Abstract: Death and Taxes: Visualizations of Mortality and Reflections of Social Positioning in Tombs of Graeco-Roman Egypt


Poised on the edge of Egypt, Alexandria was founded as a Greek city, and the city maintained a Classical patina through the period of Egypt’s rule by Rome. Yet from their inception ca. 300 bce, Alexandria’s monumental tombs incorporate Egyptian architectural and figural elements into their hellenically-based fabric, and these Egyptianizing elements proliferate in Alexandrian tombs in succeeding centuries as their mortuary programs become more complex and nuanced.

In contrast to Alexandria — and not unexpectedly — the Egyptian countryside (the chora), though battered by Hellenistic culture, remains visually Egyptian. Tombs retain the Egyptian style and iconography that had endured for millennia. Quite astonishing, then, during the period of Roman rule, are a small number of mortuary monuments from the necropolis of Tuna el-Gebel that articulate their vision of the afterlife relying entirely on Greek visual style and Greek mythological subject matter, especially since both elements are almost entirely absent from Alexandrian tombs.

Investigating tombs both from Alexandria and the chora, this talk seeks to explain the anomalies in representation both within and between these groups of mortuary monuments by adducing historical and environmental factors that led to their contrasting visualizations of the afterlife. In turn, it uses the evidence provided by the tombs to identify political advantage and social aspiration in Graeco-Roman Egypt.

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