I’m a huge fan of the Tomb of Eurysaces. I first encountered it in books as a classical archaeology student, when I studied it in some depth and it became one of the topics I felt most at ease answering questions on in the dreaded Exam Schools. I remember my first glimpse of it, from the Leonardo Express going into Termini from the airport – and then seeing it up close on the British School at Rome summer school. For me it’s one of those landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or the Athenian Acropolis, which you see so often in books and then can’t believe you’re seeing in real life. Except that it seems to be only classical archaeologists who have heard of it!
Disclaimer: everything that follows is from my memory! So if any of my former tutors happen to be reading this then I apologise if I haven’t done it justice ;-).
The Tomb of Eurysaces, though easily visible from the airport train, is relatively off the beaten track, at the Porta Maggiore – about ten minutes’ walk from Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. The locality is dominated by the imposing remains of a Roman aqueduct (or two aqueducts to be precise, one on top of the other). The tomb is late Republican, thought to date to sometime between around 50-20BC, and the aqueduct was built later (under Claudius). Visiting the monument today, you can see just how close the tomb is to the aqueduct, which suggests that the aqueduct’s engineers and architects were sufficiently impressed with the Baker’s tomb that they built around it.
Eurysaces himself was a freedman, and the fact that he was a baker is made abundantly apparent by his impressive and wholly unique tomb. Not only does its inscription identify him as a baker and contractor (the final word of the inscription, the word “Apparet”, translates “as is obvious”, implying obvious from the appearance of the tomb, according to my tutor), but there is a wonderful frieze showing the bread-making process around the top. Furthermore, the strange form of the tomb itself is thought by some to depict machinery used to make bread. I don’t think anybody really knows exactly what it represents (there are several theories), but an idea I like is that it represents a dough-kneading machine. There are rusty patches in the sockets of the prominent holes on the side, suggesting that there might once have been attachments – perhaps the arms which would have worked the machine. If this is indeed what it represents, it would show off the up-to-the-minute technology employed by Eurysaces, portraying him as wealthy (being able to afford brand new technology), successful (being contracted to produce the bread in such quantities as would demand such a machine) and progressive (this kind of machinery would have been a new invention at the time). Among other theories, it has also been suggested that the holes correspond to the size of a unit of grain, by which Eurysaces meant to demonstrate the importance of his bakery to the city.
The tomb is also very useful to archaeologists because its frieze shows organisation of production, indicating that industrial-scale production was taking place in the ancient world. Moses Finley had argued, among other things, that this did not happen, but we see in the frieze several different groups of slaves who are each specialising in different stages of the bread-making process. This is the level of organisation which would have been required to produce bread (or any other commodity) in industrial-scale quantities. As well as telling us about the great demand for bread in Rome, this means that Finley was wrong, and the tomb is part of an ever-growing body of evidence which contradicts his arguments and which shows the sophistication of the Roman economy, which had previously been understated.
The point to take away from the monument, though, is that here is a man demonstrating how dramatically his status has changed since he was freed from slavery. This is a common theme in freedman funerary art; we often see freedman depicted on their tombs clearly wearing togas (which were reserved for Roman citizens, i.e. slaves wouldn’t have worn them), or clasping the hand of their wife in the gesture indicating marriage (another privilege of the free). There are other examples of bakery equipment on graves, such as a flour-grinding mill on a tomb at the Isola Sacra necropolis near Ostia, but Eurysaces took the idea to a whole new level. Baking was how he made his fortune, and so it is how he wanted people to remember him. He was clearly a wealthy and successful man, to have built such an impressive tomb – which just goes to show that upward social mobility was every bit as possible in ancient Rome as it is today.