Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.12.21

Michael Koortbojian, Myth, Meaning and Memory on Roman Sarcophagi. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Pp. xx + 172. $40.00. ISBN 0-520-08518-3.

Reviewed by Natalie Boymel Kampen, Women's Studies and Art History, Barnard College (

Michael Koortbojian has written a learned and serious book about some of the ways Roman artists constructed meanings on funerary monuments. The book focuses on two primary themes represented on Roman sarcophagi of the later second and third centuries: the myths of Adonis and of Endymion. It asks, most importantly, how individual motifs and narrative structures were used to communicate meanings and how viewers came to understand those meanings. Koortbojian thus works in the same field as some of the most important historians of Roman art from Carl Robert and Gerhard Rodenwaldt to Helmut Sichtermann, Guntram Koch, and Koortbojian's teacher, Richard Brilliant.1 He continues the ongoing discussion about the interpretation of myth on sarcophagi that began well before the famous debate of the 1940's between Franz Cumont and Arthur Darby Nock about how much complex philosophical or religious meaning attached to mythological imagery in funerary art.2 His contributions are not simply to the reinterpretation of individual monuments but to the presentation of a clear model for the way artists and viewers understood the reuse of standard motifs that never lost their meaningful connections to their original narrative settings. He also reaffirms the necessity of seeing this artistic process in relation to the visual habits of viewers whose large image repertoire remained fixed in their memories firmly enough to allow them to read an image within its new setting while holding onto the old setting; thus could multiple layers of meaning come to be apprehended. And finally, he demonstrates the extent to which the Cumont and Nock positions have begun to yield a synthesis, an interpretation of sarcophagus imagery as meaningful on multiple levels yet never purely illustrative of a priori ideas and texts.

What has happened in the field of sarcophagus studies since the 1940s has much to do with the mediation of German scholarship. Not only have German scholars been responsible for much of the cataloguing of mythological sarcophagi, they (although they have hardly been the only ones) have also explored the iconography of individual myths,3 examined the programs of sarcophagi in relation to patrons' needs and to the use of groups of individual myths and motifs,4 and given serious thought to the way narration works.5 What they brought to these studies, along with superb scholarship was a position neither as rigidly pragmatist as Nock's nor as luxuriantly romantic as Cumont's. Looking at the way the sarcophagi worked, they assembled a corpus of usable analyses on which studies such as Koortbojian's are built and which permit Koortbojian and others to assume a base level of meaning in the myths, a level onto which could be mapped more complex individual interpretations that met the needs of devotees or of formalists. The images are neither wall-paper nor are they, at least not necessarily, Pythagorean debates.

All this provides the ground-work for Koortbojian's explorations of the two myths. Building to some degree on Brilliant's Visual Narratives, the author systematically constructs an argument about choices and manipulations of motifs and compositions. He demonstrates first that individual motifs were often standardized; they could be moved from one narrative to another, but they usually bore with them the ideas they had carried in their original narrative settings. Thus, the Endymion myth was depicted with certain elements normally present: The goddess descends from her carriage, her eyes fixed on the sleeping and often nude body of her beloved youth (Ch. 4). But the myth might also be shown in variations, usually later than this scene type with its implications of narrative that come from the representation of the goddess as arriving. Cupid and Psyche might offer a parallel (76), another repeated visit by a night-time lover; the shepherd might suggest that the world of the hereafter should be understood as bucolic and serene (78-84); Endymion might appear alone as an abstraction from his story, capable of reminding the right viewers of the whole story and its layers of meaning (91-98, and 135-41). At the center of the process is the implication not only that the artist has building blocks with which to work and understands how to manipulate meaning by conscious choices and arrangements but also that the viewer carries with him/her a large set of understood images and can participate in the construction of new meanings from standard motifs through the reassembly of memory blocks.

The complexity of the building process, the way it works, is at the heart of the book, and Koortbojian explores the variants of the Adonis and Endymion myths as they take on and discard pieces of both visual and literary traditions. In the process he makes the case for several new interpretations of monuments, interpretations that readers may find more or less convincing depending on how willing they are to accept certain basic assertions. An example can be found in the author's discussion of the Adonis myth in his third chapter (Adonis Redivivus). Here, having shown convincingly in the previous chapter that the artists chose for depiction scenes and motifs that would emphasize the concept of heroic death and virtus, Koortbojian notes the absence of references to the Adonaia and to the symbolic rebirth of Adonis. He suggests that variations on the standard type, on one sarcophagus in the form of rearrangement of elements, and on another through the introduction of a scene from the Aeneas repertoire, permitted the interpretation of the myth not only retrospectively, to "celebrate the life of the deceased" by mythic analogy, but also allowed "a prospective vision that augments the mythological analogy and evokes ... a new fate for its protagonist" (49). The rearrangement appears on a sarcophagus of the early third century in the Vatican where we read from left to right the hero with Venus in a kind of farewell, his horse at the ready, the couple enthroned in the center (their faces now portraits) as a doctor and an eros tend the wounded thigh of the upright and alert Adonis, and finally, Adonis fallen as the boar rushes at him from the right and the goddess rushes in from the left. Unlike the usual arrangement and representation, couple parting at left, boar hunt in the center, and hero dying in Venus' arms at right, the new configuration, according to the author, emphasizes, first, the importance and the equality of the lovers (thus connecting the deceased couple with them) that communicates Adonis' divinization, second, the apotheosis evoked by enthronement, and, finally, the cleansing of the hero's "revivified body for its presence among the gods" (53). Not only does the new arrangement convey the hope for the future of the deceased but it also "tells the tale of Aphrodite's powers, if not to forestall Fate, at least to have the final say in the drama" (53).

I think this interpretation works well in suggesting how much composition has to do with the kind of meaning communicated; it also makes clearer the way the portraits participate in the reconfiguration. Not all readers will be equally convinced by all the interpretations, some of which seem to me to be overargued on the basis of too little evidence (the analogy of Adonis and Aeneas, for example, pp. 53-62), but the demonstration of processes for the construction of meaning through analogy and the uses of memory remains absolutely worthwhile and provides a highly useful model for other interpreters.

This book raises a number of interesting questions that it addresses less fully than those I have noted above; I hope that Koortbojian will soon produce studies of these. Among them, I would point first to further discussion of the role of historical change and context in the representations of myth on sarcophagi. Although Koortbojian is always attentive to the problem of trying to define the structures of eschatological belief in the Roman world through both textual and visual sources, and although he has offered an interesting and useful assessment of debates about "demythologization" (138-40), he has not given a central place to the problem of changes in beliefs over time nor has he devoted much space to analysis of the multiplicity of audiences for whom there was probably less uniformity of belief than our readings of elite literary texts and formulaic inscriptions might indicate. Another desideratum of mine, on a more specific level, would be further investigation of the difference that gender might make in our thinking about these two myths, given that both are unusual in focusing on the youthful mortal male beloved of a female deity. To compare the treatment of Adonis and Endymion with that of Ariadne or Rhea Silvia would be especially interesting from the point of view of their differing degrees of passivity or agency in the stories as represented on sarcophagi and from the point of view as well of the difference gender makes in the outcomes of the stories (Koortbojian addresses himself to outcomes in important ways but without really dealing with gender); the analogies proposed by poses and compositional motifs as well as by pendants (Endymion and Selene with Mars and Rhea Silvia, 102-106) beg for more exploration of gender politics, and so does the author's glance at the analogical relationship of the poses of Venus and Adonis with Phaedra and Hippolytus (30-31). I am not asking him to have written a different book; I am asking him to write yet more and to continue the discussion of sarcophagi and meaning by pushing its limits.


  • [1] Carl Robert, initiator of the still-ongoing series, Die Antiken Sarcophagreliefs, began his great work in the 1880s and 1890s; Rodenwaldt published on sarcophagi in the 1930s and 40s; and the next generation, including Sichtermann and Koch whose work on mythological sarcophagi has been appearing since the 1960s and 70s, and Brilliant, whose book Visual Narrative appeared in 1984, are by no means the only scholars to whom one might point in discussing the development of studies of meaning and program on mythological sarcophagi. A younger generation, of which Koortbojian is a member, has continued this project, although others of the cohort are exploring more historical issues of gender (as Susan Wood) or commerce (as Patricio Pensabene).
  • [2] Franz Cumont, Recherches sur le symbolisme funéraire des Romains (Paris, 1942), and Nock's review essay, "Sarcophagi and Symbolism," American Journal of Archaeology 50 (1946) 140-170.
  • [3] E.g., Helmut Sichtermann, Späte Endymion-Sarkophage: Methodisches zur Interpretation (Baden-Baden, 1966).
  • [4] E.g., Nikolaus Himmelmann-Wildschütz, "Sarkophag eines Gallienischen Konsuls," in Festschrift für Friedrich Matz, ed. N. Himmelmann-Wildschütz and Hagen Biesantz (Mainz, 1962) 110-24, or "Sarcofagi romani a rilievo: Problemi di cronologia e iconografia," Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, ser. 3, 4.1 (1974) 139-78.
  • [5] Peter H. von Blanckenhagen, "Narration in Hellenistic and Roman Art," American Journal of Archaeology 61 (1957) 78-83; Tonio Hölscher, Römische Bildsprache als semantisches System (Heidelberg, 1987); Salvatore Settis, "La Colonne Trajane: Invention, Composition, Disposition," Annales ESC 40.5 (October, 1985) 1151-94; and Brilliant, Visual Narratives: Storytelling in Etruscan and Roman Art (Ithaca, 1984).