Tomb relief of the Publius Gessius family

Late Republican or Early Imperial Period
about 30–20 B.C.

Place of Manufacture: Italy, Lazio

Catalogue Raisonné

Sculpture in Stone (MFA), no. 319; Sculpture in Stone and Bronze (MFA), p. 114 (additional published references); Highlights: Classical Art (MFA), pp. 104-105.


Overall: 65 x 204.5 x 34cm (25 9/16 x 80 1/2 x 13 3/8in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Marble from Carrara, Italy

On View

Classical Roman Gallery (Gallery 213)


The Ancient World



The tomb relief shows nearly half-figure portraits of three members of the family of the Gessi. The old man in the center, Publius Gessius, son of Publius of the Romilian tribe, evidently saw military service in the wars of the last century of the republic. He apparently held the high rank of either Military Tribune or Legatus, as indicated by his costume. He wears a muscle cuirass, an under-tunic (or arming-doublet) with pteryges, a sword belt worn high-up on the waist as a symbol of high rank, and a military cloak on the left shoulder and forearm. His left hand has a ring on the ring finger and grasps the hilt of his short sword. The matronly woman, Gessia Fausta, and the young man, Publius Gessius Primus, wear tunics and ample cloaks or outer garments.

Gessia Fausta and Publius Gessius Primus were once slaves of Publius and were freed by him, as indicated by the inscriptions:
GESSIA.P.L.FAVSTA.P.GESSIVS.P.F.ROM.P.GESSIVS.P.L.PRIMVS, “Gessia Fausta, freedwoman of Publius, Publius Gessius, son of Publius, of the Romilian tribe, Publius Gessius Primus, freedman of Publius”
(left): EX.TESTAM(ENTO)/P.GESSI.P.L. /PRIMI, “From the testament of Publius Gessius Primus, freedman of Publius”:
“Under the direction of Gessia Fausta”
Fausta was thus probably the wife, as well as the freedwoman, of Publius, and Primus was their son, born before his mother had been freed. Primus possesses a combination of his parents’ features - his father’s sunken cheeks and his mother’s projecting upper jaw. The tomb was built from funds provided in the will of Primus, under the supervision of Fausta, the surviving member of the trio. The relief was carved in the severe, veristic style of the Roman late Republic, about 60 to 50 B.C.

The upper right edge is mostly broken away, including part of the inscription; the upper molding and the left corners have suffered much slighter damages. The surfaces have a brown crusty deposit, visible in nearly all areas, including the damaged noses of the three portraits.

Scientific Analysis:

University of South Florida Lab No. 8417: Isotope ratios - delta13C +2.0 / delta18O -1.9,

Attribution - Carrara. Justification - C and O isotopes, fine grain, opaque, relief from Italy


September, 1936, sold by Pacifici (dealer), probably with Aldo Jandolo (dealer), Rome, to Brummer Gallery, New York (stock no. P13087) [see note]; 1937, sold by Brummer Gallery to the MFA for $8000. (Accession Date: January 14, 1937)

NOTE: According to the Brummer Gallery stock card, this was purchased from Pacifici with a commission going to Marie [?] Jandolo. In 1937, dealer Aldo Jandolo stated that it had been excavated in September 1936 on the Via Cassia near Viterbo. At the time of acquisition, Brummer stated that it was excavated in Rome and exported with a permit.

Credit Line

Archibald Cary Coolidge Fund