Located next to the ancient Via Labicana, about 8.4 kilometers southeast of Rome, the Tomb of the Haterii is one of the most beautifully decorated tombs that have survived from the Roman Empire. Built between 100 and 120 AD, it offers a fascinating insight into funerary art and customs of the early imperial period.

The tomb was originally constructed to honor a freedwoman named Hateria and her husband, Quintus Haterius, both prominent members of the Hateria gens. Through the preserved sculptures and inscriptions, the tomb commemorates not only the couple but several generations of their family over centuries.

They were a plebeian family, originally slaves likely belonging to the same owner, who thrived after their liberation from the late 1st century BC.

Although parts of the tomb were discovered in 1848 during roadworks, its remarkable sculptures were not fully appreciated at the time. Most were removed and transferred to the Lateran Museum in Rome and later to the Vatican Museums, where they remain today.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of detailed records, the exact location of the tomb was again lost. It wasn’t until 1970 that another accidental discovery during roadworks revealed the remaining structures, leading to a complete excavation of the site. This excavation uncovered more treasures and helped scholars reconstruct the history of this little-known but extraordinarily decorated funerary monument.

Originally, the tomb had the shape of a small two-story temple with a staircase leading to the upper part. Quintus Haterius and his descendants were likely builders involved in the construction of public monuments, and it has been suggested that the family mimicked the architectural style of temples in the tomb to highlight this aspect.

Inscriptions inside named Quintus and Hateria as founders, indicating her liberation from slavery. They also mentioned the couple’s four children, born free. Other reliefs mentioned additional family members buried there.

One notable feature is the abundance of carved marble reliefs adorning the walls and structures of the tomb. One relief depicts the construction of a similar temple-shaped funerary monument with busts in niches, possibly demonstrating the Haterii family’s involvement in construction.

It is even possible that the representation is of the construction of the Haterii tomb itself, in a curious play of architecture within architecture. This particular relief, known as the crane relief, shows a gigantic wheeled crane that could lift several tons, operated by only two men.

Archaeologist Barbara Borg has suggested that the Haterii of this tomb were freedmen (liberated slaves) of Quintus Haterius Antonius, consul in 53 AD, married to a granddaughter of Agrippa, thus having a close relationship with the imperial family.

Thus, they could have participated in the construction of the Templum Gentis Flaviae, dedicated by Domitian to the Flavian dynasty in the late 1st century, as this temple seems to have inspired the construction of temple-shaped tombs like theirs.

Another prominent relief is an elongated rectangular panel showing five buildings, identified with inscriptions, believed to represent buildings and public monuments worked on by the founder, Quintus Haterius. These include the Arch of the Temple of Isis in the Field of Mars, the Colosseum, an unidentified arch, another arch on the Via Sacra, possibly the Arch of Titus, and a hexastyle temple, possibly corresponding to the Temple of Jupiter Tonans on the Capitoline Hill or Jupiter Stator in the Forum.

Another extremely rare piece depicts the ritual of a collocatio (funeral pyre) of a woman surrounded by mourning figures, the only known example in Roman art. Stylistically, the reliefs draw inspiration from Italic and Hellenistic traditions, demonstrating that Roman funerary art maintained close visual links with its predecessors.

In the partially excavated lower level of the tomb in 1970, traces of its rich original ornamentation were found. Marble floors, mural panels, and moldings were preserved. It was also inferred that the tomb had a small garden where votive statues, including one dedicated to the rural god Silvanus and another of a cow, were placed.

Remains of the original inscription mentioning the founder, Hateria, as a priestess were also found. However, as is customary in Roman cremation burials, no intact tombs or ash deposits remained.

Elaborate sculptural portraits, including representations of Mercury, Ceres, and Proserpina, accompanied the mural reliefs. Mythological figures like these indicated that the Haterii practiced prominent mystery cults in Roman society.

Other reliefs depicted charming pastoral scenes of vineyards, animals, and rural imagery.

Unfortunately, like many ancient objects recovered in the 19th century, the documentation from the 1848 excavation was incomplete. Therefore, the original location of the sculptures within the tomb is unclear.

Most were directly sent to the Vatican Museums, so today we can only study their themes and not their archaeological context.

The 1970 excavation helped reconstruct parts of the underground structure, but unfortunately shed no light on the funerary niches or cremation deposits inside.

Nevertheless, the tomb still stands, and ongoing restoration and study continue to enrich our understanding of commemorative customs in the late Roman Empire.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 15, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en La extraordinaria tumba de los Haterios, una familia de constructores romanos que la decoraron con escenas de sus obras


Filippo Coarelli, La riscoperta del sepolcro degli Haterii. Una base con dedica a Silvano | William Michael Jensen, The Sculptures from the Tomb of the Haterii. University of Michigan ProQuest Dissertations Publishing,  1978. 7807059 | Mausoleo de los Haterii (Museos Vaticanos) | Barbara Borg, Roman Tombs and the Art of Commemoration | J. M. C. Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World | Wikipedia

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