Hannibal’s Conqueror Brings Everlasting Glory to the Scipios Family Tomb
A monument created for one man stands in the heart of Rome, but it became an eternal house for his entire family. The remarkable construction conceals the secrets of generations of people whose fame as military leaders and ancient authorities brought them eternal life through ancient texts.
The tomb belonged to a high ranking Roman patrician family, which is well known from sources dating back to the period from the 3rd BC to the 1st century AD. The ancient glory of Scipios is still reflected in the corners of the tomb. The most famous of them all and the one who made this surname so well-known was Cornelius Scipio Africanus. Even though he wasn't buried in this tomb, the recognition of this place is mostly built on his remarkable life story. Originally, the tomb was founded by Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, a consul in 298 BC. The tomb was meant to be his final resting place and his body was buried there in 290 BC. However, the spectacular construction became, with time, the necropolis of the entire family.
Map of the Scipio's Tomb in Rome, via Appia. 1 is the old entrance, 2 is a "calcinara", 3 is the administration entrance, 4 is the entrance to the new room. Letters from A to I are the sarcophagi with incriptions. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The impressive tomb was abandoned in antiquity and was forgotten for many centuries. It was rediscovered in 1780 AD and was soon recognized as a precious Roman site, quickly becoming popular. Although previously the tomb belonged to a private person, in 1880 it was bought by the city.
The Tomb of the Gods
Before its rediscovery was made, the site was covered by a fruitful vineyard. Since the discovery, there have been some changes to the original appearance of the site. For instance, the current entrance to the tomb is in an entirely different place from the original. After opening the tomb, the visitors noticed the remains of artifacts and fragments of sarcophagi. These are now exhibited at the Vatican Museum. Since 1912, the entire collection of the Tomb of the Scipios belongs to this exhibit.
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The Latter Day Entrance to the Scipios Tomb. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The ''Head of Ennius'' is one of the most exciting discoveries made in the tomb of Scipios. This artifact was discovered in 1934 and was promptly stolen. It is dated back to the 3rd century BC and seems to be related to Etruria. The head of Ennius was unearthed with a second head which was a century younger but also made in Etruscan style with some impact of ancient Greek art.
So-called head of Ennius found at the tomb. ( Public Domain )
The General who put His Family Tomb on the Map
Cornelius Scipio Africanus is famous as the hero of the Second Punic War and the general who defeated Hannibal during the battle at Zama. Most of the sources related to Scipio have been lost and, sadly, his own writings didn't survive or remain undiscovered. There are only a few fragmentary inscriptions, archaeological remains, and coins that come from the time of his inspiring life. It is known that Scipio wrote a celebrated letter to Philip V of Macedon. This correspondence contained explanations related to strategy in the Hannibalic War, but it remains lost.
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Bronze Bust of Scipio Africanus, Naples National Archaeological Museum. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
''The closest we can come to Scipio is the writing of Polybius, the eminent Greek general, and historian, who composed his history of Rome some 60 years after Scipio's active career. That it was Polybius who wrote at this time, we are fortunate, because he is one of the great historians of antiquity. However, he is not without his limitations. Polybius was a general, the son of a general, and follower of Greece's last great general, Philopomen. He was a hostage in Rome and tutor to Scipio Aemelius Africanus. He accompanied his pupil to Carthage in 146. He was eminently qualified to write a history of the Punic Wars. He maintained a high standard of accuracy and was critical of his own sources. He made it a point to visit all locations and to get a personal knowledge of the terrain. He was, however, a Stoic. This philosophy insisted on the rationality of the universe and the existence of natural causes for historical events. This philosophy certainly helped him in comparison with the more mystic ideas held by others, but in Scipio's case it caused Polybius trouble. Polybius' sources besides the Scipio family and Laelius, were Greeks, on both the Roman and Carthaginian side. These Greeks followed the school of thought of Alexander the Great - that of a mystic leader. They were perhaps the original "image makers". They liked to surround the idea of the leader with a divine glow. If they could not explain something, they said it was due to divine intervention. Hence they developed the Legend of Scipio. Polybius was anxious to refute this legend. He admired Scipio as his Stoic hero, so made him a supremely rational genius. The result was a kind of caricature, a cunning individual who purposely plays on the superstition of his followers and uses religion for his own ends. Polybius makes it seem the Scipio spread these ideas of his divinity himself while disbelieving them.'' ( http://www.xenophon-mil.org/milhist/rome/scipio.htm )
The Continence of Scipio, Pompeo Batoni, c.1771. ( Public Domain )
The entire history of the Scipio family is full of stories related to royal courts and rulers, noble positions in the Roman hierarchy, etc. Many of them make an impact on the history of the Empire. In the 20th century, the tomb of descendants of the bloodline of Scipio Africanus was recovered, and their glory became known once again. Was he commemorated by this grave? It is unknown, but not impossible.
Heroic Memories Live On
Now, the tomb can be visited with only a small admission fee and it continues to be a popular tourist attraction. As the ancient stories related to the achievements of Cornelius Scipio Africanus and his family remain famous, thousands of people still want to visit this place.
Top Image: Replica of the Sarcophagus of Scipio Barbatus at the Scipios Tomb. Source: Itine Roma
Tomb of Scipios, available at:
Lanciani, Rodolfo Amedeo, The Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome: A Companion Book for Students and Travelers, 1897.
Long-Awaited Scipio Tombs Reopen in Rome by Amanda Ruggeri, available at: https://intransit.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/19/long-awaited-scipio-tombs-reopen-in-rome/?_r=0
Scipio Africanus, Publius Cornelius, (The Elder) (237 - 183 BC), son of Publius Cornelius Scipio, By John Sloan, available at: http://www.xenophon-mil.org/milhist/rome/scipio.htm
H. H. Scullard, Scipio Africanus: Soldier and Politician, 1970.