Identities and Styles of Tombs on Via dei Sepolcri in Pompeii


Burial is a funerary practice that is not exclusively reserved by the rich or the elites in ancient Rome. They are important to the Pompeiian, bearing the spiritual and commemorative functions before the destruction of the city in 79 A.D. Even though there is little regulation regarding how certain style was restricted to certain class; this paper concludes that visitors can still identify the social and economic power of deceased, by analyzing the design and use of decoration on the exterior of the monuments. The tombs this paper examine include the tomb of Mamia, the tomb of Istacidii, the tomb of Naevoleia Tyche and the tomb of M. Porcius on the Via dei Sepolcri in Pompeii.


People in Pompeii construct tombs along the ancient highways leading into the city and the tombs engage the passengers with the monuments that they can stop and honor the deceased buried in the tombs.[[1]] Burial is the desire for all of the citizens in Pompeii: even the poorest members of the society engage in the commemoration of the dead by whatever means available to them. Despite that, the most identifiable and visible funerary monuments along the streets of tombs belong to the more economical well-off or socially high-class people.[[2]] This paper explores the tombs on Via dei Sepolcri in Pompeii to examine how the social and economic status of the deceased play in the style of the tomb monuments during late Republican and early Imperial Roman period.

Located north-west of Pompeii, Via dei Sepolcri is one of the five necropolises outside the city walls (fig. 1). It is situated beyond the Porta di Ercolano, which was an important gate leading into the city and connecting to the main street, Via dei Abbondanza. It is not hard to imagine the busy traffic passing by the tombs daily; thus, this choice of location for the burial areas underlines the Pompeiians’ beliefs that the past lives of the deceased should be commemorated by people along the road. What’s unique about this necropolis is that the street contains villas, shops, and bars, apart from tombs (fig. 2). According to Adams, the first two hundred meters of the road outside the gate was no different from the main commercial streets inside the city, because it was dominated by commercial activity.[[3]] This testifies the endless interaction between the life and death; and the Roman belief that tombs are the house of the deceased.

There are three significant styles of funerary architecture on the Via dei Sepolcri: the schola tombs, the tholso tomb, and the altar tombs. Although there is no strict classification of tombs based on the social classes or economic powers; the viewer can still identify the social-economic status of the deceased by looking at the design and style of the tombs from the exterior.

It is a common Roman practice to honor the dead by resting on their tombs. The Romans called their tombs “memoria,” which means they are the objects intended to preserve the memory of the deceased. Thus, the visitors are normally invited to engage closely with the monuments. They record the identity of the deceased on the tomb monuments, stating social and economic achievements, as well as personal information, such as family life, gender, and age of deceased.[4] Despite that there is no chronological order in terms of the styles of the tombs, and many styles were used by a wide range of people.

The burial rituals in Pompeii can be traced back to many different cultures. According to Campbell, there are at least five separate cultural groups that are thought to have contributed to the development of Pompeii during its six hundred years of existence: “There are archaeological remains in Pompeii for Greeks, Etruscans, Samnites, and an unmade indigenous Italic population in addition to the Romans.” [[5]] After the Social War, Pompeii was hugely influenced by the Roman traditions. It was acknowledged that “Pompeii was the only colony of Sullan veterans that saw a successful integration of the newcomers and native population.”[[6]] This shows the indigenes of Pompeii could quickly adapt to the different influences. The eruption of the Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. paused the development of Pompeii, as everything was sealed under the volcanic ashes after the disaster. This enabled the scholars to look into the different funerary monument design between the late Republican period and the early Imperial period .

Scholae is the style of the funerary monument that was specifically designated to the members of, or related by marriage to, the ruling class. It is also the only style that was restricted by the social status. Scholae can only be found a few steps outside the city gate, indicating the important social status of people buried underneath. It is acknowledged that the premium location for monuments is the area right outside the city gates.[[7]] The tomb of Mamia was constructed in this style, dated to the late Augustan age (fig 4). It has a particular form of a semicircular bench and the two ends of the bench are decorated by winged lion paws motifs. This style was primarily popular for a short time during the Augustan period.[[8]] Cormack, a famous scholar of ancient Rome, suggests that the presence of benches indicates that the “tomb was a site at which people were encouraged to linger, in contemplation of the deceased and his or her deeds.”[9] When sitting on the benches of the tomb of Mamia, visitors would be reminded of the temple of Augustus that she constructed.[10] Benches also suggest a social function. Where the priestess Mamia was buried, Goethe paused to meditate at the time of his Voyage to Italy in 1787, observing the ancient custom of honoring the dead by resting on their tombs.[[11]] Besides that, the exterior benches may also have been utilized by participants in the funerary cult. The use of benches is a unique design for funerary structures in the ancient Roman world. Honorific benches can be found in the Greek East, but there is no evidence to show that they were used in a funeral context. In Roman Asia Minor, benches can sometimes be found at the exterior of a tomb, but they were an addition to the monuments and not the only structure.[[12]] Here, the Pompeiian might take influences from those cultures and created the Scholae that plays along with the idea of honoring the dead by resting on his/her tomb. The background of this tomb is dominated by the monumental ruins of the tomb of the Istacidii, also from the Augustan era.

The most important tomb on the road outside the Herculaneum gate is the tomb of the Istacidii with its tholos temple (fig 3), as it shows the elite status of the deceased through the style of the monument. Its tall structure creates clear visibility from far away. According to Campbell, one important factor that determines the form of the monuments is visibility. Some monuments constructed a platform that provides a level base. Some built at greater height use other means to draw the eye upwards, such as placing additional inscriptions at eye level in the retaining wall. Here, the two-story structure increased the visibility, despite that the monument is located behind a Scholae. Below was a quadrangular podium with half-columns against the walls, enclosing a burial chamber which is surrounded by a dozen niches intended for cinerary urns of the family. Above was a small circular temple, with an open colonnade that contained the statues of several persons buried in the tomb, presenting them as if they are gods in a temple.[[13]] Its proximity to the gate and the tholos form indicate the significance of the deceased and reflect the old aristocracy’s way of thinking – the commemoration of the deceased like a god. It also testifies the diversity of the styles of the tomb monuments in Pompeii, as people appropriate the tholos style on top of a bottom structure to raise the visibility of the tomb.  

Altar tomb is one of the most widely used styles after the Social War. In the early imperial period, it underwent a transformation that reflects a shift in emphasis from the commemoration of a wealthy and prominent individual to the assertion of the individual’s place in a larger group.[[14]] The social status and the economic power of the owners of this tomb type can be identified through the decorations and the inscriptions on the exterior. In the Republican period, altar tombs were free-standing, relatively large monuments, such as the tomb of M. Porcius, dated to 50 B.C. Over time, the altar tomb decreased in size, and became more elaborately decorated with marble reliefs depicting events from the life of the deceased and was placed on top of an elevated socle which housed a funerary chamber for multiple burials, such as the tomb of Munatius Faustus and Naevoleia Tyche.

The tomb of M. Porcius is located in between two Scholae (fig. 5). It is the oldest tomb from the colonial period on the Via dei Spolici.[[15]] According to the inscription found on site, the land was granted by the city council – “Of Marcus Porcius, son of Marcus, by decree of the town councillors, 25 feet wide, 25 feet deep.”[[16]] The inscription does not explicitly mention the specific contribution the deceased made. Marcus Porcius was one of the city magistrates that helped finance and construct the Amphitheater and the covered theater in Pompeii. It was common for the city council to grant premium land on the street of tombs to people who contribute to the development of the city. Mamia mentioned above was another example .

Different from the tomb of Porcius, there are two the tombs of Munatius Faustus and Naevoleia Tyche located outside the city gates in Pompeii (fig. 6 and 7). This raises a number of questions as to why they not only chose to build two tombs but also the different types of monuments and decorations, the locations in different necropoleis. One answer to all these questions is Naevoleia’s tendency to inflate her and her husband’s social and political importance, as a freedman, through a visual display. On the monument at Via dei Sepolici, the exterior of the rectangular altar is decorated with elaborate carving works and was made out of marble. The east side is covered by inscriptions and people motifs, surrounded by a floral pattern. The north side is decorated with the similar floral pattern, enclosing a sailing boat with people, which indicates that this husband and wife earned money through fishing or sailing businesses. The inscription from the east side recorded that:

“Naevoleia Tyche, freedwoman of Lucius Naevoleius, for herself and for Gaius Munatius Faustus, member of the Brotherhood of Augustus and suburban official, to whom on account of his distinguished services the city council, with the approval of the people, granted a seat of double width.”  (Translated by Mau [[17]])

According to this inscription, the audience can easily identify the social status of the deceased: freedwoman and freedman. It also emphasizes the services they committed to the society as a way to show their importance to the city.

M. Porcius and Munatius Faustus and Naevoleia Tyche are different in social status, but they chose the similar style for their tombs, proving that the altar tomb was commissioned by a broad spectrum of the population, ranging from the elite magisterial class to freedmen and women. It originates in the Greek East. The original form is a large, free-standing altar. It changes form from the Augustan period, becoming less bulky in construction whilst also being placed on a high base that was usually centered in an enclosure. Zanker, in his book Pompeii: Public and Private Life, argues that “this is the result of a shift from modeling tombs and urns on temple forms to funerary altars, in attempt to replicate Augustan sacrificial altars.”[18] This form is found in Pompeii after the Augustan period and is consisted of an altar on a base of variant height surrounded by low enclosure walls. The altar tomb became popular in Pompeii due to its implied sanctity as it looks like the altars built for sacrifice in Roman sanctuaries. However, the altar from was first used under the Greek influences. This form was amongst the first monumental tombs dated to the early post-colonial period of the late Republic and continue to be popular until the city’s destruction in 79 AD. However, by reading the inscriptions and decorations on the exteriors, the rich freedmen chose the more elaborate decorations to show off their wealth and they explicitly mentioned their contribution to the society to associate themselves with the greater community, while the early city official has a simple the design and inscription of his tomb.

With particular attention given to aboveground funerary architecture and surviving epigraphy. The connection between tombs and identity is clearest when dealing with funerary epigraphy, which preserves direct messages about how an individual defined himself or herself, or how he or she wished to be defined by others. Epitaphs were perceived as crucial to the preservation of an individual’s memory beyond death.[[19]] Some individuals communicated messages about their importance to the community by mentioning offices they had held or honors they had received, while others stressed their membership in family groups.

Tombs at Pompeii functioned not only as burial spaces for the dead and locations of ritual activity for the living. It is both public and private space. Their multi-cultural architectural design might invite people who pass by to relax and contemplate the life and beneficences of the deceased. The walls of the tombs also served as public “bulletin boards,” for community announcements such as electoral notice, advertisements or more personal messages.[[20]] Many of the information about the deceased on the street of tombs is mostly obtained by reading the wall inscriptions. Despite that outside the other gates, some tombs have different designs and styles compare to what I discussed here; the message of identity can always be observed by looking at the style and decoration of the exterior. The size and scale of the tomb are normally not directly associated with the class of the deceased, instead, it is a show of wealth if the tomb is lavishly designed. The decoration and style of the monument also play an important role in identifying the deceased. Some of the grander tombs belonged not to the municipal aristocracy but too well-off freedmen, who were eager to show their achievements.






Campbell, Virginia L. The Tombs of Pompeii: Organization, Space, and Society. Routledge Studies in Ancient History; 7. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Cantarella, Eva, and Jacobelli, Luciana. A Day in Pompeii: Daily Life, Culture and Society. Napoli: Electa Napoli, 2003.

Coarelli, Filippo., Foglia, Alfredo, Foglia, Pio, and Cockram, Patricia A. Pompeii. New York: Riverside Book, ;, 2002.

Dobbins, John Joseph, and Foss, Pedar William. The World of Pompeii. The Routledge Worlds. London; New York: Routledge, 2007.

Emmerson, Allison, Ellis, Steven, Hatzaki, Eleni, and Lynch, Kathleen. Memoria Et Monumenta: Local Identities and the Tombs of Roman Campania, 2013, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

Ling, Roger. Pompeii: History, Life & Afterlife. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2005.

Mau, A., translated by Kelsey, F. W., Pompeii: Its Life and Art. New York: Macmillan, 1907. p. 422-3

Zanker, Paul. Pompeii : Public and Private Life. Revealing Antiquity; 11. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.




Figure 1: Map of Pompeii (, location of Via dei Sepolici circled in red

Figure 2: Street of tombs outside the Herculaneum gate (Jashemski, fig 1)

Figure 3: The tomb of the Istacidii. Pompeii in Picture. Photo courtesy Arne Andersson

Figure 4: Herculaneum Gate West Side. Schola Tomb of Mamia. Pompeii in Picture. Photo by Stanley A. Jashemski.

Figure 5: Tomb of Marcus Porcius. Pompeii in Picture.

Figure 6: Tomb of Naevoleia Tyche outside the Heruclaneum gate (left). Image found at:

Figure 7: Tomb of Caius Munatius Faustus and Naevoleia Tyche outside Porta Nocera. Pompeii in Picture[FK22] .



[1] Coarelli, Filippo., Foglia, Alfredo, Foglia, Pio, and Cockram, Patricia A. Pompeii. New York: Riverside Book,;, 2002.

[2] Campbell, Virginia L. Introduction. The Tombs of Pompeii: Organization, Space, and Society. Routledge Studies in Ancient History; 7. New York: Routledge, 2015. pg. 2

[3] Referenced by Campbell. pg. 34

[4] Emmerson, Allison, Ellis, Steven, Hatzaki, Eleni, and Lynch, Kathleen. Memoria Et Monumenta: Local Identities and the Tombs of Roman Campania, 2013, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. pg. 7

[5] Campbell. Death in the Roman World. pg. 18

[6] Campbell. Death in the Roman World. pg. 19

[7] Dobbins, John Joseph, and Foss, Pedar William. The World of Pompeii. The Routledge Worlds. London ; New York: Routledge, 2007. pg. 586

[8] Campbell. The Funerary Evidence of Pompeii. pg. 49

[9] Campbell quoted from Cormack. pg. 49

[10] Ling, Roger. Pompeii: History, Life & Afterlife. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2005. pg. 80

[11] Coarelli, Filippo., Foglia, Alfredo, Foglia, Pio, and Cockram, Patricia A. Pompeii. New York: Riverside Book, ;, 2002.

[12] Campbell. The Funerary Evidence of Pompeii. pg. 49

[13] Coarelli, Filippo., Foglia, Alfredo, Foglia, Pio, and Cockram, Patricia A. Pompeii. New York: Riverside Book, ;, 2002. pg. 385

[14] Campbell. The Funerary Evidence of Pompeii. pg. 49

[15] Coarelli, Filippo., Foglia, Alfredo, Foglia, Pio, and Cockram, Patricia A. pg. 384

[16] Translated by Cooley. Pompeii in picture.

[17] Mau, A., 1907, translated by Kelsey, F. W., Pompeii: Its Life and Art. New York: Macmillan. p. 422-3

[18] Zanker, Paul. Pompeii : Public and Private Life. Revealing Antiquity ; 11. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

[19] Local Identities and the Tombs of Roman Campania

[20] Coarelli, Filippo., Foglia, Alfredo, Foglia, Pio, and Cockram, Patricia A. pg. 384