When one considers the veneration that the ancient Romans had for their ancestors, it seems incredible that the tomb of the Scipios—one of the city’s most illustrious families—should be shrouded in such neglect and mystery. And yet this is precisely the case. One senses that the family and the city endured a bitter divorce, from which each emerged with an implacable hostility to the other; Rome never forgave the family’s recalcitrance, and punished it with a sullen historical silence.
Even in antiquity, the location of the tomb was uncertain, and perhaps suppressed for political reasons. Scipio Africanus is said to have died around 183 B.C. at the approximate age of 53; rumors swirl that he may have been murdered, that he have died by his own hand, or that he succumbed to some affliction picked up during his military campaigns. We cannot know with certainty. Yet those who have read Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of the Great Commanders will recall with a knowing nod just how poorly treated were so many distinguished Greek leaders by their homelands. It is a recurring motif; the nature of states is the same, because human nature is consistent and predictable everywhere.
Livy (XXXVIII.56) tells us that:
Many statements, particularly about Scipio’s final days, have been made—his death, his funeral, his sepulcher—which diverge so much from each other that I have no reliable written record…There is no consensus as to the year of his death, where he died, or where he was interred; some writers claim that he died and was buried in Rome, while others say Liternum. Monuments and statues can be found in both locations. At Liternum there is a tomb and a statue on top of the tomb (which I personally have seen) that was toppled by a storm. And at Rome, in the tomb of the Scipios outside the Porta Capena, three statues can be found, of which two are supposed to depict Publius and Lucius Scipio, with the third being the poet Quintus Ennius.
In one of Seneca’s letters (LXXXVI), the philosopher talks of visiting the remnants of the great man’s country villa, and laying eyes on “the altar that I suspect is his grave (ara, quam sepulcrum esse tanti viri suspicor).” With this comment, Seneca clearly indicates that he does not know the spot of Scipio’s grave. I have commented before on Scipio Africanus’s reluctance to be buried in Rome, and his angry alleged parting shot at his countrymen: Ingrata patria, ne ossa quidem mea habes. The meaning of this sentence is: Ungrateful country, you will not even get my bones. The historian Valerius Maximus (V.3.2) reports, with more than a hint of outrage, that:
Repaying Scipio’s great achievements with insults, his fellow citizens made him the tenant of a pathetic village and an empty swamp [Cuius clarissima opera iniuriis pensando cives vici ignobilis eum ac desertae paludis accolam fecerunt].
And yet it is still shocking that a family of such importance would have been shunted off to historical oblivion, with even the location of the family tomb disappearing into darkness. One suspects that a potent admixture of political rivalries, jealousies, and petty cruelties was responsible. Scipio and his arch-rival Hannibal died at roughly the same time, both exiles, both unloved and unappreciated by their countrymen: and so, after all, they became in death the brothers that they could never be in life. Such are the sly dispensations of merciful Fate, which alleviates the sufferings of the worthy in life by uniting them in glory in death.
And yet, after an interval of almost twenty centuries, the tomb of the Scipios would be found. Greatness never remains hidden forever, no matter the umbras in which it may be temporarily shrouded. The great Italian archaeologist and topographer Rodolfo Lanciani, in his Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome, writes that the Hypogaeum Scipionum was actually discovered in 1614. (The word hypogaeum means an underground burial-chamber or tomb). Lanciani proudly writes, “This venerable monument [the tomb] and the ground which covers and surrounds it were bought, on my suggestion by the city [of Rome] in 1880. They are entered by the Via di Porta S. Sebastiano, No. 12.” The story of the tomb’s discovery, and its rediscovery, is an exciting and tragic one.
According to Lanciani, the discovery of the tomb in 1614 was reported by a scholar named Giaconio Sirmondo, who published his findings in 1617 in a tract entitled Antiquae Inscriptionis, Qua L. Scipionis Barbati Filii Expressum Est Elogium, Explanatio (Explanation of An Ancient Inscription in Which a Saying of the Son of L. Scipio Barbatus Is Portrayed). This publication only appeared three years after the actual discovery. Archaeology as a respected discipline did not exist in 1614, and what apparently happened was that someone chanced upon the tomb while making excavations in a quiet vineyard. The crypt was looted, and precious relics were destroyed; even after two thousand years, the Romans could not stop abusing the Scipios. We do not know the name of the discoverer, who in truth was nothing more than a malicious thief. Two sarcophagi were found. One housed the remains of L. Cornelius Scipio (quaestor in 167 B.C.); this crypt was not molested. The other crypt belonged to L. Cornelius, son of Barbatus, who was consul in 259 B.C.; this relic was tragically broken up and, according to Lanciani, “sold to a stonecutter in Ponte Rotto.” An educated patron saw it there in September 1614 and rescued some of it from oblivion.
After this, the location of the tomb of the Scipios again faded into obscurity. Nothing was done, and no excavations or explorations made, for over 160 years. Then in May 1780, two brothers from the Sassi family, while enlarging their wine cellar, accidentally rediscovered the Hypogaeum Scipionum. Yet here again, we are horrified and disgusted with the treatment these precious monuments of Rome’s history received. The sarcophagi were hammered into pieces and transported out of the chamber; their carved exteriors were mixed up and wrongly rearranged in the Vatican. No one was punished for these acts of vandalism, despite the fact that the pope at the time, Pius VI, was known to have classical and antiquarian interests.
See now, and understand, how quickly can man’s barbarous fingers topple the arches of the centuries! Lanciani even says that a priceless signet ring was removed from one of the crypts and given to a Frenchman named Louis Dutens. The bones inside the sarcophagi were saved by the timely intervention of a senator from Venice named Angelo Quirini; he had the physical remains of the Scipios interred in a special marble urn at the Villa dell’ Alticchiero, near Padua. Lanciani speculates that the tomb of the Scipio family was originally built in the third century B.C., probably when the Via Appia was opened in 312 B.C. It is modeled on Etruscan precursors. The first family member to be laid to rest there was L. Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, who was consul in 298 B.C. This sarcophagus has survived, and is housed in the Vatican Museum. Its inscription has been translated by the German historian Theodore Mommsen as follows:
Cornelius Lucius — Scipio Barbatus
son of his father Gnevus — a man as clever as brave
whose handsome appearance — was in harmony with his virtue
who was consul and censor — among you, as well as Aedile
Taurasia Cisaunia — he captured in Samnium
utterly overcomes Lucania — and brings away hostages.
From the archaeological evidence (walls and repairs built long after the tomb’s original construction), Lanciani concludes that the hypogaeum was kept open as a “place of historical pilgrimage” as late as the fourth century of the Christian era. If this is true, it would mean that even the barbarians managed to respect and preserve the legacy of the Scipios, when modern man could not. We should also note that none of the most famous of the Scipios—Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Maior, Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus, his brother, and Cnaeus Cornelius Scipio Hispanus—were apparently interred in this tomb. Perhaps they chose to be cremated, or to be laid to rest elsewhere. We do not know. One final peculiarity about the tomb deserves mention. The famous poet Quintus Ennius, so often quoted by Cicero, seems to have been laid to rest there. He lived from about 239 to 169 B.C.; born in Calabria, he was Rome’s most influential early poet, and became a friend of the wealthy and powerful. He was very close to Scipio Africanus. A bust of a presumed poet (so believed because of the laurel-wreath crown) was found in the tomb in 1780, and the general consensus is that this represents Ennius.
The tomb today apparently does not allow general admission; only private tours alone are permitted. These are conducted by special arrangement, and the prospective visitor must pay in advance. Slowly, and after twenty centuries, Rome is beginning to repay its debt to the Scipios.
Read more in Digest, the newly-published, massive compendium of essays: