The Tomb-Crane Relief

April 25, 2014

The importance of crafting and broadcasting a public image in Rome cannot be overstated. Future posts will handle one of the most exalted forms of personal propaganda, the public portrait, but for those in lower status groups without careers in the public eye, self-aggrandizement had to take other forms. Men like Trimalchio, a fictional freedman in Petronius’ Satyricon, found that the best way to make a name for himself in a truly eternal way involved his death. This may seem ridiculous, but it was not an uncommon tactic.1 Tombs were often built before the deaths of their future residents. Trimalchio’s tomb, which we will hear described in the passage below, would mark his name in stone forever, thereby ensuring both the longevity of his memory and public awareness of his virtues.

The following is taken from the Satyricon,2 a comic novel that has only survived from antiquity in part. This segment describes a scene in which the narrator attends the dinner party of the wealthy, though socially inept, Trimalchio. During its course, the host describes in great detail the plans for his extravagant tomb to his undoubtedly uncomfortable guests. After describing the contents of his will and boasting about his own generosity, he says:

Respiciens deinde Habinnam: “Quid dicis, inquit, amice carissime? Aedificas monumentum meum quemadmodum te iussi? Valde te rogo, ut secundum pedes statuae meae catellam pingas et coronas et unguenta et Petraitis omnes pugnas, ut mihi contingat tuo beneficio post mortem vivere; praeterea ut sint in fronte pedes centum, in agrum pedes ducenti. Omne genus enim poma volo sint circa cineres meos, et vinearum largiter. Valde enim falsum est vivo quidem domos cultas esse, non curari eas, ubi diutius nobis habitandum est. Et ideo ante omnia adici volo: HOC MONUMENTUM HEREDEM NON SEQUATUR. Ceterum erit mihi curae, ut testamento caveam ne mortuus iniuriam accipiam. Praeponam enim unum ex libertis sepulchro meo custodiae causa, ne in monumentum meum populus cacatum currat. Te rogo, ut naves etiam [in fronte] monumenti mei facias plenis velis euntes, et me in tribunali sedentem praetextatum cum anulis aureis quinque et nummos in publico de sacculo effundentem; scis enim, quod epulum dedi binos denarios. Faciatur, si tibi videtur, et triclinia. Facies et totum populum sibi suaviter facientem. Ad dexteram meam pones statuam Fortunatae meae columbam tenentem, et catellam cingulo alligatam ducat, et cicaronem meum, et amphoras copiosas gypsatas, ne effluant vinum. Et urnam licet fractam sculpas, et super eam puerum plorantem. Horologium in medio, ut quisquis horas inspiciet, velit nolit, nomen meum legat. Inscriptio quoque vide diligenter si haec satis idonea tibi videtur:


Petronius clearly does not want us to view Trimalchio as a respectable Roman citizen. Despite the fact that he is clued in enough to realize that a funerary monument is important to his self-image, he gets just about everything else wrong. Almost all the things he lists in this paragraph are in rather bad taste, and one can’t help but wonder how jumbled the end result would have been. Even more interesting (and appalling) is what we find in the inscriptions. His “HOC MONUMENTUM HEREDEM NON SEQUATOR”3 is hilariously uncivil. Not only has he made it clear to his tomb builder that he wants a gigantic tomb all to himself, he wants to have that wish immoralized. He wants to come across as generous, as he would remind us in the depiction of him passing out money to the rabble, but this inscription demonstrates the contrary. And as if that alone did not make it clear that he was full of hot air, there is his proud declaration that “NEC VNQVAM PHILOSOPHVM AVDIVIT.”4 Clearly, Trimalchio is conscious only of the trappings of civility, but not of what it takes to be a man of substance.

Petronius makes Trimalchio come across as quite gauche, but there is a good reason for this bombastic prattling. As a former slave who had accumulated vast amounts of wealth and power since his manumission, Trimalchio would have been more eager than most to prove his worth as a member of Roman society. On the monument to his death, he has taken pains to include himself in some of the most important roles he had in life: successful merchant, tribunal member, thrower of lavish parties, husband, and, of course, loving dog owner. He also includes multiple symbols of his generosity, faithfulness, and bountiful means. The text he has written proclaims both his greatness and humility. Petronius has meticulously crafted Trimalchio’s tomb to encompass everything a wealthy, though ridiculous, freedman might wish people to realize about him in his life. If the character had been painted a little smarter, he would have made all of that come across in his tomb without it being so ludicrous. Because while the tomb described is indeed absurd, and hopefully something that could only exist in a novel, planning something so grand for a tomb was not.

The “Tomb-Crane Relief,” found in the Museo Gregoriano Profano, depicts an elaborate tomb executed well. The relief once decorated the tomb of a family of monument-builders, and it in fact shows the building of the exact tomb the relief decorated. The monument takes the form of a small temple of Roman type, and its decoration is no less significant than Trimalchio’s; in fact, many of the decorative elements are the same. We see athletes, garlands, wheat, cornucopias, and a dozen other symbols of affluence beside; most importantly, the structure of the tomb itself demonstrates the family’s successful foray into Classical Greek design, which is a testament to the builder’s good taste. Quintus Haterius Tychius, the family member believed to have designed it, used all of his monument-building knowledge to include the imagery of the most elite repertoire. However, he wasn’t using it to better only himself, which is where he sets himself apart from Trimalchio. Below the floating scene of domestic bliss above the roof, Quintus Haterius’s wife, the deceased, is framed in the pediment of the temple, and bust-length portraits of their three children are also included on the side of the building. Clearly, the more modest (or perhaps merely less inept) Quintus Haterius knew that by honoring his family, he honored himself. Though he may not be shown, this extraordinary temple would have successfully helped to establish himself and his family as people of great wealth and means. Because as Trimalchio would assuredly tell us, a Roman cannot prove that he has truly arrived in society until he has an ostentatious way to make his final departure.


  1. See Caius Cestius’s very well-known tomb in Testaccio, for example.
  2. The full text can be found here. The translation is here.
  3. This monument does not descend to the heir.
  4. And he never heeded a philosopher.