Tombstone of Ulpia Aurelia Valeria

The question of the significance of the feasting scene has elicited much discussion among scholars and no definitive explanation has been accepted[1]. For our purposes however the meaning of the banquet scene in Ulpia Aurelia Valeria’s gravestone may be determined if attention is given to the inscription that complements it, to follow the suggestion provided by Dunbabin about “visual and verbal clues” that may indicate a possible direction in the interpretation of the message. Before going any further it is necessary to remark that Ulpia’s gravestone is special because it commemorates the death of a little girl who was three years old at the time of her passing.

Susan Walker alludes to Ulpia’s tombstone inscription as an example of a personalized significance: “Some children’s sarcophagi were given a personal meaning, not by portrait but by an inscription naming the child and his grieving parents. Such an inscription would normally give the exact age of the child at death, in years, months and days.” (Walker 43)

I agree with Walker and would like to contend that Ulpia’s tombstone presents an interesting case where both word (inscription) and image (banquet scene) are conjugated to produce the “personalized meaning” the stele intends to convey. In order to substantiate this interpretation it is befitting to describe the iconographic elements of the gravestone.

There seems to be a disagreement in terms of how the scholars have identified the figures in the vignette at the top of the stele. For Smith there are five persons: two men and a women plus two servants (a boy and a girl). The woman is seating on a chair touching her face with her left hand while the men, one of which wears a beard, are reclining on the couch. According to this description the deceased child Ulpia is not depicted in the relief. (Smith 345) For Walker, on the other hand, Ulpia is portrayed in the picture. What for Smith is a woman, for Walker happens to be the child Ulpia who has been depicted at the same size as the other adults: “Though only three years old when she died, she is portrayed the same size as the adults who recline on the couch next to her wicker chair.” (Walker 44-5-45)

Whether Ulpia is or not depicted in the vignette, the inscription in Latin may shed some light on the intended meaning of her tombstone. It is convenient to include a translation here beside the transcription:

D(is)  M(anibus)

Ulpiae  Aureliae ∙ Va-

leriae ∙ virgini ∙ dextra-

te ∙ annis ∙ III ∙ mensibus

VIIII  d(iebus)  XVII  filiae Aure-

li  Herculani  v(iri)  e(gregii)  duce-

nari  qui ∙ vixit  annis

XIII(?)  mens(ibus)  VIII  d(iebus) XVI

nepotiae  pientissi-

me  Ulp(ius) ∙ Valerius ∙ Au-

relianus ∙ v(ir) ∙ e(gregius) ∙ cente-

narius ∙ et ∙ Titania ∙Mansueta ∙ stolata ∙ femina ∙ viator,     resiste ∙ et ∙ lege ∙ nihil ∙

ultra∙crudelius ∙ h(oc)? ∙ m(onumento)? ∙ c(ernere)? ∙ p(otes)?[2]

To the spirits of the departed. To Ulpia Aurelia Valeria, a young girl already bethroted [?], 3 years, 9 months, 17 days, daughter of Aurelius Herculanus, His Excellency with the rank of ducenarius, who lived for 13 years [sic], 8 months, 16 days. (This was dedicated) to their most dutiful granddaughter by Ulpius Valerius Aurelianus, His Excellency with the rank of centenarius, and Titania Mansueta, a woman who wears the stola. Traveller, stop and read. Nothing could be more crueller that this monument. (Translation provided by Walker 44)

This text contains several features that may illuminate the intended meaning of the message. In the first place it is noteworthy how Ulpia’s geneaology is detailed and it goes back to her grandparents Ulpius Valerius Aurelianus and Titania Mansueta. The fact that both Ulpius Valerius and his son Aurelius Herculanus are attributed titles such as centenarius and ducenarius which Walker claims were “honorary titles awarded for civilian and military service to the emperor” (Walker 45) constitutes grounds for positing Ulpia’s family intention of showing off their rank and status in society. Moreover, as Walker also contends, her grandmother Titania is depicted wearing the stola which points to her social position as a member of the equestrian class.[3]

Thus, the first point that standouts in this inscription is Uplia’s family desire to establish their high standing in life[4]. Which is consistent with the general usage of iconographic motives within a funerary context, according to Dunbabin as these were not only meant to commemorate a deceased but also to convey the power and social rank of his family. In the case of Ulpia, her family enjoys a privileged position in society as both her father and grandfather seem to have distinguished themselves in the emperor’s service. But more striking is the final sentence of the inscriptions. It addresses the passerby ("viator" = “traveler”) and asks him/her whether they would find something more “crueler” than the present stele which points to the pain and suffering Ulpia’s passing has caused.

How then is the portrayal of the banquet scene to be interpreted in light of these sad words? Is the banquet a joyful celebration of life or rather a somber depiction of a mournful and sorrowful family? How is the woman’s gesture to be understood? As a gesture of sadness caused by the loss of the little Ulpia?

[1] “The interpretation to be placed on these scenes has been the subject of discussion and controversy for more than two centuries. Many commentators have argued that the motif carries a single basic meaning; that the reclining banqueters should be seen either as a representation of the deceased during life, enjoying the worldly pleasures of the banquet, or in an eschatological sense, as a representation of the banquet in which they hope to participate in the next world. Other have seen it as primarily an allusion to funerary ritual, with the stress either upon the offering of food and drink to the dead or on the banquet celebrated by the survivors at the tomb. More recent commentators have recognized that the very longevity of the motif and its diffusion among peoples of diverse cultures and beliefs argue against any assumption of a single uniform significance.” (Dunbabin 108)



[3] “The stola was a garment worn by women of equestrian rank.” (Walker 45)


[4] “Inscriptions might also state the social rank of the parents and even of the child. This is particularly true of later imperial texts, notably of those from tombs located near the imperial frontier. This fashion may have derived from the army, and from a desire to emphasise the distinctions between Roman citizens and the native population.” (Walker 44)

Inscribed Tombstone of Ulpia Aurelia Valeria

Tombstone of Ulpia Aurelia Valeria,

Late 2nd/early 3rd c. CE.

Tombstone of Ulpia Aurelia Valeria