Along ‘burial streets’, near city gates and at crossroads within and outside Rome, one comes across distinctive reliefs incorporated into the facades of the tombs. They are typified by the box-like frame which surrounds the figures of the deceased, shown only from the waist up. Usually couples are depicted, sometimes accompanied by their children. Around 125 such reliefs are known from Rome and its immediate surroundings alone. Many of them have inscriptions from which it is apparent that they belonged predominantly to freed slaves (libertini) or their descendants. On our relief, too, large and carefully chiselled letters announce the names of those depicted: Publius Aiedius Amphio, freed slave of Publius, and Aiedia Fausta Melior, freed slave of Publius. No eye contact, but only a slight turning of the head and their clasped hands link them with each other. Compared with the detailed and uncompromisingly reproduced marks of age in the man’s face and his carefully draped toga, the clasped hands of husband and wife seem rather clumsy. The left hand of the wife, who is shown as a young woman, grasps her cloak and is adorned with two clearly visible rings. It was almost exclusively freed slaves, belonging to a social middle class, who chose this form of grave memorial in the late republican period and the first decades of the first century AD. The iconographic peculiarities of the relief are explained by the intentions of the particular group who commissioned this type of work. The whole purpose of the portraits and the inscription on the relief is to make abundantly clear to everyone their successful acquisition of Roman citizenship. In this respect, quoting the Roman name was of great significance. Slaves only had one, usually Greek, name. After their manumission, slaves took on the given name and clan name of their patrons, while their slave names, as Amphio has done in this case, became their family name. Aiedia also bears her slave name, Fausta Melior, as her cognomen. The toga, the official garb of the Roman citizen, was likewise a status symbol and correspondingly emphasized in the relief. The disproportionately large hand which Aiedius extends to his wife underlines the significance of the gesture. The joining together of hands (dextrarum iunctio) was part of the Roman marriage ritual. The image of ‘clasped hands’ stands for the legality of the marriage. Aiedus wished to be depicted as he really was, with deep wrinkles, sagging cheeks and warts on his face. While an unvarnished description of old age and physical decay corresponds to a stylistic trend in late republican portrait sculpture, in the case of the images of freed slaves, it is probably also to be seen as a conscious allusion to the time-honoured Roman tradition of ancestor portraiture amongst the noble families of the city of Rome. Thus, the wrinkles could be understood as a sign of highly-prized Roman qualities such as honour (dignitas) and virtue (virtus). It was thanks to such virtue that one could achieve a certain standard of affluence, proudly demonstrated in the prominent display of the rings. By choosing a site for one’s monument on ‘burial streets’, which were actually busy arterial roads, or in some other much-frequented place, one had the best chance of reaching the largest possible audience with one’s tomb portrait. As reliefs which have survived in situ show, the deceased looked down from the box-shaped frames in the front of their tombs like inhabitants of a house looking out of their windows at passers-by, and could likewise be seen by them.


  • Title: Watching from a window
  • Creator: Unknown
  • Date Created: -30/-20
  • Location: Rome, Via Appia
  • Physical Dimensions: w99 x h64 cm
  • Type: Relief
  • Medium: White marble
  • Inv.-No.: Sk 840
  • ISIL-No.: DE-MUS-814319
  • External link: Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  • Copyrights: Text: © Verlag Philipp von Zabern / Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Sylvia Brehme || Photo: © b p k - || Photo Agency / Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Ingrid Geske
  • Collection: Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz

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