To the Divine Shades: Ancient Roman Inscribed Epitaphs from the Loeb

Tombstones and other funerary monuments are the most common kind of inscribed object to survive from Roman antiquity. As is the case today, tombstones from Roman antiquity were placed at tombs not just out of a desire to commemorate and remember the dead but also as a means of marking out their social standing and place in the community of the living.  Because of this, it is not surprising that many of the examples that survive come from Rome’s lower and middle classes, especially ex-slaves who had become Roman citizens upon manumission but whose social status remained marginal. These were the people who most needed to claim their place in society by burying and remembering their dead in publicly visible ways. Most of the inscriptions exhibited were from freed slaves, but there were also examples of slaves, freeborn citizens, and soldiers.

The inscriptions in the above slideshow feature the translated texts when the image is clicked on.


The inscriptions, with the exception of 2008.1, were first studied in 2014 as part of a Greek and Roman Studies seminar on Latin epigraphy taught by Professor Bert Lott. The seminar students prepared the first editions of texts, most of which were previously unpublished. 

The stones on display all come from the Art Center’s own collection.  All but one arrived at Vassar in the first part of the twentieth century. Professor J. Leverett Moore purchased many of them with college funds while spending a sabbatical year at the American Academy in Rome in 1906. He reports that they came from the nearby Roman town of Praeneste (modern Palestrina), probably from excavations ongoing there at the time. Two of them (CC41.32 and CC41.27) were already in private hands at Rome in the nineteenth century, before being acquired by Vassar.  All but one (2008.1) were displayed in Avery Hall’s Classical Museum, founded by Professor Elizabeth Hazelton Haight in 1938.  Most of this collection was moved to the Vassar College Art Gallery (the precursor to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center) in 1968. Several inscriptions, however, had been set into the wall of Avery and were removed only upon the building’s demolition in 2003.

On view alongside the inscribed epitaphs are a selection of paintings, drawings and prints from the Art Center’s collection depicting Roman funerary monuments and ruins.  These were rich subject matter for artists working in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet inscriptions on these monuments appear with varying degrees of accuracy, often repurposed to serve an artistic vision. This exhibition was held in the Focus Gallery in spring 2015.