Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.01.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.01.19

Janet Huskinson, Roman Strigillated Sarcophagi: Art and Social History.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2015.  Pp. xvi, 349.  ISBN 9780199203246.  $125.00.  

Reviewed by Sarah Madole, City University of New York—Borough of Manhattan Community College (

Table of Contents

Janet Huskinson’s Roman Strigillated Sarcophagi is a sign of the times. After the English translation of Ewald and Zanker, and Birk’s Depicting the Dead,1 it is the only English-language monograph on Roman sarcophagi from this millennium. For this fact alone, we are grateful, even more so that Huskinson has chosen a typology that many of us have avoided, despite the fact that strigillated sarcophagi are among the most numerous and appear throughout the Roman world, especially in Rome itself (ca. 1000 survive, p. 4, n. 12). Huskinson presents a succinct, linear overview of a remarkably malleable and diverse corpus. That said, the inclusion of even a select catalogue for key examples, or an appendix for quick reference of general statistics (place, time, dimensions), would have increased the value of this study.

The book begins with a general discussion of the Roman sarcophagus industry that once was available only to specialists and polyglots. Indeed, at the outset Huskinson addresses her intention to reach a “wide readership” (p. v). Her clear introduction (Chs. 1-3) now accompanies those of Elsner and Koortbojian.2 Ch. 1 introduces the “questions,” of approach, style, form, and general chronology. Huskinson presents past interpretations of the symbolic origins of the strigil pattern: spirally-fluted columns and architecture, flowers and the female body, and flowing water (pp. 8-9). Ch. 2 introduces formal aspects of the sarcophagi. Next, the monograph’s three major sections (“Production, Use, and Viewing,” “Representations,” “Reception”) primarily explore various aspects of how strigillated sarcophagi functioned as meaningful objects, rather than examine their relief imagery as pictures in isolation.

Part I offers an introduction to the sarcophagus industry—the focus is purely on the strigillated variety, but much of what is said applies to the field at large. Ch. 3 explores the dynamics of sarcophagus commission, production, decoration, and workshop composition. This is a fresh contribution, based in part on recent research, which reflects current methodological interests in the field of sarcophagus studies.

The next chapter (4) turns briefly to the matter of context within the tomb. Among other factors, Huskinson explores sightlines and visibility. The near-exclusive focus on strigillated examples perhaps overshadows (or may even misconstrue) the eclectic mix of sarcophagus types found in most tombs. For example, noting that a strigillated sarcophagus was found in a tomb with “a sarcophagus decorated with figured friezes and portraits” doesn’t help the (general) reader to visualize the ensemble (p. 69). This missed opportunity to contextualize strigillated sarcophagi within the greater repertoire of Roman sarcophagi is one of the small issues that appears elsewhere in this book.

Next, an overview of decoration is followed by a concise discussion on viewing. Ch. 5 includes the rare presentation of non-sarcophagus comparanda (funerary urns, wall paintings). Here Huskinson argues that strigil motifs on sarcophagi derive from architectonic sources, not watery symbolism, hence the strategic demarcation of space (“framing”) so central to the visual program of strigillated sarcophagi. The discussion of inscriptions, though brief, is important (p. 85), as is that of the translation of figural friezes to adapted narratives on sarcophagi with strigils (pp. 89-90), which is further expanded in Ch. 8. The next chapter (6) deals with the cognitive processes involved in viewing itself. Huskinson connects the “reading” of programmatic wall-paintings in villas with similarly iterative associations expected from strigillated sarcophagus viewers. Visual cues directed readings, for example, as individual or paired figures related to each other and the lid motifs: “Symmetry, pairing, and directed gazes were all devices used to convey significance and build a hierarchy of importance” (p. 109).

Part II (“Representations”) explores aspects of imagery and identity, and engages with critical questions that underlie the importance of Huskinson’s monograph. Ch. 7 considers portraits of the patrons/deceased. For Huskinson, the semantic variables of strigillated sarcophagi supersede other sarcophagus types in the potential for identity negotiation through placement (at the center and/or sides of the front panel), possible expressions of parity between couples, ambiguity, and synoptic linking between various motifs, in addition to standard factors, e.g., format, pose, and iconography (costume, attribute). Huskinson argues that this kind of emphatic, syncopated “image-sign” language grows throughout the third century, with the earlier preference for narrative imagery ultimately replaced by symbols of wealth, learning, gender, and social status, the “good life” qualities (p. 148).

The next chapter (8) looks at mythological imagery. Different mythological narratives and characters appear on frieze, garland, and columnar sarcophagi than on examples with strigil motifs (e.g., Orpheus but not Endymion appears on strigillated sarcophagi). Huskinson parses out classic questions of eschatology and potential religious significance of traditional sarcophagus imagery, siding with the more recent views that connect mythological depictions with, for example, funerary eulogies and consolationes. She presents a positive interpretation for the “demythologization” of sarcophagi in the third century CE, and argues that this trend reflects a new sense of self-expression, reflected in a shift from images evoking emotion to those evoking the pleasant vita felix. Huskinson emphasizes that the reduced iconographic format enhances, rather than diminishes, semantic impact.

Ch. 9, on symbolic figures, considers further the shift from narrative to more independent forms (e.g., lions, orantes) in the second half of the third century. Here Huskinson stresses the ambiguity of individual figures, and meaning derived from their combinations. The shift in self-expression, in addition to pared down narrative imagery, also rendered gender distinction via iconography less important than highlighting specific values of the deceased. An underlying focus here is the question of the nascent Christian (sarcophagus-owning) population’s preferences in sarcophagus iconography, a topic that continues to defy conclusive analysis.

Chs. 10-11 turn to indisputably Judeo-Christian contexts. Christian soteriology and eschatology stood in direct opposition to the traditional Roman nonbelief in an afterlife (of the “non fui, fui, non sum, non curo” ilk), and distinguished the meaning of unequivocally Christian iconography from its predecessors. Huskinson claims that between 266-275 CE Jonah was the lone biblical character to appear (amongst otherwise symbolic images), with an increased repertoire of biblical scenes after this time (p. 211). The predilection for symbolic forms returns again to narratives that employ the same mechanisms and strategies previously used for visualizing mythological vignettes. Huskinson cites an exceptionally early date (ca. 250 CE) to mark the initial “Christianization” of “vita felix” sarcophagus imagery (p. 219), and places in the fourth century the “certainty of Christian triumph” (p. 237), both problematic. Ch. 11, brief and image-free, considers Jewish sarcophagi, which have been subject to considerable and increasing research in recent years.

Part III focuses on reuse and the post-Classical reception of strigillated sarcophagi. Ch. 12 introduces the question of reception studies and its application. Ch. 13 is the meatiest contribution to this section, looking at reuses in Christian churches and cemeteries, such as the Camposanto in Pisa. Ch. 14 will perhaps interest students of design, as it looks to post-Classical and modern appearances of the strigil motif.

A short conclusion abruptly ends the text, and tables appear before a brief glossary, hefty bibliography, and adequate index. The issues outlined below omit small errors or inconsistencies, focusing instead on broader concerns. The “Tables,” translated directly from the Repertorium der christlich-antiken Sarkophage (RS), the “Christian” version of the Antiken Sarkophagreliefs (ASR), are presented to elucidate one particular issue: the development of Christian religious imagery (Chs. 9-10). These add a distinct emphasis to this one aspect of the book, which feels slightly unbalanced considering its otherwise commendably broad scope. Without references to examples discussed in the book (or in general a concordance or list of examples and the RS), it remains unclear how the reader is meant to use this data, other than for a general consideration of the development of Christian sarcophagi. Statements such as the “quantitative” decline of male portraiture after 250 CE (p. 143) might have been demonstrated through additional appendices.

Huskinson prefaces the book by stating that she will use abridged references (p. xvi), yet the lack of intertextual references means that a sarcophagus might be introduced several times, inconsistently and with varying references to other chapters or the ASR/RS. An example, the sarcophagus of Aurelius Andronicus (a marble dealer from Asia Minor), is discussed in three different chapters (p. 1; p. 27 n. 41 “RS II: no. 101 (for evidence for the rest of the sarcophagus)”; p. 54; p. 58 n. 138, yet never properly introduced (the index provides page numbers; the footnotes do not). The reader is left to piece together the details, but figuring these out requires additional work, including outside research from the RS entry. This will be a source of frustration to the reader whose interest is piqued (as was mine) by Huskinson’s discussion(s) of Andronicus’ sarcophagus. This is one of the cases for which even a very select catalogue would have been helpful. Huskinson asserts that the lack of such a reference tool directs the reader instead to the “real world” and “image world” (p. 15), although it is hard to see the downside in the clear articulation of facts. As noted earlier, more discussion of non-strigillated sarcophagi also would have strengthened certain points. An example is the section on “Colour” (pp. 51-52).

At times the narrative flow is interrupted, as the reader is often directed to images in later chapters, rather than figures appearing at the first reference to the piece. The reader constantly flips back and forth, as with fig. 5.7, which is referenced twice in Ch. 4, yet not at all in Ch. 5, except in a footnote (p. 76, n. 6) that asks the reader to “See Chapter 4”; moreover, the griffins on this sarcophagus’ short sides (discussed p. 64, p. 76) are not visible in the image. This is a curious, but not unique, example of the narrative-dominant, rather than object-based, discussion, in which artworks are often secondary to the point being made.

Regarding intended audience, graduate students who might not read German and undergraduates will find parts of this book quite helpful. That said, the reliance on the Repertorium, and insistence that the reader turn to this series (or ASR) to learn basic facts about individual sarcophagi, privileges a German-reading audience. To be sure, any serious student of sarcophagus studies will need at least a reading knowledge of this language, but Huskinson’s stated goal was to address a broader audience. For specialists, the book will act as a handy reference for certain issues such as production.

My small quibbles come from the “specialist” camp, not the readership for whom Huskinson wrote her book. She never claimed to provide an exhaustive compendium, merely an introduction, and this goal is most certainly achieved. Perhaps a “generalist” book on what has long been perceived as a marginal subdivision of Roman art might just lure more emerging scholars to the field of sarcophagus studies. The health of the discipline is encouraging, and Huskinson’s book should become a standard addition to college libraries, not just those of advanced research institutions.


1.   Zanker, P. and B. Ewald. 2012. Living with Myths: The Imagery of Roman Sarcophagi translated by J. Slater, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Birk, S. 2013. Depicting the Dead: Self-Representation and Commemoration on Roman Sarcophagi with Portraits. Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity 11. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press; Though not focused exclusively on sarcophagi, Huskinson’s admirable predecessor in the series merits a place in this list: Borg, B. 2013. Crisis and Ambition: Tombs and Burial Culture in Third Century C.E. Rome, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2.   Elsner, J. 2010, “Introduction,” in the excellent edited volume by J. Elsner and J. Huskinson, Life, Death and Representation: Some New Work on Roman Sarcophagi, 1-20. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter; Koortbojian, M. 2015. “Roman Sarcophagi,” in B. Borg (ed.) Blackwell Companion to Roman Art, 286-300. Walden, MA: Wiley Blackwell. Also noteworthy: J. Elsner and H. Wu’s 2012 edited volume, Res 61/62.

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