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Rome and Barbarians--Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus

Updated: Mar 2, 2021


The barbarians here are not a journalistic representation of a specific battle, just as the image of the decedent at the center of the scene is not meant to be a true portrait. The sarcophagus would have been commissioned by the family to position them as decendents of a defender of civilization from chaos and decay---an important sentiment in a time period when Rome was losing its grip on its colonies. The barbarians are characterized in a way which emphasizes their supposed inferiority to Rome and its culture, such that dominating them would be explained as doing them a favor, by "civilizing" them.


You can visit this famous Ancient Roman sarcophagus at the Palazzo Altemps Museum in Rome.


In this image, the decedent is represented as a glorious hero in a battle against Gallic barbarians.


The Sarcophagus as a Whole

The Ludovisi Sarcophagus was commissioned by an elite Roman Family. The artwork is by an unknown (to us) artist, and demonstrates a breakthrough in the representation of heroic battle.The composition is intentionally difficult to “read” because it captures the energy of battle in progress. The theme of triumph over the Goths comes at a period when Rome is actually beginning to lose its control over Gothic tribes.


The Decedent

The sarcophagus’ main focus is its center, where the figures seem to pop out more strongly than the sides. The center features the decedent at the top, on horseback, without a helmet, trampling over the barbarians below him. The scene aligns the decedent with a triumphant Roman Empire.


Notice the contrast between the decedent and those he tramples. He is slightly larger in scale, upright, and stable, while those below him are contorted and in distress. He is positioned centrally, and above, Not only because he is the subject of the composition, but also because he represents Roman triumph.


When we isolate the figure as above, we can focus on all the visual cues which signal his identity as more than an individual, but as an ideal of Roman power.



He Tramples Others For Rome

Placing the figure on a war horse signals his leadership, training, and prestige as a general (symbolically, if not in real life—he may have been a bureaucrat or donor). His cloak waves behind him like wings; His gaze is above the battle, and his expression is serene. He is young and strong. He has a small “X” on his forehead, which probably signals he participated in the rites of Mithras, a religion very popular among the Roman military. He is unarmed, but fearless. His right arm gestures in farewell or benediction. He gazes over the battle, as though attending to higher things than this physical world.



His Men

Let’s examine his fellow soldiers in this battle. They are fighting a Gothic tribe. They wear on their helmets insignia of their military units. The gaze of three of them is directed toward the central figure.


The Roman soldiers here are in the dress of cavalry soldiers.Their faces are clean-shaven, and their expressions are serious, but not emotional.



On the right side of the sarcophagus, we see more Roman soldiers. One is a cornicens—a bugler who would signal military orders to troops. On both the upper–right and –left of the sarcophagus are tropaia: war trophies composed of enemy armor. These signify a battle won. These tropaia seem to be of roman gear, however, so these may be carried as monuments to the war dead. This would fit well with the decedent, who is depicted, though dead, as now immortal.


The cornicens and the figure to the lower-left of him are not armed. the lower figure holds a phalera, a type of medal of honor, often carried prominently in parades. He wears a chain-mail shirt for protection. These figures support and hold the morale of the cavalry.


Barbarians

As we examine the barbarians, We see that their depiction is strikingly different from that of the soldiers, even though Roman soldiers frequently were recruited from vanquished enemies. The depictions of the “barbarians” (likely, Goths, but generically stereotyped) are carved to mark them as distinctly “Other.”


The barbarians have hair coarsened by grease. They wear pants. Their faces are distorted with emotions, almost to the point of caricature. Their hair , expressions, and musculature are more similar to those of the horses than to those of the soldiers. The intention is to suggest that non-Romans are more bestial than civilized.


Defeated

As we come to the bottom of the composition, the figures (both men and horses) become smaller, which is the opposite of the natural perspective of the viewer, where what is closer appears larger. Here, we see images of total defeat and dying. These figures are the direct opposite of the decedent.



The Other

In this section of the composition, We see an officer (note the eagle on his helmet) gazing down at a barbarian he has captured. The barbarian, with his hands tied, gazes back up in supplication. This exchange, framed and isolated by two shields, depicts the civilized Roman deciding whether to grant mercy to his captive.


This exchange is a moment of asserting opposites: powerful/powerless, orderly/chaotic, civilized/barbarian, rational/emotional. For the powerful family of the decedent, this moment is to align themselves with an idea of Rome as powerful because of its superior qualities. The decedent expired in a period when this idea was losing dominance, just as Rome was losing control of its Gothic colonies.



Here is a similar gaze exchange on the opposite side of the composition. You can see how, on either side of the heroic decedent, the same concepts are presented in slightly different ways. The cavalry soldier is in the act of trampling the barbarian who is charging him. He is about to attack him with his (now broken) spear. The soldier seems to be looking just over the barbarian, while the barbarian is gazing directly at him. This disconnect between gazes suggests that the soldier is unworried about the barbarian. His power puts him literally above this attack. This, in effect, diminishes the threat of the barbarian.



Othering to Assert A Self


An “other ” is a being we have been taught to see as differing in important ways from ourselves. “It” seems not to share our way of being, our values, or our goals in life. The “other” is usually not fully known or well understood, but nevertheless seems physically or mentally inferior (or superior), threatening, immoral, dirty, incompetent, lazy, vicious, out of control, unpredictable, too much of this, too little of that, etc. In short, the “other” embodies the things we want to believe are not characteristic of ourselves as we think we should be. The ”other” is almost the complete opposite of our “selves,” and seems to threaten our existence or our way of living.


“Othering” is the social and psychological process by which an entire society comes to think in that way about little-known people who differ from the dominant group. Othering often involves magnifying the importance of specific differences, emphasizing the Other’s threatening qualities, overlooking similarities, “projecting” our own weaknesses or vices onto the Other, emphasizing the Other’s potential to do us harm, and seeking ways to view the other as inferior to us. In this way of thinking we are “what should be,” and the Other is ”what should not be.” While the other might sometimes be viewed as exotic and exciting, usually we want the Other to become like us or to go away.


You can see in the Ludovisi Sarcophagus that, even in marking the death of an individual, this national project of expanding and enforcing an empire of what was called “Romanitas,” needed an Other to help justify its power grabs. Barbarians needed to be othered, then defeated and subjected, with the promise that they could be (eventually) made into appropriate Romans. Unfortunately for the family who commissioned the Ludovisi sarcophagus, the power of Romanitas was becoming destabilized. The sarcophagus is a gesture towards affirming that Rome is still great.


The Last Word

The final scene we’ll examine here acts as a closure to the narrative on the sarcophagus. Latin is read from left-to-right, and top-to-bottom, and, in the sense that this scene was to be “read” by visitors to the monument, this is the ”last word.”


This last exchange is as intimate as the gaze between the cavalry officer and the captured barbarian we saw earlier. Here, on the edge of the sarcophagus, we see a soldier on foot, about to execute a barbarian he has knocked to the ground. The barbarian looks up, aware of what’s coming. The soldier has the barbarian by the hair, and is frozen in the act of killing him. This exchange freezes the narrative of the empire as still powerful and victorious, but with the barbarian threat still present. This moment emphasizes the empire (and the decedent) as necessary protectors and saviors of civilization for the audience.


Some thoughts to explore: why would a family create such a narrative as the lasting, dominant comment on their loved one? What does this narrative achieve for the family? Now that you’ve considered all the parts, what do you see as you revisit the whole composition? Are there any other moments you see that are engaging?





In my next post, I'll say more about barbarians in funerary art, and about how Romans decorated other sarcophagi.



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