After a week in Italy with a couple of friends, my last few hours before my flight were spent scouting around a few minor sites by myself, failing to get into some (because they’re churches and it was a Sunday in Rome), wandering the streets looking at this and that, and hanging around on a roundabout surrounded by trams.
That last doesn’t sound very glamorous but there was a very particular reason to be on this particular roundabout.*
This is the Porta Maggiore, the ‘Larger Gate’ on the eastern side of the third-century CE Aurelian Wall. Over time, this ‘gate’ has served several purposes. Built in the year 52, under the Emperor Claudius, as a support for two of the aqueducts bringing water into Rome, the Aqua Claudia and Aqua Anio Novus, the arches were later incorporated into the city wall built under Marcus Aurelius in 271.
At the top of the central section, the two water channels are still visible.
But before all that, before the aqueduct and the wall and the gate, there was this:
Positioned at the intersection of two key roads leading into the City, the Via Praenestina and Via Labicana, this is the Tomb of Eurysaces the Baker and (possibly) his wife Atistia.
Wealthy merchants, freedmen, and prominent citizens of all classes were always keen to be remembered after their deaths, and so set up tombs, sometimes very large and elaborate ones, at key positions along the roads leading into the City. A walk along the roads leading into the City takes in reams of memorials vying for attention and this tomb occupies a particularly prominent spot where the two major roads meet.
The memorial is a tower tomb type, with much of the height now below ground level. Its trapezoidal ground plan (rather than square or rectangular) was necessary to fit it into the available space. It’s built of concrete faced with travertine on a tufa base and on one side, where the facing has gone, you can see the brick interior filled with a concrete and rubble core.
It’s a bit of an odd-looking structure. Sort-of classical but a bit squiffily classical.
The (surviving part of the) inscription tells us that Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces was a baker, a contractor and a public servant.
EST HOC MONIMENTVM MARCEI VERGILEI EVRYSACIS PISTORIS REDEMPTORIS APPARET,
The ‘contractor’ bit suggests that Eurysaces held government supply contracts, perhaps to supply the army with bread.
As is often the case with the tombs of wealthy tradespeople, the tomb displays the source of his wealth, with the decorative frieze around the top section depicting various stages of the bread-production process.
sorting and grinding grain; kneading; weighing; baking; transporting and selling.
The pilasters and pairs of engaged columns are squashed in tightly together.
But, undoubtedly, the most striking aspect of the tomb is the weird circular features on each face. It has been suggested that these may represent pieces of bakers’ equipment, probably grain measures.
In Roman society, social mobility was possible. People whom circumstances had dumped at or near the bottom of the social structure could, through hard work and dumb luck, rise in wealth and status and end their lives wealthy, important and influential. it’s very possible that Eurysaces was such a man. Although the tomb inscription is not conclusive, Eurysaces may have been a Freedman; an ex-slave who had been able to work his way out of slavery and end up a very rich man.
The tomb’s later history is a bit inauspicious but probably saved it for posterity. As the city of Rome declined and succumbed to invasions from the north, the tomb was utilized as the base for a fortified tower. Only in the nineteenth century was it uncovered again as the result of the archeological interests of Pope Gregory XVI.
And now it’s stuck on a traffic island at a tram stop, but this tomb has done its job in ensuring that Eurysaces the Baker hasn’t been entirely forgotten. You do have to exercise care getting across the road to see it, or just catch the tram!
*Some of the photos are a little fuzzy because I had to take them with a long-ish lens. I wasn’t able to get as close as I’d have liked as that would have involved jumping a fence in plain sight of all the people waiting for their trams