BMCR 2020.10.61

Bilder und Räume. Antike Sarkophage im Kontext

, , , Bilder und Räume. Antike Sarkophage im Kontext. Internationale Tagung, 11.-12. August 2011 in der Abteilung Rom des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts. Sarkophag Studien, 10. Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2018. Pp. 204. ISBN 9783954903153 €69,00.

Table of Contents

[Disclosure: The reviewer spent one year (2001-02) as a visiting graduate student under the supervision of one of the volume’s editors (Henner von Hesberg).]

Sometime around the end of the 2nd or the start of the 3rd century C.E., a family in Rome buried their child in a sarcophagus decorated with scenes of chariots racing in the setting of a circus arena.

Roman sarcophagus for a child
Roman sarcophagus with scenes of Erotes racing chariots in a circus. Private Collection, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Photographer: S. Bell.

That sarcophagus appears to have rested undisturbed in Rome until the mid-16th century, when it is recorded in four well-known sketchbooks, the last (the Codex Ursinianus) dating to ca. 1564-69.[1] And then, for more than four hundred years, it disappeared without a trace until it was tracked down in 2002 to an upscale retirement village in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania (ironically, mere streets away from Bryn Mawr College, where Phyllis Pray Bober carried out much of her invaluable work on The Census of Classical Works Known to the Renaissance). Standing alongside the (latest) “owner” of the sarcophagus, which sat brimming with plants on a sunlit patio, I asked her if she knew exactly what she had in her possession: “Yes, of course: it’s a stone planter.” For that viewer, at least, the materiality of the sarcophagus was its meaning.

Scholars have expended considerable effort over more than a century interpreting the “meaning” of sarcophagi,[2] most by focusing on the iconography of their relief carvings[3] and consequently treating such vessels as singular, isolated monuments. The image-centered approach had its origins in necessity, since so few sarcophagi have survived with any record of their position within the tomb, let alone the name or location of the tomb itself. At its most extreme, this evidentiary deficit contributed to the creation of a school of “maximizers”: scholars possessed of a relentless faith in texts who treated sarcophagus images as part of a symbolically rich and coherent “picture-language” that seemingly operated independently of their material caskets and display contexts. At the other end of the methodological spectrum, a school of “minimizers” connected sarcophagus imagery to the “mentality” of life and death at Rome that was rooted firmly in its social-historical, cultural, and political soil, and cast a mostly skeptical, sideways glance at the role of afterlife beliefs. But generally speaking, both sides of the scholarly “industry” on sarcophagi have only intermittently and tangentially addressed the question of how their meaning may have been conveyed through their materiality and original sites of display.

Following the publication of Paul Zanker’s synthetic works 20 years ago, however, the paradigm shifted to the study of how the dynamics of display mediated meaning.[4] The continued focus on context is evidenced by several recent books on sarcophagi[5] as well as funerary monuments and burial assemblages.[6] Notable among these are scholarly attempts to tackle difficult interpretive issues such as “invisible sarcophagi,” which were interred so that their relief carvings completely escaped the viewer’s gaze.[7] In addition, important work has been done on the mechanisms of their manufacture and distribution[8] and the ways in which drilling techniques may have molded their meaning(s).[9] As its title clearly signposts, the book under review is part of this contextual turn in sarcophagus studies and, indeed, the study of Roman art more broadly, in which the “viewer” is manifold, “meaning” is fluid,[10] and “context is everything.”[11]

The volume opens with a brief introduction by one of the editors, Johanna Fabricius, in which she not only summarizes its contents but also efficiently situates the collection in light of previous, contested understandings of “context” in Classical Archaeology as well as within the fields of Mediterranean Archaeology (e.g. Egyptology) and Bildwissenschaft (e.g. Wolfgang Kemp) more broadly.[12]

The introduction is followed by eight chapters spread across three sections. The three papers in the first section are concerned with “Visible and Invisible Grave Images: Semantics and Aesthetics.” Friederike Sinn’s contribution looks at the inscriptions and imagery on urns and altars from selected graves in Rome and Ostia that belonged to different social groups (the senatorial class, leading families, small family groups, and imperial freedpersons) in order to tease out conclusions about social class, self-representation, and decor. Katharina Meinecke usefully summarizes her earlier work on sarcophagi from known contexts in cemeteries in Rome and its surroundings in the 1st to 3rd centuries C.E. which were either erected visibly or were “invisible treasures” (buried in the floor, hidden behind masonry). Jutta Dresken-Weiland also builds on her previous scholarship on late antique and early Christian sarcophagi by considering their visual programs, the social status of their dedicants, and their interment in metropolitan catacombs and churches. Her very brief chapter includes a series of useful charts in which she summarizes Christian Bildthemen by date, type, and number.

In section II, “Rituals and Pictures: The Performative Development of Sepulchral Spaces,” Carola Reinsberg considers three well-known Greek sarcophagi with figural decoration from Asia Minor in the Archaic and Classical periods. Since these were interred out of sight of any viewer, she focuses on the potential significance of their imagery for the deceased.[13] Henner von Hesberg follows with a chapter about the relationship between klinai and sarcophagi as two different modes of corporal presentation (temporary and permanent) which he sets against the cultural backdrop of public display (e.g. pompa funebris) and memorialization (e.g. Haterii relief) by the Roman familia.

In section III, “Alternatives to Rome: The Regional Specifics of Sepulchral Image-Spaces,” the authors turn their attention to Greece, Asia Minor, and the Bosporus. Theodosia Stefanidou-Tiveriou’s chapter investigates changes in the necropolis of Thessaloniki from the 1st century B.C.E. to the 4th century C.E. Her thorough analysis surveys a diverse range of grave monuments (e.g., reliefs with portrait medallions, sarcophagi) which she explains in terms of their local manufacture and cultural appeal to patrons, both Greek and Roman, under Hellenistic influence. Ilaria Romeo’s chapter continues the discussion of intercultural interaction and funerary habits by summarizing the results of her earlier study on a sarcophagus from Hierapolis (Phrygia) of Claudian date, which showcases the deceased’s royal descent through visual references to the city’s Seleucid founders. The final chapter by Patric-Alexander Kreuz presents material that will be the least familiar to most readers: grave reliefs, tomb paintings, and sarcophagi from the necropoleis of the Bosporan Empire in the 1st and 2nd centuries. More than any other chapter in the volume, Kreuz’s “out-of-empire” perspective forces the reader to confront embedded assumptions about which visual strategies are uniquely Roman, which peculiarly local, and which “transcultural” amid the universal human struggle to come to terms with death—a key concern outlined in the introduction (see esp. p. 3).

This abbreviated summary of the volume’s contents cannot do justice to the full complexity of the authors’ arguments, many of which are themselves condensed summaries of monograph-length treatments of their topics (as noted above). Readers who are accustomed to the positivist orientation and meticulous production standards of Germanic scholarship on Roman sarcophagi—fine-grained analyses, voluminous bibliography, and abundant plans, reconstructions, and photographs at a uniformly high resolution, including color images—will find much here that is both familiar and highly valuable. The volume is especially useful for its pithy summaries of the current state of our knowledge on core issues such as “images without viewers” (e.g., Meinecke, Dresken-Weiland, Reinsberg), for its inclusion of funerary objects and monuments besides sarcophagi that were part of the tomb ensemble (e.g., Sinn, von Hesberg), and for its wide geographic scope that brings the evidence of lesser-known sites into conversation with that from Rome (Stefanidou-Tiveriou, Romeo, Kreuz).

That said, it is worth noting an internal tension between the explicitly theoretical tilt of the volume’s introduction and the narrower focus of the case studies, none of whose authors engages with, or even cites, the theorists canvassed by Fabricius. This leaves her tantalizing suggestions unfulfilled and leads the reader to ask: What would a contextually holistic, theoretically driven approach to the material world of the Roman tomb, including its sarcophagi, look like? Or are the terms of the discussion to remain forever locked in a see-sawing contest between warring “brigades” of “maximizers” and “minimalists”?[14] As the field of sarcophagus studies pulses with new life, that discovery still awaits us.


[1] See further Sinclair Bell, “Responding to the Antique. A Rediscovered Roman Circus Sarcophagus and its Renaissance Afterlife,” Pegasus. Berliner Beiträge zum Nachleben der Antike 7 (2005) 49–80.

[2] On the history of their interpretation, see Guntram Koch and Hellmut Sichtermann, Römische Sarkophage, Handbuch der Archäologie 3 (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1982), “Sinngehalt” (581 ff.).

[3] E.g., the corpus of ASR (Die antiken Sarkophagreliefs) published by the German Archaeological Institute.

[4] Paul Zanker, Die mythologischen Sarkophagreliefs und ihre Betrachter, Sitzungsberichte der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften = Philosophisch-Historische Klasse 2 (Munich: Verlag der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2000); Paul Zanker and Björn C. Ewald, Mit Mythen leben. Die Bilderwelt der römischen Sarkophage (Munich: Hirmer, 2004); also published in Italian in 2008 and English in 2012.

[5] Barbara E. Borg, Crisis and Ambition. Tombs and Burial Customs in Third-Century CE Rome, Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), esp. chapter 7; Katharina Meinecke, Sarcophagum posuit. Römische Steinsarkophage im Kontext. Sarkophag-Studien 7 (Ruhpolding: Franz Philipp Rutzen, 2014); Janet Huskinson, Roman Strigillated Sarcophagi. Art and Social History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), esp. 103–111, 245–274; Christopher H. Hallett, ed., Flesheaters: An International Symposium on Roman Sarcophagi. University of California at Berkeley 18-19 September 2009, Sarkophag-Studien 11 (Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2019).

[6] E.g., Branka Migotti, Marjeta Šašel Kos and Ivan Radman-Livaja, eds., Roman Funerary Monuments of South-western Pannonia in Their Material, Social, and Religious Context (Oxford: Archaeopress Publishing, 2018); Barbara E. Borg, Roman Tombs and the Art of Commemoration: Contextual Approaches to Funerary Customs in the Second Century CE (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

[7] E.g., Katherine Meinecke, “Invisible Sarcophagi: Coffin and Viewer in Late Imperial Age,” in Stine Birk and Birte Poulsen, eds., Patrons and Viewers in Late Antiquity, Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity 10 (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2012), 83–105; Stine Birk, Depicting the Dead: Self-Representation and Commemoration on Roman Sarcophagi with Portraits, Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity 11 (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2013), 34–39; Barbara Borg, “Hidden Splendour: The Display Context of Metropolitan Sarcophagi,” in Hallett, ed., Flesheaters, 145–60.

[8] Ben Russell, “The Roman Sarcophagus ‘Industry’: A Reconsideration,” in Jas Elsner and Janet Huskinson, eds., Life, Death and Representation. Some New Work on Roman Sarcophagi (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011), 119–147; Martin Galinier, “À vendre. Les sarcophages romains dans les ateliers. Suggestions méthodologiques,” in Martin Galinier and François Baratte, eds., Iconographie funéraire romaine et sociétécorpus antiqueapproches nouvelles? (Perpignan: Presses universitaires de Perpignan, 2013), 81–115 [available here.]

[9] E.g., Mont Allen, “Isolating the Deceased in the Picture: Tools and Technique on Mythological Sarcophagi,” in Hallett, ed., Flesheaters, 97–123.

[10] E.g., see the contributions to Brenda Longfellow and Ellen Perry, eds., Roman Artists, Patrons, and Public Consumption: Familiar Works Reconsidered (Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 2017); with my review: BMCR 2019.01.22.

[11] E.g., John R. Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans. Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.–A.D. 315 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 13.

[12] Her expansive definition of the volume’s core concept (p. 1) is worth quoting in full here: “Contexts can therefore be understood not only as the material legacies in their archaeological contexts (determined by specific rules of selection and diachronic depositional processes) as well as through taphonomic processes, but also as the artifacts and monuments defined by social practices and ideal concepts in their changing spatial, temporal, functional, aesthetic, semantic, social or cultural associations.” ; her full chapter (with the original passage in German) is freely available at Reichert Verlag.

[13] Her contribution should be read alongside that by Catherine M. Draycott, “Making Meaning of Myth. On the Interpretation of Mythological Imagery in the Polyxena Sarcophagus and the Kızılbel Tomb and the History of Achaemenid Asia Minor,” in Lucy Audley-Miller and Beate Dignas, eds., Wandering Myths. Transcultural Uses of Myth in the Ancient World (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018), 23–70 (not cited).

[14] Cf. Jas Elsner, “Introduction,” in Elsner and Huskinson, eds., Life, Death and Representation, 120; at 11.