"To the spirits of the dead. For Pomponia Valentina, the well-deserving wife, and for Marcus Domitius Valentinus, the sweetest son of 6 years and 11 months. Marcus Domitius Valens, soldier in the praetorian fleet at Misenum, had this grave made." EDR 131603

Belonging to family and loved ones is a basic need shared by humanity across time and space. This need was without a doubt also very real to individuals in the Roman world. The Family Back Home is a research project aimed at locating the relatives of Roman marines, sailors and merchants in the harbour towns of the Italian peninsula during the first four centuries CE.

The project is financed by The Carlsberg Foundation's Queen Margrethe II's Rome grant. The primary home of the research project is The Danish Institute in Rome.

Family and loved ones

Roman gravestones and the accompanying epitaphs are most often interpreted as advertisement for a family's position within the community. But, in reality they are not only expressions of pride and social standing, but also of loss and grief. Likewise, the altars and dedications to the gods made in antiquity – perhaps the Roman examples above all – can seem mechanical trade-offs, but behind this is a deeper religious sentiment driven by hope and relief.

In the 2nd century CE the newly enlisted marine Apion wrote a letter to his father back home in the Roman province of Egypt. He had just arrived at his posting with the Misenum fleet near modern day Naples, and wrote that he had given thanks to the god Serapis for keeping him safe when the dangers of the sea had nearly ended his life. The letter overflows with greetings for his brother, sister and friends at home, and he begs to receive news of their well-being.

It is, nevertheless, clear that it was not just the kin and friends from back home in Egypt, Dalmatia, Phrygia or other places that remained the foundation for men such as Apion. For many men enlisted in the Roman fleets, the long service meant that they fostered families at their postings in, for instance, Misenum. Especially the families of marines show up on grave commemorations, just as the one presented at the top of this page.

The many references on gravestones to provinces and places far from Rome and the Italian peninsula found in, for instance, Misenum is evidence for the complexity of life in the harbour cities - just as Apion’s letter shows an example of how lines of communication stretch across continents forming an Empire-wide network tied together by close personal relationships.

Contact

  • PhD Niels Bargfeldt
  • Postdoctoral Research Fellow
  • The Danish Institute in Rome &
  • Aarhus University
  • klanb@cas.au.dk