August 13, 2021

An Ancient Detective Story: Roman Reuse and the Tomb of the Rabirii, by Kieren Johns

Tomb Tomb of the Rabirii on the Via Appia, Rome. Creative Commons CC0.

There are two ways of seeing the Tomb of the Rabirii, and both will need you to travel to Rome. The first is the easiest: you could go and see the tomb relief – the real version – on the ground floor of the Museo Palazzo Massimo, opposite Termini Station (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Inv. 196633). Pay attention though, or you may walk right past, as the tomb relief vies for attention with some of the ancient world’s most famous masterpieces: the bronze Boxer at rest and Hellenistic prince statues are just opposite.

Relief Original portrait relief from the Tomb of the Rabirii. It is now on display in the Museo Nazionale Romano (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Inv. 196633). Author's photograph.

But my favourite option means escaping the hustle and bustle of the city centre. Head southeast, past the Circus Maximus, keep going past the colossal remains of the thermae of Caracalla, and further still, until you’ve gone through the imposing Porta San Sebastiano and are on the Via Appia. About four miles down the picturesque ancient road, just past the turning at Via degli Eugenii, you will come across the Tomb of the Rabirii.

Tomb2 The Tomb of the Rabirii on the Via Appia with the plaster cast relief. Author's Photograph.

Roman law prescribed that the dead be buried outside of settlements. This means that the roads leading into cities became highways of memory – “an unsleeping thoroughfare” according to Propertius’ characterisation – creating a constantly evolving link between past and present. The Tomb of the Rabirii, then, would once have been just one of a number of similar memorials, which could range in scale from simple stone inscriptions to magnificent marble mausolea. All were meant to be very public and very visible to preserve memory in the eyes of the passing public.

This tomb is far from the most grandiose memorial on the Via Appia – that particular prize probably belongs to the Tomb of Caecilia Metella. However, the Tomb of the Rabirii allows us to investigate the relationship in Roman society between memory, material, re-use and identity. Typically, investigations into material re-use are viewed through the prism of censorship, of damnatio memoriae and the erasure of an emperor’s tyrannical legacy: the clever cutting of a disgraced emperor’s coiffure was a convenient way of upcycling imperial portraits. Elsewhere, there are attempts to uncover deeper, ideological and propagandistic meanings in the re-use of materials on state monuments, such as on the Arch of Constantine.

The aedicular relief scene on the Tomb of the Rabirii allows us to explore these concepts at a much less rarefied atmosphere. Identifying the individuals on this tomb allows us to investigate the complexities that underpinned Roman memory culture at a non-elite level as well as their attitudes to materiality.

The monument’s façade, clad in Luna marble, has perhaps lost some of its decorative elements. However, the relief panel still holds intrigue. This relief comprises three bust-length portraits, one male and two female, all of which are carved in high relief. Below the portraits, a Latin inscription runs parallel to the length of the panel. In the nominative case, this inscription (CIL VI.2246) states:



G(aius) Rabirius Post(umi) Li(bertus) Hermordorus, Rabiria Demaris, Usia Prima Sac(erdos or rorum) Isidis

Which translates as: Gaius Rabirius Hermodorus, freedman of Postumus, Rabiria Demaris, Usia Prima, Priestess (or of the Devotees) of Isis.

Relief2 Portrait relief and inscription from the Tomb of the Rabirii. Author's Photograph.

In identifying these individuals, the only surety we have is that Gaius Raibirius Hermodorus was the freedman (libertus) of Gaius Rabirius Postumus. Hermodorus is described by the Museo Nazionale as one of the number of slaves released in the period between the second triumvirate (c. 43-32 BC) and the Augustan age (c. 27 BC – AD 14). Hermodorus’ manumission is indicated by his toga, a symbol of Roman citizenship. Likewise, traditional Roman nomenclature was a vehicle of social mobility. Here, Hermodorus has been supplemented by the praenomen (first name) and nomen (family name) of his former master.

Readers of Cicero may recognise the name Gaius Rabirius Postumus. Hermodorus is believed to be the freedman of the same individual defended by Cicero in 54/3 BC against a charge of financial misconduct (Pro Rabirio Postumu). Rabirius was a wealthy equestrian and banker. Having lent a large sum of money to Ptolemy XII Auletes in Alexandria, Rabirius was granted the extraordinary position of dioketes (chief royal treasurer). In lieu of traditional repayment, Rabirius instead extorted his money back through taxation. Unsurprisingly, the Egyptians soon rioted and Auletes imprisoned Rabirius. Cicero claims that in escaping back to Rome, Rabirius wound up destitute. Behind this rhetorical bluff, it is more likely that Rabirius escaped with significant wealth, including in slaves. One of these may have been this Hermodorus, with the name popular in Egypt and Alexandria especially.

To Hermodorus’ right, in the centre of the relief, is a mature female figure. This is Rabiria Demaris. Based on the epigraphic nomenclature, Rabiria was probably also a freed slave. Her portrait, however, emphasises her Roman identity; the palla (mantle) over her left shoulder proclaims Rabiria to be a Roman citizen. It is probably that she was the wife of Hermodorus, and if you look closely, you may spot the ring on the third finger of her left hand (it is unclear whether she wears a stola beneath her mantle, another sure sign of her status as matrona, or legally married). Most likely then, these two were married colliberti (freed slaves of the same master) of Gaius Rabirius Postumus. Taking Rabirius name allowed these slaves to bolster their nascent social status through the expected recognition of their former master.

The identity and status of the third figure, to the viewer’s right, and her presence on the monument, is rather more difficult to ascertain.

Identified epigraphically as Usia Prima, it is unclear whether she was a freeborn citizen or, like Rabiria, a liberta. Like her partner in perpetuity, she also wears a palla, however. Similarly, her name is curious. It is attested in only one other inscription (CIL XIII.12064), but it is close to the Greek word οὐσία (ousia, meaning essence), a term commonly in the spells of authors such as Lucan and Apuleius (Metamorphoses 2.32; 3.15-18).

Combining text, iconography, and literature can provide further insight. The inscription SAC ISIDIS proclaims that Usia had some kind of association with the cult of Isis, either as a priestess (sacerdos Isidis) or devotee (sacrorum Isidis). Female participation in the cult is presumed to have been low, based on epigraphic evidence, but priestesses are not unknown. Although her specific role is unclear, Usia’s association with the cult of Isis is communicated through iconographic cues. A garland of flowers in her hair recalls, much like her name, the works of Apuleius: Book XI.1-4 of his Metamorphoses describes the navigium Isidis, an Isaic festival, that was led by similarly garlanded women. A sistrum (the musical instrument) to her right and the patera to her left, also convey Usia’s Isaic connections.

Why is Usia here? Closer inspection of the relief reveals that she wasn’t always. Both the portrait and inscription of Usia testify to the monument’s re-use. There are several tell-tale signs on the portrait. Usia’s head is disproportionately small compared to her body, whilst a flatness to the figure suggests that this may once have been a male figure. This has affected the finishing on her clothing, as well as the proportions of both shoulders and neck. It is safe to assume that the patera and sistrum are also later additions. The differences in letter size between the names of Hermodorus, Rabiria and Usia are clear indicators of epigraphic reuse, as is the point of transition between the final ‘A’ of Rabiria and the ‘V’ of Usia. Someone has been obliterated from the historical record through Usia’s intervention on this monument.

Why Usia has been represented on this relief can only be speculated. Based on nomenclature, she was not a relation of the Rabirri. Instead, it has been argued that she has appropriated space on this tomb to exploit its mnemonic links to Alexandria, which would commemorate and communicate her association with the cult of Isis. An association with Hermodorus, likely involved in Gaius Rabirius Postumus’ dodgy dealings in Egypt, and the use of additional iconography, prompts the knowing viewer to make these connections. Usia’s reuse celebrated a relationship with Egypt and its cults through the considered appropriation of this memorial.

Usia’s re-use of this tomb, appearing to obliterate at least one identity, seems shocking, almost as the misuse of an inviolable monument. A previous investigation has suggested four possible scenarios:

1) Usia purchased the tomb, or a space within it, from Hermodorus’ legal heirs.

2) Usia inherited this tomb. The time between the original portraits and Usia’s reuse could be as long as a century. It is unlikely, though not impossible, that Usia was connected to a Hermodorus’ heirs.

3) Usia took over the tomb. The nomen Rabirius is rare in Rome, suggesting the family died out. Usia would have been free to claim this prime memorial real estate for herself.

4) Usia was added to this tomb by her own successors. Her sudden death may have necessitated the pragmatic use of available space.

The reason for Usia’s reuse remains ultimately unknowable, but the Tomb of the Rabirri nevertheless provides a fascinating insight into the ancient world, allowing social identities that are otherwise muted to be written back into an understanding of non-elite Roman memory culture, with Usia herself an active participant. Alongside that, it should remind us, if indeed Usia did aim to commemorate her Isaic and Alexandrian links through the infamous case of Gaius Rabirius Postumus, that the Romans were just as obsessed with their history as we are today.


For more information on the tomb of the Rabirii, see especially:

Cupello K. E., and L. A. Hughes, ‘Reuse, the Roman Funerary Monument and the Rabirii: Violation of Memory or Commemoration of Past and Present?’, Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, (2010) 5, 3-23, 365 with notes and bibliography.

See also:

Germini, B., ‘Funeral Relief of the Rabirii and Usia Prima’, A. La Regina, (ed.), Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, (Milan, 1998)

Kockel, V., Porträtreliefs stadtrömischer Grabbauten: ein Beitrag zur Geschichte und zum Verständnis des spätrepublikanisch-frühkaiserzeitlichen Privatporträts, (Mainz am Rhein, 1993).

On Roman memorial and mortuary practices more generally, see:

Carroll, M., Spirits of the dead: Roman funerary commemoration in Western Europe, (Oxford, 2006).

Hope, V. M., and J. Huskinson, (eds.), Memory and mourning: studies on Roman death, (Oxford, 2011).

kieren Kieren is a final year PhD researcher at the Universtiy of Warwick. He is currently writing up his thesis, which is an investigation of the epigraphic representation of Roman emperors in the period 180 to 235, or from the reign of Commodus to Alexander Severus, supervised by Professor Alison Cooley and Dr Clare Rowan. You can read more about his research interests, including papers presented, on his student profile.

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  • Dear Giles, excellent presentation. Just a clarification: the Arras medallion is a unique piece that… by Eleni Papaefthymiou on this entry

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