Labour in Ancient Rome – The Tomb of Eurysaces the Baker

A couple of weeks ago I began my new module in Old Labour – Working in the Ancient World at Birkbeck as part of my Masters study. One of the first assignments was to find a piece of evidence that epitomises labour in the ancient world. Luckily I had the perfect idea in mind from memory.


This fantastic (and admittedly slightly tacky) structure is a tomb. It belonged to Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces and sits by the Porta Maggiore (map here). Eurysaces was a baker, and we know this for two reasons. 1. the inscription on the tomb states he is (no brainer!) and 2. the tomb is designed to give this away to Roman eyes. What I mean by this is that the tomb was deliberately constructed to portray the characteristics of baking that would be more immediately obvious to a Roman than to the average person today. Let’s explore the tomb in more depth…

Looking at the image above, you will see various busy scenes. These scenes are friezes from around the top of the tomb (you can see them slightly on the top image, above the circle openings). The top panel here is from the west side and shows the weighing of bread. The second panel is from the South side and shows the consignment and grinding of grain and the third panel, from the North side, shows the kneading, formation into loaves and the baking of the bread.

In these panels alone we can get a good idea of what processes baking would have consisted of from start to finish. But why were they there? Let’s think about the audience of this tomb. The location of the structure is on a main road into Rome that itself would have been lined with the tombs of other city dwellers (tombs had to be placed outside of the city walls to prevent bad luck and disease, amongst other reasons; see reconstruction below). Travellers to Rome would have approached the gates and been welcomed by many tombs, including Eurysaces’. These panels would have been high up, around the top of the tomb, so for a traveller on the floor, they may not have been very clear. However, they are still legible so one could argue they just simply add to the message of the tomb as a whole, playing their part in telling the story of Eurysaces and the baking process he was so proud of. What else might the traveller have taken notice of? Well, as I’m sure you also have, they may have noticed the upright columns and the inverted holes in the walls of the tomb. These are also significant to the bakery trade; the columns and holes are representative of tools used for kneading bread.

Appian Way Tombs


With regards to the finding of the tomb itself, it was found in the Aurelian Wall, which had luckily for us served to preserve it. The excavation of a funerary relief of a couple holding hands (below) has also been suggested by some scholars to be Eurysaces and his wife, who is also mentioned on the tomb. A pot in the shape of a bread basket is also thought to be his wife’s final resting place, although this is also disputed. The close proximity of other tombs nearby, including that of bakers, has contributed to the skepticism of some, although we can’t deny it would be nice to have them all together and finishing the story. It would also help us to learn more about him if we knew it was him and his wife. Furthermore, there is more uncertainty surrounding this tomb. One of the main debates to come of the structure is whether Eurysaces was a freedman or not. The garishness of the building itself can be assigned to the typical nature of freedmen in funerary monuments, in which they would often be guilty of making up for status by being a little over-the-top with decoration (think Del Boy!) While we can definitely say this of this tomb, we can’t for sure know whether he was a freedman or just a guy with bad (Roman) taste (although I must say I absolutely love the tomb design!). There is no evidence in the inscriptions found on this tomb to suggest that he is a libertus (freedman), as it was fairly common (although against what basis it isn’t clear) for freedmen to declare their background. For example, one may say on his tomb ‘Marcus Vergilius, Freedman of Lucius So-And-So’ or have his previous master’s name incorporated into his own. Eurysaces does not do this. However, the freedman debate is further enhanced by his particularly Greek sounding name, often the indication of a previous life as a slave, but again we can’t be sure.

Either way, freedman or not, this guy had guts, and an abundance of pride for his career, not to mention a good amount of money to build it in the first place. The tomb is one of the best examples of Romans showing pride in their occupation and source of wealth that I think we have, and thus shows that despite Latin literature’s often biased nature for labour being a bad thing in Rome, and associated with the lowest, it can’t have always been a bad thing to associate oneself with. For example, what about the garum seller from Pompeii, he was hardly hard off! But that’s a story for another day…

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