Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.01.27 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.01.27

Theodosia Stephanidou-Tiveriou, Die lokalen Sarkophage aus Thessaloniki. Sarkophag-Studien, Bd 8.   Ruhpolding:  Verlag Franz Philipp Rutzen, 2014.  Pp. xviii, 302 p.; 10 p. of figures, 100 p. of plates.  ISBN 9783447102407.  €99.00.  

Reviewed by Christian Russenberger, Universität Zürich​ (

Stephanidou-Tiveriou's book is the second volume in the DAI-series "Sarkophag-Studien" to be dedicated to the monothematic study of a single local production centre of Roman Imperial sarcophagi. The 216 sarcophagi and 26 ostothekai collected in the catalogue form the largest corpus of a single local workshop complex in the area of modern Greece, barring the significantly more substantial record of Athens' workshops.

In contrast to the workshops of Attica, the ateliers of Thessaloniki appear to have produced for neither the interregional nor the regional export market. This is an important point, as it indicates that the design and decoration of the sarcophagi must have been the outcome of a very close interaction between the craftsmen and the local buyers of their product. As Stephanidou-Tiveriou shows, this interaction can be traced back to the quarries of Thasos, which provided almost all the raw and semi-finished sarcophagi to be elaborated in the workshops of Thessaloniki. It is this close relationship between producer and client that makes the sarcophagi of Thessaloniki a first-class source for the study of the mentality of a local urban elite of the Middle and Late Roman Empire.

Probably the most outstanding feature of the local sarcophagi from Thessaloniki is the extensive use of inscriptions as the most important communicative and often also decorative element of the coffins. The high figure of 163 pieces with inscriptions out of a total number of 242 catalogue entries clearly stands out in comparison to most of the other centers of sarcophagus production, notably the ones of Athens and Rome. Obviously it was this predilection for inscriptions that made the relatively simple sarcophagus with moulded framework ('profilgerahmte Sarkophage'), and an even plainer model, the so-called “simple sarcophagi” ('schlichte Sarkophage') — hardly distinguishable, to the reviewer’s eye, from raw and semi-finished caskets — the most favoured types in Thessaloniki's workshops: the plain field on the front of the caskets provided the masons with the space needed for the often monumental and always carefully carved texts.

Since these inscriptions are far from being formulaic and repetitive, it is highly appreciated that every single text has been carefully translated and newly commented for the present publication by Pantelis Nigdelis. In view of the importance of the inscriptions, it is a great strength of this work that Nigdelis' analysis of the most important aspects of the inscriptions — such as details of dating, onomastic elements, the threats of punishments for abuse of the monuments, diverse sociological and legal matters, and not least the emotional topics which figure largely in many of the inscriptions — are not relegated to a mere epigraphic appendix but rather form a vital part of Stephanidou-Tiveriou's book. One of the most outstanding aspects of the inscriptions are their diverse specifications concerning the disposition of the sarcophagi in their sepulchral surroundings and provisions for their further treatment.

The epigraphic information concerning the setting of the monuments is supplemented by a detailed overview of all relevant archaeological data, helping to clarify the overall picture of the specific disposition and use of the sarcophagi in the necropoleis of Thessaloniki. Although Stephanidou-Tiveriou's detailed investigation shows that precise contextual data is virtually non-existent, even for the most recently discovered pieces, this is nonetheless an important section: it exposes not only what is known, but also what is not known. One can only wonder why the text provides no remarks on local burial customs and their possible relation to the different monument types attested in Thessaloniki.

In contrast to the inscriptions, figural motifs such as portraits, allegorical characters, or narrative scenes never had any distinctive influence on the typological development of Thessaloniki's sarcophagi. The secondary importance of these elements is attested by their rare occurrence in only a few examples, such as the well-known sarcophagus of Annia Tryphaena (cat. 177) or the caskets of Antonius Atticus and Fabia Sambo (cat. 2 and 3, probably erected as an ensemble). They show atypical compositions, combining singular elements from different traditions, without reference to any established typology. Stephanidou-Tiveriou demonstrates this point clearly in her detailed typological analysis of the sarcophagi. The diachronic analysis reveals that only during the second century were pictorial elements favoured to any degree. In the third century they were almost completely abandoned, while the inscriptions became even more dominant. The scarce use of portraits and the virtual lack of iconographic elements defining political, religious, or social status are other elements worthy of notice. It coincides with the observation that many of the inscriptions refrain from mentioning office titles or similar information that would proclaim their personal status. There is no better evidence for this point than sarcophagus cat. 109, where only an inscription added in the early third century provides the information that Claudius Lycus, who had commissioned the sarcophagus and its extensive original inscription in 147/8, had been a bouleutes.

Besides the moulded ('profilgerahmte’) sarcophagi, the garland sarcophagi form another local group with a rather consistent typology. As in the case of the more simple sarcophagi with mouldings, Stephanidou-Tiveriou can trace the most important typological elements back to the workshops of northwestern Asia Minor (Bithynia and in particular Proconnesus). In other instances the patterns go back to the workshops of Aphrodisias, Dokimeion, Ephesos, and Athens. On the other hand, the garland sarcophagi from Assos, of which a unified group of ten pieces has been found in Thessaloniki (collected in an appendix), had no perceptible influence on the local typology.

Stephanidou-Tiveriou's detailed and very learned typological and chronological examinations are not only important for understanding the locally produced sarcophagi of Thessaloniki; in several cases they are of greater relevance for a better understanding of the chronology of some of the larger interregional production centres as well. This is due to the fact that many of Thessaloniki's sarcophagi bear inscriptions specifying the date, which allows far more precise chronological ordering than in the case of their Attic or Asia Minor prototypes. For example, the sarcophagus cat. 167, featuring column-supported garlands, is firmly dated to the year 131/2, which shows that its Aphrodisian prototype cannot have been invented in the Late Antonine period, as has been proposed. Of even greater relevance is the sarcophagus of Corragus with a kline-shaped cover (cat. 178), which is dated to the year 161. Since the emergence of the kline-shaped cover is one of the most important elements in fixing the relative chronology of Attic sarcophagi, this dating is of fundamental importance. It shows that the earliest Attic exemplars, whose typology the casket of Corragus follows, must be dated at least some 20 years earlier than proposed by most scholars so far (a point already convincingly argued on other grounds by Stephanidou-Tiveriou in her earlier examination of the great Attic sarcophagus with Amazons from Thessaloniki, now in the Louvre).

Since Stephanidou-Tiveriou deduces her conclusions in most cases with all necessary caution and on the basis of very detailed typological investigations, it is not easy to understand why the same care was not paid to the sarcophagi cat. 175 and 176. These two pieces were treated earlier in a paper by E. Papagianni, whose results Stephanidou-Tiveriou briefly summarizes and endorses. According to Papagianni the two sarcophagi – one with garlands, one with a frieze of Erotes – should be regarded as local products of Thessaloniki. But not only do they follow Attic typology, iconography, and style, they are also carved out of Pentelic marble, whose use in the local workshops of Thessaloniki is attested in no other case. Papagianni’s surprising assumption of local craftsmanship is based solely on the observation of some minor elements of the sarcophagi's iconography and typology, for which so far no precise parallels can be found in the Attic repertory. In our opinion the evidence for a classification of the two sarcophagi as Thessalonikian is far from compelling, foremost because all the elements mentioned by Papagianni are unusual not only for the sarcophagi of Athens but also for those of Thessaloniki. Certainly, in view of the general picture, the few atypical elements are much more easily explained as new variants in the very variable repertory of typological features of early Attic sarcophagi.

While the inscriptions provide a firm basis on which to date the beginning of the local sarcophagus production in the thirties of the second century and enable a rather precise outline of its further stylistic and typological development, the end of production is harder to define. Nonetheless, Stephanidou-Tiveriou's conclusion that the workshops hardly continued their production beyond the 260s is convincing. The proposed terminus coincides with the abandonment of interregional production at Athens and Dokimenion, generally dated to the same period. This sudden and more or less definite end of sarcophagus production in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire still awaits convincing explanation — all the more so since the local corpus of Thessaloniki demonstrates that older sarcophagi were frequently subject to secondary use up until the fourth century, a habit that shows no substantial alteration compared to earlier times.

Stephanidou-Tiveriou's treatise of Thessaloniki's sarcophagi fully measures up to the expectations one can have of a corpus publication of its kind. It presents the reader with a convincingly argued classification of the relevant material and a detailed discussion of almost every basic aspect of the monuments. In view of the vast record of additional evidence discussed by the authors, it is only to be expected that additional historical, cultural and sociological aspects exceeding the immediate contextualization of the monuments could only exceptionally be included in the analysis. The historical and political development of Thessaloniki, for example, remains virtually absent from the analysis, even in the discussion of possible reasons for the end of sarcophagus production. Similarly, the study lacks any discussion of the specific use of the sarcophagi and their communicative means in comparison with the monuments of other workshops or the other classes of locally sculpted grave monuments. A promising avenue for further research in this direction might be the question of how the Attic sarcophagi, imported to Thessaloniki in great numbers, interacted semantically with the local monuments. Unlike the local sarcophagi, these coffins bear rich ornamental decoration, and, above all, many complex narrative scenes—while they virtually lack inscriptions. In view of the contemporary sarcophagi of Rome, one could ask why fundamental issues of emotional family relations, similarly important in both contexts, gain expression in one case almost exclusively in the shape of narrative imagery (Rome), in the other almost exclusively through the medium of inscriptions (Thessaloniki).

This review shall be concluded by some remarks about the editorial qualities of the book. Both Stephanidou-Tiveriou’s and Nigdelis’s contributions originally were composed in Greek. As a native German speaker the reviewer is far from dissatisfied about the decision to translate the text into German. Yet, one suspects that the scientific community outside the German-speaking area might be of the opinion that a basic research study of this kind should rather have been translated into English. The long gap between the completion of the manuscript in 2006 and the edition of the book (with only a very limited inclusion of titles published in between) is at least to some extent outweighed by the very careful editorial work and the overall quality of the book. This includes extensive and in most cases high grade graphic documentation with photos newly taken for the publication. Against this backdrop it is rather curious that neither the authors nor the editors seem bothered by the omission from the register of the catalogued sarcophagi and the personal names of their owners. Since there is neither a concordance to collections and inventory numbers nor to any fundamental earlier publication, single sarcophagi can only be looked up by browsing the 242 catalogue entries arranged according to typological criteria.1


1.   This text owes much to Mont Allen's corrections of the reviewer's English.

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