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The Good (After) Life: More Roman Sarcophagi

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

Ancient Roman sarcophagi were for the wealthy, and were created in workshops which concentrated on particular themes: demonstrating the importance of the decedent (or, their family, since sarcophagi were public displays), connecting the decedent to political themes, signaling the civic virtues of the decedent, and expressing wishes for a happy afterlife for a departed loved one. In this post, I pick up where I left off on my earlier discussion of the Ludovisi battle sarcophagus, to show you some of these different sarcophagi. You can find the earlier discussions of Roman sarcophagi here: Part 1, Part 2.

Party in Paradise

Not all sarcophagi were dedicated to patriotic ideals. Some, while still commissioned by wealthy families for public display, embodied wishes for a happy afterlife, as well as grief at being separated from the decedent. Above is a sarcophagus depicting the god of wine (and fun parties), Dionysus (far left), being drawn by lions in a chariot. He’s preceded by centaurs, satyrs, and maenads, all dancing, playing music, And bringing wine and food. The decedent may be in the horse-drawn chariot on the lower-right.

Rites of Dionysus

It's worth it to blow up the image a bit to appreciate the craftsmanship. The swirl of the veil around the face of the dancing maenad gives her face a frame and, along with her flaring skirt, her body a sense of motion. The satyr on the left is playing a flute and some sort of percussive instrument with his foot. The other satyr dances in front of the maenad, with his testicles prominently displayed. The nudity of the satyrs differs from the heroic nudity of the Dying Gauls in the previous post. This is about the dual nature of humans--rational and animal--with the pleasures of the body considered a reward or dream. While a funeral is a solemn affair, the wish for the afterlife for the decedent is one of pleasure and conviviality. Dionysian festivals had elements of fertility worship; to invoke the element of fertility on a container for a dead body is to wish for rebirth.

Just because it's so skillfully done, I'll provide a close-up of the lion pulling Dionysus' chariot. The carver took what could have been a flat profile of the creature and made it convincingly three-dimensional and expressive.

Here is another Dionysian party sarcophagus. This time, he’s being drawn by two lionesses, and the crowd is more diverse in age, with a couple and even a child at the far right. The decedent could be the figure on the right, carrying an image of a river god (a sign of abundance and life) on a pole.

Taken Too Soon

This sarcophagus, probably for a woman or girl who died young, shows the story of the abduction of Persephone (in Latin, Proserpina) by Hades (or, Pluto), where she is forced to be his queen in the Underworld. This would be a metaphor for a woman taken too soon from her family, who want to communicate that they feel her loss keenly. By the way, the sculpture of the toddler with the snake is probably Hercules, from his origin story. The sculptures on top were not with the sarcophagus.

In this closeup, you see the girl being forcibly taken by Hades in his chariot, while all the gods try to stop him in protest. Her mother is probably in the lower-left, Demeter (Ceres, in Latin). The shawl the girl holds is almost over her head the way a married woman would customarily wear it, signaling that she is about to become Hades’ unwilling wife/property. The story of Persephone is also tied to the story of the seasons, in which her time in the underworld brings winter to the land, because Demeter grieves and won’t bless any crops with life. This theme of a dying world in a mother’s grief would reflect the family’s mourning.

The Deepest Loss

Perhaps saddest of all the family sarcophagi is this one for a young boy. He is shown on the lid, as though asleep. Child mortality was about 28% in Ancient Rome. Unlike the Ludovisi Sarcophagus, which was monumental in scale for public attention, this one is not much bigger than what would be necessary to hold the remains of the child with a few grave goods. This sarcophagus is designed for a wealthy family expressing personal loss.

The Creation of Life, and Death

In this closeup, one can see on the lid that the child holds two sprigs of pomegranate (a symbol of eternal life), but they are wilted. There is a small dog next to the body (head broken off), oriented as though waiting for his master to awaken. At his head is a guardian spirit (whose head is lost). The scene on the sarcophagus is that of Prometheus and Athena creating humans, here shown as young boys (center). This is a Creation story, similar to Genesis in themes, and its story explains that humans are mortal, and must die.

The Winged Spirit

On the right-side of the child's sarcophagus, one sees a shrouded woman (possibly a Fate) and a putto standing over the body of the now-dead human (boy). In the background, a chariot takes flight to the skies, and next to it, you can see a little female figure with butterfly wings ( upper middle-right). She is the soul of the decedent, being ushered with great care by Hermes to the Underworld. So, in this depiction, you see the family’s acknowledgement of the inevitability of death, but the hope for care for the child’s soul.

It's amazing to me how consistent are the stories humans tell themselves about death and the afterlife: though not the same in the detail, often similar in the imagery, and with common hopes that death is not the end, and that there's some place where one's personality can continue to exist, in joy and out of pain.

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