Tomb Buildings in Noricum

Siehe diesen Text auf


Roman tombs were – as ours are today – identified above ground, at least by a wooden plaque. Wealthier families, on the other hand, were able to afford either actual tomb stones, which in general carried an inscription and portraits of the deceased family members and/or other relief decoration, or even a tomb building. Since most of this evidence for tomb structures consists of isolated finds of architectural elements, it can only be very roughly assigned to a specific tomb type. A fortuitous find for scholarship was the discovery of the tomb buildings from the necropolis of Šempeter (near Celeia/Celje, Slovenia) which had been swept away by the Savinja. Here, it has been possible to reconstruct marble funerary monuments of differing types almost in their entirety.

The tumulus tomb was adopted from Italic and Mediterranean regions, whereby a tumulus of earth was piled up over the cremation burial and enclosed by a wall. A special form is the so-called Norican-Pannonian tumulus tomb, which was not provided with such a retaining wall. From this type, mixed forms developed with built-in tomb chambers, with or without an entrance corridor and exterior retaining wall.

The grave stele represents the simplest type of funerary monument. In general, this consists of a vertical, rectangular stone plaque, which is at least visually divided into upper and lower parts or multiple fields, and which, in the better executed cases, imitates a house- or temple façade. In the uppermost area – the gable – mythological figures are often depicted, generally guardians of the tomb or accompaniers of the soul, such as the Medusa head, dolphins, birds or wild animals; in the 1st century astral symbols also appear. Beneath the gable - frequently in a recessed niche - representations of the deceased, or reliefs representing occupations, are found. Below this appears the inscription, usually framed, which at the very least records the name of the deceased. Additionally, age, official position, and occupation of the tomb occupant might be recorded. The cause of death is almost never recorded in the inscription, although from Iuvavum an example of lues is known, a plague which cannot medically be more closely identified (the so-called Antonine epidemic, brought back from Persia by the army around 170 A.D.). As an example the grave stele of the family of the Cantier (Graz/St. Leonhard, Steiermark) may be mentioned. Here, the tomb inscription appears in the lower register. Above this the daughter is depicted in a medallion, flanked at left and right by two childlike figures. In the pictorial zone above, the deceased couple is represented in two medallions, the wife wearing local costume, the husband in a toga. The hairstyle of the husband suggests a date in the late 1st century A.D. In the gable, a winged Medusa head appears, above which two dolphins swim.

Stelai with more simple decoration were already used by the Roman traders in the 1st c. B.C. for their burials on the Magdalensburg.

Somewhat more costly and luxurious were the grave altars. These had a stepped socle, above which was a block-like lower podium. On top of this came the altar-form grave stone with an inscription. In many cases, an attachment in the form of a pyramid formed the crowning element. In Noricum, portrait medallions have often been restored as terminal elements in reconstructions of grave altars. The portrait medallions are a typical characteristic for this province, although their reconstruction as a terminal element is not one hundred percent certain since most of the examples were discovered without additional finds. These objects take the form of a stone carved into the shape of a circle or shield (clipeus), with the portrait bust of the deceased depicted in the recessed inner niche. This form of funerary monument was probably developed out of the wax images of ancestors (imago clipeata) kept in household shrines. The frame was made in the form of an interwoven laurel wreath. An upper attachment forming a roof crowned the medallions and protected them from weathering. An example of such a portrait medallion is found in the church of St. Marein in Greith, near Neumarkt in Carinthia. A married couple is represented here, the woman at the left, the man at the right side. The woman is represented in the Norican costume. She touches her husband, who wears the toga, on his upper right arm. This representation can also be dated, on the basis of the hair style and beard of the man, to the second half of the 2nd century A.D. Grave altars were generally used in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

The most extravagant and expensive form of funerary monument was the aedicula, a form which encompasses numerous different types. Common to all types is the lower element, placed on top of a socle; the urn was placed inside this lower element. This element generally carried the grave inscription, and was divided into vertical and horizontal fields decorated with reliefs. The upper section could take on a variety of forms. One possibility was a niche in the form of a temple with two prostyle columns; the roof lay on top of this. In the scholarship, this type is termed a ‘distyle prostyle aedicula’. In front of the rear wall of the niche might be placed either statues in the round of the deceased or a plaque with reliefs of the dead.

The aedicula ‘in antis’ contained a relief niche without prostyle columns. For the aedicula with relief façade, the division into lower- and upper-storey is not clearly visible, since the pilasters in the corners extended across the entire middle field. At the façade, the resulting field is divided into an inscription zone below, and a portrait zone above. The side faces were each formed out of a simple rectangular, vertical relief plaque. The monument terminated at the top with a gabled roof. Indeed, grave aediculae were already occasionally found before the second half of the 2nd century A.D., although they really first became fashionable towards the end of the 2nd century, when the economic boom of the Severan period enabled the construction of more expensive funerary monuments. The occupants of the grave aediculae belonged exclusively to the families of the honestiores, the leading members of the middle class who held the positions of civic magistrates and provision officers of the legions (tribuni), owned large estates in the country, and controlled wholesale trade and export.

On the majority of representations, the women wear the indigenous Norican-Pannonian fibula costume. The men, on the other hand, had themselves represented relatively early on wearing the toga – provided that they possessed Roman citizenship. In general, children were shown in the same outfits as their parents. The grave portraits which are preserved show us the dead face to face; the physiognomies are not idealised. This fact fulfils the desire to remain alive in the memory of posterity, and to be viewed as models for the following generations. An example is provided by the gravestone from Flavia Solva in Schloss Seggau, dating to ca. 200 A.D. : here, a married couple is depicted with a daughter. The mother (left) and daughter (middle) wear the local female costume, recognisable by the shoulder fibula, the pectoral, and the Norican bonnet. The father (right) is dressed in a toga. In his left hand he holds a (damaged) book scroll, which he touches with the index and middle finger of his right hand.

The exterior faces of the tomb buildings were used for relief representations of very varied forms, of which a few examples which are typical for Noricum can be described and explained in what follows. These representations have to do with motifs that either thematise the magisterial or private sphere, or which are connected to conceptions of the afterlife.

The sella curulis or official chair, always shown empty, indicates on the reliefs the highest official position which the deceased had obtained. The official chair is flanked by lectors and scribes, who carry out the orders of the official. A relief from Bad Waltersdorf (Styria) shows such a scene. Here, the sella curulis which is shown in the middle is carried by two kneeling, winged figures. Two servants hold a wreath above the middle of the stool, and at the left and right respectively stand a lector and a scribe.

Probably the most frequently encountered reliefs are representations of female and male servants. These are, in contrast to their deceased masters, generally depicted standing, and have no portrait features. The servants are shown as sacrificial attendants, scribal slaves, assistants at the hunt, grooms, and messengers. Here we may mention two such reliefs.

On the narrow side of a grave altar from Virunum is shown a youth wearing a tunic. A cloth (mappa) hangs over his left shoulder, and he holds a jug (urceus) in his right hand. With this utensil, he assists his master in performing a sacrifice. This image should stand as a symbol of the pietas of his deceased master, his pious fulfilment of his duties, and his observance of all regulations.

An example of a representation of a scribe, a librarius, is also provided by a relief from Virunum. This shows a man dressed in a long-sleeved tunic and a mantle with a hood. He has put his right leg up on a container for book scrolls. The unrolled scroll (volumen) lies open on his right thigh, and he writes on it. In his bent left arm he holds a case in which quills for writing are visible. This librarius-representation probably served as a symbol of the authority to command which his master possessed.

In contrast to the depictions of male servants, which symbolised the pietas of their masters, the interpretation of the representations of female servants is contested. Their attributes could just as easily be objects for personal care as sacrificial utensils. They hold small chests, mirrors, jugs, pails, and cloths in their hands. These representations offer an important contribution to the reconstruction of the native costume in Noricum and Pannonia, as the female servants are shown wearing the so-called Norican-Pannonian fibula costume. A relief from Virunum (Maria Saal) serves as an example: this shows a girl standing on a podium, holding a mirror in her left hand and a small box in her right hand. She wears the local costume, consisting of an undergarment and an over-dress, fastened at the shoulders with two fibulae and belted around the hips.

Occasionally reliefs have been found which depict a male and a female servant together. In general, the female servant stands at the left, the male at the right, facing each other, as on another relief from Maria Saal. She holds an open box in her hand and reaches into it, while he holds a jug in his right hand and has a cloth draped over his left shoulder. This might be a representation of a domestic scene, or it might just as well depict a sacrificial scene (with the box as an incense box?), or an indication of the rituals surrounding the burial.

In addition to these supposedly realistic representations, reliefs with a wide range of mythological themes are also typical for Noricum and Pannonia. These reliefs are frequently concerned with death, with abduction by the gods, or the carrying off of a heroic figure and his return from the hereafter or other far-off place. Here clearly the hope is expressed for a continued life after death, or for a return from the underworld.

The tomb buildings at Šempeter provide a series of fine examples of this theme. On one occasion, the abduction of the maiden Europa by Zeus, transformed into a bull, is shown. Many reliefs, unfortunately badly eroded by water due to their lying on the river bed of the Savinja, relate the story of the attempted sacrifice of Iphigenia by her own father Agamemnon in Aulis, her carrying off by Artemis to Tauris, and finally her rescue and return home by her brother Orestes. Particularly impressive is the representation of Heracles/Hercules leading Alcestis, who voluntarily died in place of her husband Admetos, back out of the underworld.

One of the finest and best-preserved reliefs from Noricum can now be presented, the ‘Punishment of Hector’ from Virunum. Out of revenge, Achilles drags with his chariot the body of the Trojan Hector, whom he had killed, around the burial tumulus of his friend Patroklos, who was killed by Hector. Many archaeologists have interpreted this scene as a symbol of undying love after death; however, the fact that Hector’s body, with divine aid, survived this punishment intact, and that his body was eventually ransomed and properly buried by his father Priam, might also have played a role in the choice of this scene.

In addition, scenes from the myth cycle surrounding the god Bacchus-Liber-Dionysos, who symbolised lack of cares and an untroubled life for humanity, were also frequently represented. The god himself is rarely depicted; instead we see his followers, the maenads and satyrs who process intoxicated through the woods. The maenads are either dressed or naked, dance to the rhythm of their tambourines, and beat cymbals. The satyrs carry fruit baskets and slaughtered birds or hares, or play the flute. In addition to individual representations, some of the reliefs depict satyrs and maenads together, as on an example from Virunum. The satyr prowls around the maenad and wants to tear off her clothing. She attempts to defend herself against the satyr with her right hand, while holding her clothing tight with her left.

So-called mourning genii are also frequently encountered in Noricum. These are depicted frontally, with one leg crossed over the other, and leaning on a torch. The torch is shown with its burning end turned down to the ground, symbolising that life has been quenched. The genii of mourning call the viewer to remember the dead, and symbolise the grief of those remaining behind.

The reliefs mentioned here, and their interpretation, represent only a fraction of the preserved material, as only those aspects of the burial customs which provide an overview can be presented here.

In addition to the richly decorated tomb buildings, another burial form is also typical for large areas of Noricum and Pannonia, namely, the so-called Norican-Pannonian tumulus tomb.

The Norican-Pannonian tumulus tombs are found above all in the south-east Norican and western Pannonian regions (the Styrian-southern Burgenland group), but they also are encountered in western Lower Austria (the Wienerwald-Dunkelsteinerwald group) and in the Salzburger Land, as well as in the neighbouring Chiemgau. The typical Norican tumulus tomb takes the form of a mound of earth heaped up over the cremation burial, without exterior supporting walls.

Also here differing burial possibilities are encountered throughout the course of the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. In the simple tumulus tombs without fittings, "Brandflächengräber" and "Brandgrubengräber" are encountered. In the case of "Brandflächengräber", the burnt remains were distributed over a large area, and lay unprotected beneath the heaped-up earth. In the case of the "Brandgrubengräber", the burnt remains were placed in pits in the ground. Furthermore, the cremated remains could also be placed in an urn or stone chest, or the cremation burial might be provided with a stone covering or surrounding border of stones. The typologically more recent tumulus tombs with grave chambers were much more elaborate; here, the chambers could be circular, square, or rectangular in form. Tumulus tombs which possessed a grave chamber with entrance passage (dromos) are known as Dromos tombs (Figs. 23, 24).

With regard to the grave goods found in the tumulus tombs, a distinction is made in the scholarship between offerings which were burned together with the body, and those which were buried after the remains had been burned. Those which were burned with the body show traces of burning, and in most cases consist of such objects as coins, elements of costume such as fibulae, belt buckles and belt clasps, and containers for food and drink. In the case of objects buried after the cremation, these generally take the form of containers which were probably used for the usual funerary banquet, and in which are found traces of the meal given to the dead to accompany them in the afterlife. Valuable objects such as gold and silver jewellery, and also weapons and tools, are found very infrequently in such tombs. The forms of the pottery and of the elements of costume generally conform to local traditions. Sporadically, the dead were also provided with imported wares such as Terra Sigillata or Raetian pottery. Based on the evidence of the grave goods, most of the Norican-Pannonian tumulus tombs have been dated to the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. One can assume, however, that this burial custom continued in certain regions into the 3rd century.

A problem that has concerned scholars since the early 20th century is the question of the origin of this burial custom, which apparently suddenly appeared in Noricum around the end of the 1st c. B.C., that is, shortly after the occupation of Noricum by Rome. The fact that tombs of the late Latene period in Noricum are scarcely known means that nothing certain can be said regarding pre-Roman burial customs. It is however certain that from the 6th to the 4th centuries B.C., inhumation burial was the norm, and that after the 3rd century B.C., cremation burial became more and more frequent. Therefore it is generally assumed that this burial custom was dominant up until the Roman occupation; exceptional examples such as the inhumation grave of a smith dating to the late Latene period (late 2nd century or early 1st century B.C.) near St. Pölten, however, provide a warning that this assumption must be treated with care.

The frequently attested re-use of tumulus tombs from the Hallstatt period (8th – 5th c. B.C.) during the Roman period can in no way be seen as providing evidence that unbroken continuity in burial customs existed; the most that one can conclude is the existence of a conscious tradition, a resumption of local burial customs which were held to be typical.

The earliest tumulus tomb fields in Noricum are found in the region around the later Municipium Flavia Solva (Wagna, Styria). These are dated to the late Augustan period (beginning of the 1st century A.D.) and reveal native characteristics, recognisable in the type of grave goods, for example the form of the pottery and the elements of costume. In the Claudian period (mid-1st century A.D.), Roman influence in the form of the grave goods becomes gradually more visible. The indigenous customs for grave offerings, however, are maintained, in spite of the Roman imports (Terra Sigillata, fibulae, glassware, etc.). Italo-Roman burial forms and customs of grave offerings only appear after the reign of Vespasian (69-79 A.D.). These are apparent in the use of walled grave chambers, the presence of coins as grave offerings, and generally fewer grave goods as had previously been the case.

The presence of the fields of tombs at some distance from the Roman roads, and therefore removed from direct Roman influence, allows the assumption that in this case old native customs were resuscitated. Epigraphic evidence, in the form of inscriptions found in only a very small number of the tumulus tombs, indicates that the names are Celtic or Celto-Roman, and suggests that individuals from the native population were buried in the tumulus tombs. Furthermore, the infrequency and relatively late appearance of tomb inscriptions which can with certainty originally be assigned to a tumulus tomb, reveals that this typically Roman funerary practice was almost completely unknown for those who were buried in the tumulus tombs, or even that it was consciously rejected.

On the other hand, the derivation of the tumulus burials from an indigenous Norican burial custom is not really convincing, given the long chronological gap between the tumulus burials of the Hallstatt culture and those of the Roman period. Their sudden appearance almost exactly after the occupation by Rome could also have been the result of an anti-Roman reaction, and the resulting tumulus tomb might be seen as the possible expression of such a reaction. A fact that has up until this point not been frequently remarked is that the Norican-Pannonian tumulus tombs – in spite of the somewhat confusing nomenclature given to them by scholars – are in fact unknown precisely in the core regions of regnum Noricum. To date, no tumulus tombs have been found in the entire central and western Carinthian area (the regions around Virunum and Teurnia), in the Slovenian regions to the west of Celeia, in eastern Tyrol (Aguntum) and in southern Salzburg. These instead are encountered only in the orginal Tauriscan and Boiian lands, and in other peripheral regions of the regnum Noricum after its sudden expansion in the second half of the 1st century B.C. The Norici, friends of Rome for a century and a half, and their allied civitates never cultivated this custom; rather, the tribes who surrounded this region and who were hostile to Rome and Noricum did.

It has recently been explicitly pointed out that the distribution map common until now is also probably misleading, in particular for the expansion, accepted until now, of the tumulus tombs of modest density in the central and eastern Pannonian region and within urban cemeteries in the border regions. Namely, tumulus tombs of Italo-Mediterranean type should be categorized separately from the simple earth tumuli erected by the indigenous peoples, as the former are characterized by a retaining wal. Such tomb buildings, best exemplified by the Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome, are attested in Noricum above all in the urban settlements along or near the military border, in Cetium (St. Pölten) and Lauriacum (Lorch near Enns), and furthermore in Carnuntum in north-west Pannonia. The older argument that the emergence of tumulus tombs near Roman settlements can generally be explained by Roman influence is probably incorrect, if we recognise that tumulus tombs can be divided into two separate categories: those of local type, without retaining walls, and without inscriptions, and those which do reflect Roman influence via their masonry retaining walls.

In conclusion it can be stated that the burial forms which are typical for Noricum - in addition to fulfilling the desire not to be forgotten by posterity and, in case of the existence of an afterlife, to be fully prepared for it - still leave many questions unanswered. Roman influence is much more evident in the tomb buildings than in the tumulus tombs. In spite of this, however, indigenous or – formulated more neutrally – local elements are apparent in the furnishing and arrangement of tomb buildings and funerary stelai, as for example the representation of deceased females in native costume. Another example of a local characteristic is the decorative feature of the Norican-Pannonian kymation, which above all appears after the mid-2nd century A.D. This decorative fillet, ornamented with end-volutes and almost baroque in appearance, was located at the upper edge of the borders of the pictorial field (Figs. 18 and 19). On the one hand, this decoration can be understood as proof of a lack of ‘Romanisation’; on the other hand it can be interpreted as symbolising the proud expression of local identity, fed with pseudo-Celtic traditionalism in a nostalgic manner, within the Roman world.

Julia Stundner



Akten der Symposien über das Provinzialrömische Kunstschaffen, I–VII (seit 1989)

V. Gassner – S. Jilek – S. Ladstätter, Am Rande des Reiches (2002).

C. Hinker, Zwanzig Jahre Forschung zu norisch-pannonischen Hügelgräbern in der Steiermark, Römisches Österreich 28, 2005, 155 ff.

E. Hudeczek, Das Hügelgräberfeld von Flavia Solva, Fundberichte aus Österreich 42, 2003, 195 ff.

E. Hudeczek, Hügelgräber und Romanisierung, Fundberichte aus Österreich 43, 2004, 527 ff.

G. Kremer, Antike Grabbauten in Noricum, Sonderschriften Österr. Archäolog. Inst. 36 (2001).

L. Nagy, Beiträge zur Herkunftsfrage der norischen und pannonischen Hügelgräber, Acta Archaeologica Hungarica 53/4, 2002, 299 ff.

O. H. Urban, Das Gräberfeld von Kapfenstein und die römischen Hügelgräber in Österreich (1984).

O. H. Urban, Der lange Weg zur Geschichte (2002).

E. Walde, Im herrlichen Glanze Roms (2005).