Isola Sacra: life and death in ancient Rome

The Isola Sacra necropolis offers a rare insight into cosmopolitan middle-class life and death over three ancient Roman dynasties.

Located just south of the coastal town of Fiumicino, some 30km south-west of Rome, the Isola Sacra is an artificial island containing a necropolis or cemetery dating from the first century AD and which was in use for around 300 years.

Situated at the mouth of the Tiber, the island which was not declared sacred until the sixth century, is bordered by the Fossa Traiana to the north (now the canal of Fiumicino), the Tiber to the east and south, and the sea to the west.

Isola Sacra was created by Trajan around 130 AD as the result of the construction of a connecting canal between the Tiber and the sea, replacing an earlier Claudian canal. The island forms a rough rectangle, and is now wider towards the west than it was in the classical period due to sand deposition from the sea over centuries.

The cemetery was most probably submerged under a build-up of silt and sand by the sixth century and only came to light in the 1920s when a land reclaim operation was underway. It was restored over the next 20 years. For the last two decades the British School at Rome has been instrumental in the successful excavation of Portus, the Roman empire's first deep water port close to Rome. The original harbour was begun around 46 AD by Claudius (10 BC – 54 AD) and completed some 20 years later, after his death.

At first glance the general effect of the cemetery is of a miniature village complete with its houses, tree lined streets and squares. Strict rules dictated the dimensions of the sepulchres, which were vigorously checked and recorded on marble plaques set in front of the tomb.

The majority of the 100 sepulchres had little courtyards leading to the doorway with an inscription over it. Once inside there were one or two rooms – some have two floors – niches for urns, decorations and space for families to come and remember their loved ones. One features a terrace, inviting families and friends to sit in the sun and have a picnic maybe, musing over old times.

The most-sought after burial sites were the ones most visible from the then first-century main road connecting the cities of Ostia and Portus. As with the Via Appia Antica in Rome, the most important tombs were always the ones closest to the road, acting as a public display of the dead person’s wealth and importance.

An evocative wander through this peaceful site allows visitors to admire the sarcophagi, Greek and Latin inscriptions, scraps of mosaic floors, fragments of elegant stuccoed ceilings and beautifully-painted faded murals. Families embellished the sepulchres where the remains of their loved ones were placed – quite possibly echoing the décor of their own houses in life, thus creating a reassuring home from home for those left behind.

Most of the families buried at the Isola Sacra were established tradesmen from farmers to fishermen, blacksmiths to water carriers. Tools of their trade are depicted in terracotta plaques still attached to the exterior walls. Then there were the professionals. Take a husband and wife team for example, surgeon Marco Ulpio Amerimno depicted doing something gruesome to a patient’s leg, a range of intimidating large knives lined up behind him.

A further plaque is of his better half – midwife Scribonia Attice – depicted on a low stool, arms outstretched to receive the baby, her naked patient in a chair, another woman is holding her under her arms. The plaque on the exterior of the tomb translates thus: May this monument be protected against evil! Built by Scribonia Attice for herself, her husband Marco, for Scribonia Callityche her mother, Diocles and freedmen and their descendants except Panaratus and Prosdocia. This tomb is for our exclusive use. One wonders what P & P could have done to incur her wrath to be so publicly shamed and excluded.

A fisherman’s family commissioned a black and white mosaic of a lighthouse and two ships outside his sepulchre with a Greek inscription declaiming “here ends every endeavour”, there’s another ship with three sailors, a fourth steering with the ship’s rudder. Another plaque depicts a carpenter complete with an array of the tools of his trade – hammers, shears, grips, planes, anvil and workbench – tools that could certainly be used today.

On another a farmer crushes wheat with the aid of a working horse harnessed to walk round the mill. A further terracotta plaque shows a blacksmith standing on a bench working on a grindstone. On the right is a plaque showing a man behind his shop counter, surrounded by practical tools while another works at a bench.

First prize for the most unusual floor mosaic for a necropolis has to be awarded to the black and white image of a nude lady putting on or removing a robe, a small bird, a dove maybe, and a half open casket with a necklace spilling out of it at her feet. Read into that what you will. The powers that be say it’s an image of Venus, but who knows.

Business at the necropolis must have been brisk. The average life span at the time was 23 years based on the people buried there. At that time a mere 10 per cent of the population made it past 50. The women crammed bearing an average of 6 children into their all too brief lives. No wonder Scribonia could afford a fancy tomb. Once excavated, the site yielded a treasure trove of over 2,000 skeletons, providing archaeologists with priceless information about diet, longevity and origins at the time.

The skeletons revealed that the average height for males was 164 cm (five foot four inches), for women 152 cm (five foot.) The Isola Sacra necropolis represents a rare insight into cosmopolitan middle class life and death over three dynasties – Hadrian, the Antonines and the Severan Dynasty. An on-going treasure trove for archaeologists and an unusual pleasure for all who make the trip to see Isola Sacra in its tranquil setting.

By Jenni Scott
Visiting information
Isola Sacra is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays 10.00-16.00, also on the first and third Sunday of the month. Admission is free but booking is obligatory, tel. 066583888. Via Monte Spinoncia 52.
The site is badly signposted and access by public transport is difficult. Easiest access is by car, and then perhaps by taxi from Rome costing about €50 one way. Alternatively the Isola Sacra can be reached by train or bus to Fumicino airport and then two stops on a Cotral coach to Via della Scafa 374, Ostia.

General Info

Address Isola Sacra, 00121 Rome, Metropolitan City of Rome, Italy

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Isola Sacra: life and death in ancient Rome

Isola Sacra, 00121 Rome, Metropolitan City of Rome, Italy

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