Honors in Rome - Summer 2005
Reflecting upon his first journey to Rome in 1786, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe proclaimed, “even in Rome, too little provision is made for the person who seriously wants to study the city as a whole. He is compelled endlessly to piece it together from fragments, though these are certainly superabundant” (164). Porta Maggiore and the Baker’s Tomb represent two of these many fragments.
During the middle of the first century B.C., the commercial baker and bread contractor Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces constructed his own sepulchral monument known today as the Baker’s Tomb. The box-shaped structure was erected in an area well populated by funerary monuments. Eurysaces, who amassed his fortune through the production and distribution of bread, is believed to have been a Roman citizen of freedman status. His name indicates that he was an ex-slave of Greek origin. Eurysaces’ belonging to this monument is evident by two inscriptions bearing his name on the tomb’s exterior.
The missing east façade of tomb has permitted a plethora of speculation regarding the domestic standing of the baker. A nearby marble relief portrait accompanied by its own respective epitaph suggests that the wife of Eurysaces, Asistia, is also buried within the tomb (Petersen 232). Although the figures in the piece are not touching, their postures indicate marital status. Luigi Camina, a professional excavator, put forth a detailed reconstruction of the tomb that shows the marble relief mounted on the mysterious wall (234).
A hundred years after the arrival of the Baker’s tomb, Claudius began improving the Roman water supply immediately upon taking power in 41 AD. After completing the advancement of two of Rome’s most important aqueducts—Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus—the emperor constructed his massive Porta Maggiore to mark the entrance of the waterways into the city. The total cost of the double aqueduct extension and Porta Maggiore came to represent nearly 50 percent of the yearly taxes collected by the government (131). Nearly 250 years later, Aurelius incorporated the structure and the respective above ground aqueducts into his ambitious city wall. Another gate, referred to by some as Porta Praenestina, was built to accompany the existing structure.
Pope Gregory XVI demolished Porta Praenestina in 1838 in an effort to liberate the older, more impressive Porta Maggiore. The long-forgotten Tomb of the Baker also benefited from the excavation, resulting in the existing site of Porta Maggiore.
Originally categorized as freedman art, the inventive design of the Baker’s Tomb has been frequently dismissed as a consequence of its owner’s predictable need to show his wealth. While this view permits classification of the non-traditional monument as garish and even obnoxious, a more general analysis of the structure fosters an appreciation of its refreshing idiosyncrasies.
The Baker’s Tomb sits against Porta Maggiore, directly east of the gate, between its two main arches. The first of the 30-foot-tall tomb’s three stories is a three-course foundation of blocks laid in the stretcher arrangement.
Vertical cylinders make up the second story. These stubby paired columns, which are separated by squared pilasters, are believed to represent stacks of the kneading devices used in early bread making. Horizontal epitaphs bearing the baker’s name and profession reside between the second and third stories. The most prominent element to the monument’s design is the third story, whose three existing façades hold lattices of doughnut-shaped indentations. The missing east façade may have once held a large relief sculpture of Eurysaces and his wife, spanning the entire third story. A frieze sits between the third story and the cornice, which exhibits prominent dental molding. The small relief sculpture narrates the art and industry of baking, thus complementing the epitaph.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Porta Maggiore was one of only four out of the sixteen original Aurelian gates still in use (Platner 120). The masterful Porta Maggiore has been lauded for its breathtaking craftsmanship since the year of its dedication in the first century. Pliny the Elder, a prolific encyclopedist, observed the “high standard of work, which supplied all seven hills of Rome, and claims that there was none more remarkable in the entire world” (Levick 111).
The monstrous, travertine double arch stands 80 feet tall and more than 100 feet wide. The twin arches are 45 feet tall and 20 feet wide, and each of the three piers that support the arches contains a door that is framed by columns with Corinthian entablature and slanted Ionian cornices. Above the portals is a three-course attic. The inscription on the top register credits Claudius as responsible for introducing Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus into Rome in 52 AD. The middle register describes the restoration of 71 AD by Vespasian, and the lower register describes that done ten years later by Titus.
The Baker’s Tomb was intended to serve a variety of different functions both proximate and ultimate. As a funerary monument, the short-term purpose of the Baker’s Tomb was to honor Eurysaces through the remembrance of his achievement as a provider of bread. The tomb’s location is in close proximity to the intersection of the Via Labicana and the Via Praenistina, two ancient roads. Although no wall originally towered over the tomb, it was surrounded by a multitude of other tombs and an above ground aqueduct.
Eurysaces’ tomb competed a great deal, therefore, with neighboring tombs, some of which were large enough to house the remains of hundreds of individuals (Petersen 241). His tomb was most definitely designed to captivate onlookers (242). Despite its ancient identity, the tomb was rich with features pleasing to the eye. The frieze provided an alternative way of knowing Eurysaces’ story to illiterate viewers, while the three-name inscription reveals—even boasts—his status as a Roman citizen (245). Bread making represented an integral part of Roman society for its products were the staple of the people (249). The circular forms most likely represent the kneading machines used by bakers, perhaps the actual tools Eurysace utilized in his business. The monument in no subtle way would have revealed Eurysaces’ profession.
Petersen comments on the emotional reaction of viewers evoked by the tomb as they pass it. While the elite may have been disgusted by its garish style and obnoxious declaration of new money, non-elite witnesses may have appreciated its celebration of an ex-slave’s ability to achieve greatness through veritable hard work (248). One probable function of the tomb was to inform the public of Eurysaces’ enterprise and thereby ensure the reputation of his descendents. The author quotes art historian Penelope Davies when she says that this funerary monument “ ‘has meaning only through those who look at it. It may speak, but is always dependent on the passerby to read it aloud’ ”(241).
Porta Maggiore was also built for a variety of functions. The most obvious function of the gate was to proclaim the grand entrance of two of the world’s greatest aqueducts into Rome. The arrival of water from remote locations was a true cause for celebration, as it would accommodate Rome’s growing population. The double triumphal arches would easily inspire awe in the viewer as he or she may have once strictly associated such a structure with emperors. Another service provided by the gate was to acknowledge Claudius as a dependable ruler who took seriously the needs of the people. After contemplating the amount of thought and energy invested in the provision of clean water, citizens of Rome would be assured of their emperor’s devotion.
The Baker’s Tomb successfully honors and celebrates the life and work of Marcus Virgilius Eurysaces. Baking in Rome between the late Republican and early Imperial periods was considered a trade suitable for slaves and ex-slaves alike; and Eurysaces’ tomb shows signs of the gaudy taste typical of freedmen and those of new money. Slaves had neither voting rights nor the right to marriage, and freed slaves were unable to attain elite status in Roman society. Eurysaces’ primary concern would have been to establish himself as an admirable member of Roman society in spite of his unflattering past. As an ex-slave bread maker, this achievement came with the cost of building for vindication rather than following traditional elite style. His employment of the freedman architectural style was required for such vindication.
Most scholarly investigations of freedmen allude to Petronius’ literary character Tramalchio, a successful ex-slave who invests heavily in his own funerary monument in order to assert his credibility as a member of society (238-9). Although there are no established parameters governing the freedman style, deviations from mainstream design as demonstrated by Eurysaces’ tomb are typical. Caution must be observed, however, when describing the monument as belonging to the freedman style. Petersen explains that the category has hindered the study of Roman culture because it does not permit a comparative approach integrating all forms of art (235). Elements of the tomb may be written off as freedman adornments when they are in fact wonderful innovations.
Claudius’ need to be esteemed by the common people of Rome motivated his construction of Porta Maggiore. His desire for the acceptance of the hoi polloi rose from his social ineptitude that destroyed any chance of winning the approval of his elite peers. Cluadius, who was noted for his speech impediment, suffered from either juvenile paralysis or cerebral palsy (Levick 13-15). His own mother rejected him and publicly described him as being only part human. The man did not even possess sufficient funds required to be a member of senate, and thus was forced to sell property in order to become emperor (28). Claudius eventually found solace in the community of wealthy freedmen, who became his loyal supporters.
Claudius’ pragmatic approach to building projects helped him win over the people of Rome (108). Rather than build for the nobility (e.g. luxurious theaters), he built for the common man (e.g. water works). Soon after taking power in 41 AD, Claudius began his efforts to make both food and water more accessible to his people. First, he added nearly 400 square miles of fertile land to the greater Rome area by draining Fucine Lake. He then extended two highly important aqueducts into the city using his own personal funds (111).
Claudius was a staunch micromanager and employed allied freedmen as directors of a broad range of government projects, most notably the aqueducts (82). Perhaps this alliance with freedmen is linked to his preservation of Eurysaces’ tomb. His reign coincides with the era noted for the great honor awarded to freedmen (47).
Porta Maggiore thus achieved its purpose of assuring the people of their emperor’s concern for them and thereby winning their admiration. The gate attested to the high efficiency of Cluadius’ managerial ability as he killed two birds with one stone, so to speak, by implementing the same work force for both the aqueducts and the lake drainage (132). The monument also immortalized Claudius as a conscientious emperor.
The success of the Baker’s tomb is not only demonstrated by its two thousand years of survival, but also by its influence in the construction of more recent tombs. One of the greatest examples of funerary monuments with similar advertising strategies is the Column of Trajan. Penelope Davies, in her investigation into the role of the great column, continually refers to the tomb of Eurysaces as a provocative “record of things achieved, for the viewer’s entertainment, thus perpetuating interest in their lives” (51). The long, winding narrative relief sculpture spanning the Column of Trajan serves the same purpose as the simple frieze found just below the cornice of the Baker’s Tomb. Each aims at earning the focus of the passerby and searing a lasting impression into his or her mind. The effectiveness of Eurysaces’ tomb continues today as visitors are still attracted to its innovative style and unsolved history.
Porta Maggiore is recognized as an amazing achievement as it serves as the face of the aqueducts, one of Rome’s most ambitious developments. The meaning of the Porta was so significant that a Pope completely destroyed another entryway for the sole purpose of liberating the great old monument. The allure of this structure persists because it represents the legacy of the emperor that built it. Claudius’ double arch convinces the contemporary viewer of his faithful service to a furiously growing city.
VI. Personal Observations
Riding into Rome on the smooth tracks leading to Stazione Termini, I saw Porta Maggiore and the Baker’s Tomb for the first time. Immediately, what had always been just fragments in my mind began to take solid form. Goethe captured my state of mind well when he wrote, “Now I have arrived, I have calmed down and feel as if I have found a peace that will last for my whole life. Because, if I may say so, as soon as one sees with one’s own eyes the whole which one had hitherto only known in fragments and chaotically, a new life begins” (129).
I was then better able to speculate as to how people venturing into Rome would have felt as they were bombarded by the two monuments on the eastern border of the great city. Describing the experience, I would later write the following piece in my journal:
You are nearly assaulted by the massive Porta Maggiore, boasting its provision of precious, life-giving liquid to the world’s greatest city. But then you are surprised as your attention is suddenly grabbed away by this strange, proud tomb sitting in its shadow, whose walls promise a loaf of bread to accompany the water already flowing into your now-Roman cup.
Davies, Penelope. “Trajan’s Column and the Art of Commemoration.” American Journal of Archaeology. 101 (1997): 41-65.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von. Italian Journey. Trans. W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer. 1962. London: Collins; London: Penguin Classics, 1970.
Levick, Barbara. Claudius. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1990.
Petersen, Lauren Hackworth. “The Baker, His Tomb, His Wife, and Her Breadbasket: The Monument of Eurysaces in Rome.” Art Bulletin 85 (2003): 230-57.
Platner, Samuel Ball. The Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1904.
Todd, Malcom. The Walls of Rome. Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978.