of the most prominent citizens, the tomb was deliberately built in a place where it could not go unnoticed by those travelling along the roads into the city from the east. This desire to remain visible to the eyes of fellow citizens even after death, a typically Roman custom, is linked to the wish to keep their memory alive. For the same reason, the reliefs carved on the walls of tombs often showed scenes from the life of the deceased, linked to their role in society. In this context, the tomb of Eurysaces is exemplary: the unique architectural form of this monument, which must have been 7 m high and was faced with travertine blocks, recalls the profession of its owner, a baker. In the central zone, three rows of hollow cylinders represent the containers in which flour was mixed, whilst the frieze running around the monument depicts all the stages of bread making: weighing and milling grain, sieving flour, making the dough, baking and finally selling the loaves. On the reliefs we see numerous figures dressed in simple tunics, probably slaves engaged in the various phases of work and intent on following the directions of a figure in a toga, obviously Eurysaces himself. On three surviving sides of the monument a short inscription is repeated, with minor variations:


"This is the funerary monument of Marcus Virgilius Eurysaces, baker, state contractor, officer"

From these lines identifying the owner of the tomb, we learn that Eurysaces was not just a baker, but the owner of a genuine baking company, in charge of supplying bread to the state (redemptoris), and a junior officer (apparet) of a magistrate or priest. The name of the deceased, of Greek origin, reveals that he was a freedman, and allows us to imagine his life: he may have worked as a baker when still a slave, finally managing to set up his own business and win over the best customers in the city. In his story, still carved onto the walls of the tomb, we read the pride of a self-made man, successful in part thanks to his ability to establish relationships with people of high rank and enriched by the proceeds of his business.