Tombs of Via Labicana

The area immediately inside Porta Maggiore was occupied by a large cemetery running along the northeastern side of the Via Labicana, in use from the last decades of the first century BC to the third century AD. The necropolis consisted of a compact group of small rectangular structures built a short distance from the road. These multiple cremation tombs were known as “columbaria” because the urns containing the ashes were lined up along the walls of the tomb in small niches similar to those of dovecotes (columbaria in Latin). The monumental tomb belonging to the Arruntii family was brought to light already in the eighteenth century. The vaulted ceiling decorated with stucco was still intact: the tomb, now vanished, is shown in some beautiful engravings of the time that allow us to imagine its original appearance. The surviving inscriptions tell us of the rise and fall of its occupants, such as Lucius Arruntius, consul in AD 6, who built the tomb “for his own family, freedmen and slaves”. The following years were tragic ones for the family of the Arruntii: the consul, says Tacitus, committed suicide to escape a conviction. A few years later his adopted son was implicated in a plot against the emperor Claudius, after which all the family’s properties were confiscated and its members dispersed. In the same area, the funerary monuments of the illustrious Statilii family were also brought to light. The inscriptions found inside the columbarium paint a lively picture of the servants who worked for the family during the fifty years between the reign of Augustus and that of Claudius. The inscriptions carved on the marble panels that identified individual niches give the name of a medicus (doctor), an obstetrix (midwife), a nutrix (nurse), a paedagoga (teacher), a tabularius (archivist), an unctor (masseur), a balnearius (attendant in charge of the private balneum), and even a servus ad hereditates (servant in charge of inheritances); also present are a vestiarius (who looked after clothes) and a velarius (who cleaned curtains). Each of the higher-ranking servants, in turn, had a host of underlings at their orders: the freedman Posidippus, butler and confidant of the master, had at his disposal as many as 19 servants, including two waiters, a cook, four slaves with generic functions, four treasurers and cashiers. A series of extraordinary frescoes was found inside one of the columbaria. Now on display in the Museo Nazionale at Palazzo Massimo, they illustrate the Urbis primordia, the story of the origins of Rome, with episodes recounting the mythical arrival of Aeneas at Lavinium, on the Lazio coast, the construction of the walls of Lavinium, the encounter between Mars and Rhea Silvia, and the birth of the twins Romulus and Remus. The stories were used by the owner of the tomb, Statilius Taurus, known for his strong ties with Octavian, to display his connections to the city’s glorious past and his adherence to Augustan political propaganda. The family of the Statilii also had a sad fate: in AD 53 Statilius Taurus committed suicide after being accused of the ignominious crime of practicing magic. The historian Tacitus says that the accusations, clearly false, were made by Agrippina, wife of the emperor Claudius, eager to seize his properties on the Esquiline, the Horti Tauriani. Many details of these events are obscure, but the properties of the Statilii and their columbaria probably became part of the imperial estate at this point. From this time onwards, inscriptions inside the tombs for the liberti of the Statilii are replaced by those for the liberti of the imperial family.