BMCR 2024.03.21

The death of myth on Roman sarcophagi: allegory and visual narrative in the late empire

, The death of myth on Roman sarcophagi: allegory and visual narrative in the late empire. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022. Pp. xiii, 278. ISBN 9781316510919.



Mont Allen has written an intriguing book on Roman sarcophagi.[1] This is a rare but welcome Anglophone contribution to an area dominated by German scholarship. Aiming to explain the demythologization (Entmythologisierung) or “extinction of mythological imagery on Roman sarcophagi” of the third century CE, Allen presents a synthetic study of the waning use of sculpted myths on marble sarcophagi and their resurrection, reformulated as compositionally similar Christian iconography. Carefully navigating an existing academic divide of objects, he problematizes their segregation in scholarship, arguing that they in fact should be considered as closely connected and possibly carved by the same sculptors. Worth noting is the focus on metropolitan Roman sarcophagi and not their Attic or eastern counterparts.

A lengthy introduction establishes the stakes and structure of the book by comparing two sarcophagi featuring popular mythological scenes, first of Dionysus and Ariadne and second of Selene and Endymion. The two pairings are paradigmatic for Allen’s argument. The compositions are similar enough, but one must acknowledge that most Roman narrative reliefs share this degree of formal similarity with repeated figural types and compositional strategies. The great value of comparison lies in context, as a married couple jointly commissioned the Selene and Endymion sarcophagi and intended them as pendants. Considered together, the pairing of complementary scene types advances beyond visual metaphor and allegory to remind viewers of the deceased entombed before them and the rituals to be carried out. Allen argues that this imagery creates a distancing effect by drawing on Greek figures. Here he associates mythological portraiture with the deceased and the past, whereas tomb visitors are aligned with the present. Allen asserts that this strategic use of imagery clarifies temporal relationships for Roman viewers. Mythological subjects, which Allen likens to costume bodies in portrait statues, function as proxies, implicating viewers in place of Dionysus and Selene watching Ariadne and Endymion sleep. Allen further tracks this occurrence through many scene types, citing, for example, how Hippolytus is replaced by a Roman in contemporary clothing, or how in bucolic scenes the focus is on generic shepherds who otherwise are background figures for Selene and Endymion. Allen identifies these gradual adaptations as turning points for dwindling mythological scenes where portraits, representative of the past, lose some importance for the living and their demands of funerary art.

Analysis of the “wholesale rejection of myth” on sarcophagi then unfolds in eight chapters, organized thematically and followed by a list of works cited, index of objects, and general index. The first four chapters focus on existing theories as causes for demythologization. Each chapter discusses the topics of religious change, bucolic imagery, politics, and social status, all considered but ultimately rejected for their highlighted shortcomings.

Surveying the history of sarcophagi scholarship from Rodenwaldt to Zanker’s more recent work, Chapter One explores theories of changing religious attitudes as causes. Its title, “Myth a Casualty of Christianity,” is more a driving question than a summary of the chapter. One crucial idea in this chapter is “market transformation,” which Allen describes as underlying a religious façade. This common theory for explaining fewer myths on sarcophagi hinges upon buyers’ shifting attitudes and tastes based on religion, but Allen points out the changing market demand for mythological imagery induced by Christian purchasing power was too low and too late to be a cause. He compellingly supports these claims, further noting Christian reuse of so-called neutral scenes and similarities of craftsmanship between Roman hunting sarcophagi and early Christian sarcophagi. Chapter Two then urges readers to consider more seriously shifting economic demands by non-Christians who chose figural pastoral scenes for their various potential meanings, most importantly anticipatory hopes. Allen explores Henning Wrede’s sociopolitical theory of “elite retreat” to explain, first, whether and how bucolic sarcophagi resonated with specific classes, and, secondly, why bucolic motifs so often also include philosophers. He rightly looks to poetic interpretations of “bucolic rumination” in line with the tradition of pastoral poetry, although a greater number of literary references would have supported this chapter better. Allen well incorporates Cato, Livy, and Vergil for distinguishing the missing visual representation of agricultural interests and cows in the first centuries BCE and CE from the pastoral imagery with primarily sheep and shepherds in the third century CE.

Chapters Three and Four deploy a similar rhetorical organization, argument, and refutation. Chapter Three addresses the third-century crisis for its attractiveness as a potential cause, but ultimately Allen finds it insufficient for explaining demythologization on sarcophagi, as the use of myth held strong in other art forms. He further notes the disjunction between scowling imperial portraits and private portraits, including those on sarcophagi, which lack such expressions. Chapter Four explores whether demythologized imagery results from broader devaluation of mythological culture as a populist shift away from classicism.

Chapter Five offers solutions by identifying how mythological imagery as visual narrative changes in a fragmentary manner. Sculptors sometimes omitted minor episodes or subsidiary figures from their portrayals of a myth, and the resulting contracted episode or a single figure was used to represent an entire narrative. These sculptors progressively employed different representational strategies, sometimes interchanging figures from different myths at the expense of narrative sources but not their allegorical messages. Allen identifies these processes as narrative contraction and dissolution. He convincingly argues that this fragmentation and symbolic abstraction, which have also been labeled as demythologization in previous scholarship, are actually separate phenomena from classical myth’s disappearance. He focuses on changing modes of seeing within painting, sculpture in the round, and mosaic, all of which freed characters from their narratives without the abandonment of myth seen on sarcophagi. Rather than classifying sarcophagi by iconography and narrative content, Chapter Six advances modal criteria such as viewing frameworks and function. Allen argues that ancient viewers elide biographical and mythological sarcophagi because of the same allegorical viewing framework. Here, tooling analyses figure prominently to explain how sculptors applied contrasting drilling techniques to distinguish the real deceased from mythological figures representationally and ontologically.

Chapter Seven concludes that shifts in ancient viewers’ attitudes toward chronology and the changing demands of funerary art were responsible for demythologization. Specifically, a shift from retrospective to prospective viewing in conjunction with other sociocultural changes explains the shift in imagery on sarcophagi. Allen further correlates this change with altered spatial relationships in Roman tombs of the late empire, that is increased proximity to the dead. The extended coda that is Chapter Eight expands on the conclusion, treating Christian scenes as “myth revived,” a reformulation of earlier myth types due to a switch from a retrospective panegyric mode of decoration to a proclamation of communal belonging through faith. These are Constantinian and later sarcophagi depicting often pastoral scenes of Jonah and Jesus among other figures and sometimes portraits. The key difference between the myth types is that Greco-Roman mythology is treated as retrospective while biblical stories are prospective. The exception to this is found in the examples of sarcophagi depicting the labors of Hercules, which Allen aptly compares with scenes of Christ’s miracles. Discussion of temporal differences between these two scenes is perhaps stretched more than elsewhere in the book, but the importance of temporality as distinguishing the Christian sarcophagi is well noted. A most welcome addition in this chapter is the proposed “theology of tooling,” the consideration of production, sculptural techniques, and tooling shared among the “pagan” and Christian sarcophagi. Allen identifies abandonment of the drill as a specific technique in Christian art for assimilating the mortal and mythic figures. While one may not find all the evidence in this particular chapter compelling, the mode of analysis is invaluable and increasingly prominent in recent scholarship. Allen takes advantage of this line of inquiry to add to the burgeoning scholarship on production and market demand.

I heartily recommend this book for scholars and students seeking new perspective on style and changing trends in Roman art broadly as well as for those wanting to drive discussion in a special topics class or graduate seminar. One of the book’s greater contributions, in vogue with a turn to technical analyses in studies of Roman art, is the consideration of sculptors and material facture, which Allen uses to support his argument of change at the hand of new strategies for underscoring the status of the deceased. This approach is of great value to all readers.

The reader may have only a few quibbles, but they do not detract from the book’s success. In order to produce a synthetic argument, Allen avoids the customary typological approach and catalogue in order to study demythologization across types and genres. Yet, sometimes at odds with this goal, the focus remains only on mythological sarcophagi as a type, including coffins with Christian imagery, even though, as he notes, it may be essential for us to unify mythological and biographical types. One may also question how myth is treated primarily as part of the Greek past rather than a contemporary part of Roman imperial culture and, for some, religion. Myths are more than merely classicizing and Greek since artists and patrons fully embraced them in Roman culture and religion, yet Allen hinges the bulk of his temporality argument on this view of myth. Discussion of prospective presentation elsewhere in Roman art, such as with children’s portrait statues, may also have supplemented Allen’s comparison with mythological sarcophagi, but is lacking. The argument depends on the reader agreeing with a retrospective view of mythology versus a prospective view of Christianity. Accordingly, the book’s subtitle might have more appropriately included these terms or some aspect of temporality. If a prospective view of death in Christian imagery were the primary causal factor for demythologized imagery on sarcophagi, we perhaps need a more expansive set of considerations at its end beyond a pagan/Christian divide. Can we, for example, exclude Christians as patrons of earlier Selene/Endymion sarcophagi if the imagery indirectly demonstrated affiliation? The argument also would have benefitted from consideration of the fragmented or truncated use of myths on earlier and contemporary cinerary monuments, particularly in connection with Boschung’s noteworthy discussion.[2]

At various places, Allen cites work on broader societal uses of myth, but the considerations are not always fully integrated into the arguments. The notable exception is the last third of Chapter Five, where he wonderfully discusses the use of myth in painting, statuary, and mosaics. Also lacking nuance is the broad use of “Roman” as a label without accounting for multiculturalism in the empire. Finally, the occasional conversational tone and impressionistic parenthetical interjections about imagery, intended to be playful and to enliven the imagery, will for some readers be cliché or distracting. Note for example a quotation interpreting Selene’s response to a torch-bearing Cupid figure: “Yes, thank you, but I know where I’m going!” we can imagine her replying gently.”

The editing and formatting throughout the book is of good quality. The images are relatively sparse but sufficient, and each caption includes pertinent object information including locations and accession numbers. The indices are useful and well-formatted, with a list of objects organized by museum/location. Italics throughout the narrative emphasize the author’s tone or argument. Again, despite minor concerns, the book is a successful, engaging, and compelling contribution to the field of Roman art history, particularly in the immense subfield of sarcophagi.



[1] Allen notes that much of Chapter Two appeared previously in Römische Mitteilungen 124 (2018). Parts of Chapter Six and the Coda appeared in C. H. Hallett, (ed.) Flesheaters: An International Symposium on Roman Sarcophagi (Wiesbaden, 2019).

[2] D. Boschung, “Reduced Myths: Roman Ash Chests with Mythological Scenes” in Approaching the Ancient Artifact (Berlin, 2014).