Temples, Tombs, and Piranesi’s Ghosts, by Louise Hodgson

A columnar, portaled Roman cinerarium (M374) in Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. © Louise Hodgson


Where do the dead live? In the dark. This gorgeous marble model of a windowless Roman house is in fact a cinerarium from the collection of the Regency era architect and collector Sir John Soane (1753–1837). Cineraria, or cinerary urns, are so called from Latin cinis, “cold ash.” A cinerarium (the grammatically neuter form of the adjective cinerarius, “pertaining to ashes”) is a thing in which ashes are placed; if you look closely at this one, you can see the roof lifts off. Until the early second century CE, Romans were generally cremated (although not exclusively so; one famous Republican clan that usually buried its dead intact was the gens Cornelia, and one reason we know this is that the most controversial Cornelius, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, arranged for his body to be burned after his death, despite the family tradition, because he was concerned his enemies might treat his body as he had treated theirs). After cremation, the ashes of the deceased would be gathered up from the pyre and placed in a cinerarium, which was then interred in a family tomb or on a shelf in a communal columbarium, just as John Soane stored his cineraria in the “Catacombs” area of his private museum, where we can still visit them today.

Out of all the cineraria in the Sir John Soane Museum’s catacombs, I circle back to this one obsessively, because besides what any cinerarium has to say about Roman lives and Roman afterlives, this one comes with a riddle revolving around husbands and wives and their responses to death. Ash chests shaped like houses are common. After all, the dead need a home as much as the living, and for a great deal longer. The Soane Museum’s online collections entry for this one cites the German scholar W. Altmann, who “traces the ancestry and development of the sepulchral altar and cinerary urn with the pilaster as the chief feature of the relief ornament. The closed door and other architectural characteristics, including the columns and acroteria, highlight the idea of the urn as a house, or a temple for the dead.” Griffins often appear in Roman funerary art, where they tend to show up guarding the dead or nudging them towards apotheosis; here a pair of griffins guard a lampstand (another common funerary motif) on the pediment.

One thing worth drawing out from this, though, is that this little temple is in the grand monumental style of the first or second century CE, when the Roman Empire was at its height. Italians had been burying their ashes in house-shaped urns going back to 1000 BCE, but those urns look quite different.

L: An Etruscan child’s terracotta hut-shaped urn with a door from Bisenzio, 900-800 BCE, currently in the Nationalmuseet. Photograph by Nationalmuseet, distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. R: A terracotta hut-shaped urn with a door from central/northern Italy (Villanovan), 8th century BCE, currently in the Walters Art Museum. Photograph by Walters Art Museum, distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Our miniature temple speaks to the wealth and power and sophistication Rome gained over that (long) time frame: the richest Romans went from scratching out a living in archaic Iron Age huts to living luxuriously in mansions. This is underlined by the material shift from terracotta to marble. Augustus (63 BCE—19 CE) famously said he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble.  He was talking about Rome’s public buildings, but the change is also apparent in how private people buried their dead. We need not suppose, however, that anyone buried in a mansion had also lived in one during their lifetime. An ash chest like this echoes the grand temple tombs the rich built for themselves. Rose MacLean observes that “freedmen in imperial Rome and Italy commissioned funerary inscriptions in significantly higher proportions than did ingenui [freeborn individuals] of any rank” and plenty of surviving cineraria housed slaves and ex-slaves of relatively modest means. Even death is aspirational.

Whose shade haunts the Soane cinerarium? This is the riddle. The inscription reads:




“Cinerarium inscription” © Louise Hodgson

This inscription includes two abbreviations that frequently appear in Roman funerary inscriptions:

DM = Dis Manibus, “to the Divine Spirits”

BM = bene merenti, “well-deserving”

Invoking the Di Manes in funerary inscriptions became a common practice from the early first century CE onwards. The Di Manes were the deified spirits of the kindly dead who, having died well and been properly laid to rest, formed a shadowy and benevolent set of underworld gods worshipped by their living relatives in the Parentalia and Lemuria festivals and by priests in the ritual opening of the Mundus, a doorway to the underworld. For this reason, we should perhaps think of our cinerarium less as a model of a temple than as a temple, quite literally. Any grave was a locus religiosus, a sacred space. Sanctified and dedicated by solemn funerary rites, the god of this little sacred space is the spirit of the person buried inside, who has joined the Di Manes and expects to receive worship just as do the di immortales (those gods who were never mortal, like Jupiter or Juno) in their rather larger temples aboveground.

The full translation reads: “To the Divine Spirits. Titus Clodius Pulcher made (this) for his well-deserving wife.”

Something very surprising is missing here: the name of the dead woman.

It was not at all uncommon for a Roman inscription to include the name of whoever was dedicating it, nor even particularly uncommon for the dedicant to be as prominent as, or indeed more prominent than, the dedicatee—but to eclipse the dedicatee altogether on her own cinerarium is deeply peculiar. Not all Romans were buried with a name tag attached (they might be too poor; their uninscribed urns might be deposited in labelled niches; in a family tomb, especially a noble one, there might be a presumption that future generations would retain the knowledge we have lost), but where an inscribed nameplate does survive, typically the least it tells us is the name of the deceased. Writing about Roman epitaphs, Maureen Carroll describes “a very real concern for the survival and perpetuation of the memory of the dead and a tangible anxiety for the individual to overcome death and ‘escape the grave’ by leaving a lasting memorial.” She identifies three comparable examples, including a lady called Iulia Phromine who managed not to name her husband on his urn, so this is not unheard of, but it is very rare. Was Clodius really so much fonder of himself than of his well-deserving wife that he forgot to include her name?

Artifacts have their own afterlives. Roman sarcophagi were often reborn as fountains, flower planters or baptismal fonts, for example, or recycled in later burials or as building material. We know this particular cinerarium came to John Soane from the sale of the collection of Lord William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough, on 7 April 1801. (The classic drivers of major art sales are “The Three Ds”: death, debt, and divorce. In this case, Lord Ponsonby had died in 1793, and the sale was forced on his son Frederick by his wife’s gambling problems.)

“A small upright cinerary urn, emblematically sculptured, with a doorway, and the sides ornamented with the lotus in a bold style, inscribed, ‘D.M. Titus Clodius. Pulcher conjugi B.M. fecit.’”


 The report on the sale in The Gentleman’s Magazine, which is clearly recognizable as our ash chest, Lot 40, for which John Soane paid £9.19.6. The Gentleman’ s Magazine is quoting Christie’s sale catalogue, of which there is also a copy in the museum’s collection, although it has not been digitized. Soane bought six cinerary urns in the same sale, one of which had a provenance including “Piranesi’s workshop” and in fact appeared in Piranesi’s 1778 collection of etchings Vasi, Candelabri, Cippi. (Of course Soane had a copy of that too.)

Today, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) is best known for his etchings of Rome and his imaginary prisons (carceri). In his own day, however, he was not just an engraver but also an antiques dealer and “restorer,” in the eighteenth-century sense, which is to say the damaged and fragmentary pieces that passed through his workshop were liable to be heavily recut or transformed into composite pieces like the two colossal candelabra in the Ashmolean Museum, which have been estimated to contain 75% new material. Similarly, funerary urns found with blank dedication plates  (whether because the urn had never been used, because an inscription had been considered unnecessary, or because the writing had been painted instead of engraved) might acquire dedications on the way through a dealer’s hands.

Detail of one of the two Piranesi candelabra in the Ashmolean Museum. © Louise Hodgson.

The Soane Museum’s collections entry for M429, the double cinerarium featured in Piranesi’s etchings, makes it clear that M429 has been heavily “restored,” with non-antique inscriptions. Unfortunately, neither Mr. James Christie nor The Gentlemen’s Magazine provide any provenance whatsoever for our urn, M374, although the collections entry does hint that M374 may have been retouched, let us say, on its way to Lord Ponsonby, in the suggestion that the rosettes on the base may be “neoclassical.” It is not farfetched to suppose M374 may have come from a similar workshop, if not the same one. What makes me most uneasy about the inscription, however, is the same thing that drew me to this cinerarium in the first place: “Titus Clodius Pulcher,” to anyone with any familiarity with Roman history, is a name that echoes one of the most famous demagogues of the late Roman Republic, Publius Clodius Pulcher. Born in 93 BCE into the patrician gens Claudia, Clodius adopted the plebeian form of the family name along with a plebeian father to further his political career, which careened from scandal to controversy until his murder in 52 BCE, whereupon his truly meritorious wife Fulvia led his supporters to burn down the senate house for his pyre.

Is this fatal for our urn? Nothing here is hard proof that the inscription is a “neoclassical” addition. Both patrician and plebeian branches of the family flourished into the empire; there may well have been Titi Clodii with wives to bury, and you could even make the counterintuitive argument that this inscription is odd enough to be genuine, since Piranesi, or any other restorer, should have done a better job of it (this is the lectio difficilior potior principle of textual criticism). Certainly, the letter-cutter seems to have miscalculated how much space he needed to squeeze in Titus Clodius’s name, which may indicate inexperience on his part, although the letters are well-formed. If he mistakenly inscribed CONIVCI for CONIVNX, for example, it may be that it was the lady who buried her husband. Or he may have become flustered by running out of space for Clodius and forgotten to fit in Clodius’s wife. Roman letter-cutters often seem to have worked from manuals, more or less thoughtfully; Prof. Carroll quotes an epitaph from Algeria that reads, “Here lies the body of a boy, name to be inserted,” the letter-cutter presumably having followed his manual rather too closely to the letter. Perhaps we do have another rare example here of the deceased disappearing from her own dedication.

All the same, our cinerarium keeps bad company, and its inscription feels so much like collector-bait that I find it hard not to wonder whether Titus Clodius Pulcher’s well-deserving wife existed at all. If so, the god of this little temple really is anonymous. Like many other Roman relicts, however, the temple itself has been relabeled and repurposed for modern uses, no doubt considerably irritating its original inhabitant. Maybe we should make offerings to the displaced Di Manes in John Soane’s catacombs the next time we pass.

With thanks to J.T. Wolfenden, Dr. Julia Tomas, and Sue Palmer for answering silly questions, generous bibliographical advice, and material from The Research Library and Archive at the Sir John Soane Museum.


Borbonus, Dorian. 2014. “Reading Between the Lines: The Vocabulary of Columbarium Epitaphs” in Columbarium Tombs and Collective Identity in Augustan Rome. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 106-134.

Borg, Barbara. 2019. Roman Tombs and the Art of Commemoration. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Carroll, Maureen. 2006. Spirits of the Dead: Roman Funerary Commemoration in Western Europe. Oxford University Press: Oxford/New York. 18 (quotation above), 106 (Algerian inscription), 128 (Iulia Phromine).

Finnegan, Rachel. 2006. “The Library of William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough, 1704-93.” Hermathena. 149-187.

King, Charles W. 2020. The Ancient Roman Afterlife: Di Manes, Belief, and the Cult of the Dead. University of Texas Press: Austin.

MacLean, Rose. 2018. Freed Slaves and Roman Imperial Culture. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 3 (quotation above).

Noy, David. 2000. “‘Half-Burnt on an Emergency Pyre’: Roman Cremations Which Went Wrong.”

Greece & Rome 47.2: 186-196.

Van Eck, Caroline. “Piranesi’s Candelabra.” Arts & Sociétés. http://www.sciencespo.fr/artsetsocietes/archives/3333 [Accessed 5 Sep 2021].

Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. 2008. “Housing the Dead: The Tomb as House in Roman Italy” in Brink, Laurie and Green, Deborah. 2008. Commemorating the Dead: Texts and Artefacts in Context. Walter de Gruyter: Berlin. 39-77.


Louise Hodgson is the author of Res Publica and the Roman Republic: Without Body or Form (Oxford, 2017). She has a PhD in Roman History and volunteers at the Soane Museum in her free time.

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