Caecilia Metella is one of the most widely known women of ancient Rome. Yet, experts know almost nothing about her. Every trace of evidence about the life she lived is lost to history except one: a funerary monument erected after her death, a cylindrical mausoleum about three stories high and 100 feet in diameter ringed with limestone slabs.

It’s a human experience, and [through it] we can learn something about the world’s past and something about ourselves today."

Metella’s tomb is one of hundreds of Roman funerary sites that Dorian Borbonus, associate professor of history, has visited during more than a decade of research. While scholars have studied individual sites, none has done what Borbonus spent the 2016-17 academic year in Rome laying the groundwork to do. He plans to develop the first-ever study of life in ancient Rome over a 400-year period as it can be understood through its changing burial practices. If Borbonus is successful, his history will slash across social class because it will have at its roots the one experience inescapable for everyone: death.

Archaeologists, treasure hunters and thieves have been excavating Rome for centuries, but there remain places that are little-touched. Borbonus became interested in one narrow category of them when he was studying maps of the land along the Via Appia. The maps recorded a number of ancient, underground vaults recessed into walls for the burial of ashes — called columbaria — where nonelite Romans, often slaves and freed slaves attached to an aristocratic household, were buried.

When Borbonus looked into them more, he found very little information. “There was not a ton published, and everybody said the same thing. The same three or four pieces of information were repeated over and over again.”

Finding them to study firsthand can be difficult. They’re often recognizable from above ground only by tell-tale undulations in a grassy field. Once found, they’re not easy to access.

“None of them is open to the public, so you have to get a special permit. They’re all on private property, sometimes in the most exclusive suburbs of Rome, so it can be difficult to get in,” said Borbonus. “Once I got in, I would have maybe 20 minutes to an hour to look at one of them. I would survey the entire tomb just taking pictures I could look at later on. It’s not ideal.”

In his photos from multiple columbaria, he examined the architecture, the size and composition of inscriptions, the drawings and any decorative elements. The earliest columbaria show great architectural simplicity and regularity, epitaphs are brief, and decoration is minimal. Furthermore, they are underground. All of this data, he wrote, “squarely inverts the keen demand for attention” demanded by sites like Caecilia Metella’s monument. In the columbaria’s collective burial, Borbonus saw egalitarianism that signaled a moment of collective identity and social cohesion among Rome’s nonelite. But it didn’t last long, just a few decades.

Why study death?

“It’s something that everybody faces, no matter who it is, where they live, no matter which time period they come from,” said Borbonus. “It’s a human experience, and [through it] we can learn something about the world’s past and something about ourselves today.” 

Each year, the American Academy in Rome hosts up to 30 recipients of the prestigious Rome Prize, which provides a stipend, room and board and other benefits for 11 months to support innovative scholarly and creative projects. Borbonus, a German citizen, snagged the only 2016-17 Rome Prize available to a non-U.S. citizen.