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Funerary Monuments

Abstract and Keywords

The Latin monumentum (from monere, to remind, admonish, advise), often used in funerary inscriptions, is not coextensive with our modern use of the term “monument.” Its semantic spectrum comprised not only the burial marker—the monument in a modern sense—but larger structures, such as a tomb building or funerary precinct surrounding a funerary altar. This chapter introduces five main bodies of funerary sculpture that were produced in Rome from the late first century BC to the third century AD: funerary reliefs of Roman liberti, marble urns and altars, kline monuments, and sarcophagi. The discussion of these classes of funerary monuments is rounded off by some observations on the patrons of such monuments.

Keywords: funerary reliefs, liberti, urns, altars, kline monuments, sarcophagi


In the city of Rome itself, it has been estimated that there would have been somewhere between 10.5 and 14 million burials from the time of Augustus to that of Constantine (Bodel 2008, 179). The several thousand funerary monuments that are preserved from the same period—though only a small fraction of the original number, and even though produced by patrons from a wide social spectrum—clearly signaled status. So a systematic survey of Roman funerary monuments from the entire Roman Empire or just Rome itself remains a rather daunting task. Too great are the variations across time and space, the social and gender differences, and the discrepancies observable in the funerary habits and contexts from one city to the next, with exceptions to almost every rule. In fact, Roman funerary monuments, tomb contexts (Dresken-Weiland 2003; Borg 2013), and inscriptions offer a near unlimited potential for writing microhistories of Roman lives and deaths.

The topic of Roman funerary art encompasses multiple genres of sculpture (freestanding and relief: Wrede 1981; Fejfer 2008); funerary rituals and practices at every social rank (Toynbee 1971; Prieur 1986; De Filippis Cappai 1997; Corbeill 2004, 67–106; Carroll 2006; Brink and Green 2008; Andreu, Espinosa, and Pastor 2011); and the reception, historiography, and afterlife of funerary monuments and the role they played in the formation of the discipline of art history (Elsner 2010; Erasmo 2012; Zanker and Ewald 2012, 1–21). Setting aside the extraordinary thematic complex of imperial funerals and apotheosis (Arce 1988; Beard and Henderson 1998; Davies 2000; Arce 2010; see essay 4.6, Kellum), this essay surveys private funerary monuments with sculptural decoration from the city of Rome of the later first century BC to the third century AD: reliefs, altars, urns, kline monuments, and sarcophagi.

The Latin monumentum (from monere, to remind, admonish, advise), often used in funerary inscriptions, is not coextensive with our modern use of the term (p. 391) “monument” (see essay 3.5, Sobocinski and Wolfram Thill). Its semantic spectrum comprised not only the burial markerthe monument in a modern sense—but larger structures, such as a tomb building or funerary precinct surrounding a funerary altar (Boschung 1987, 12–13). Likewise, the terminology for the classes of funerary monuments was often fluid. The term ara, for example, indicated both funerary urns and altars in Latin funerary inscriptions (Boschung 1987; Sinn 1987). While I adhere to established archaeological terminologies and typological classifications in this essay, they do not always reflect ancient naming and perceptions of such monuments. Commonly used ancient terms for various classes of funerary monuments include memoria, mnema, and mnemeion. These terms applied to inscriptions, to any type of stele or funerary marker, to entire tombs, and even to literary works (Häusle 1980, 29–40; cf. Boschung 1987, 12–13; Walker 1985). Memoria was utterly material: in a society without coherent eschatology, without common trust in rebirth or postmortal existence, and with vastly diverging belief systems, the monument itself guaranteed the memory of the deceased. The principal function shared by funerary monuments was the preservation of an individual’s memory and the fight against oblivion. Funerary monuments were placed under legal and magical protection, because they were the only reliable form of long-term, postmortal presence among the living (Häusle 1980, 64–131).

This function involved a perception of the ontological status of monuments and images slightly different from our own: funerary monuments and effigies of the deceased could function as “doubles” of and substitutes for the deceased (Arce 2010; Bettini 2011), who was believed to be somehow present in them, and they were sometimes attributed qualities and agency we would associate with the actual person (Bettini 1999, 187–212; 2011, 225–37; Arce 2010). For this substitutive function, it was irrelevant whether effigies or monuments were produced during or after the life of the honorand, or whether the images had been commissioned by the deceased himself, by his relatives, or others. The emphatically substitutive function of the image could even pose a threat to the living individual whose social persona the monument continued post mortem, as expressed by fears of encountering one’s Doppelgänger while still alive (Bettini 1999, 228–36; 2011, 171–91). It is quite possible that the phenomenon of unfinished portrait heads on Roman sarcophagi (Andreae 1984; Huskinson 1998; Smith 2012) has something to do with such (occasional) feelings of unease vis-à-vis one’s image. When the dead and the living are united, as in the reliefs of Roman liberti (Kockel 1993), the addition of a viv(-it) to the name in inscriptions can make explicit who was alive and who was not at the time the monument or image was erected; often, however, this distinction was not made.

In what follows, I survey the most common classes of funerary monuments with sculptural decoration, commenting on current interpretations of them. To conclude, I consider the sociology and patronage of these funerary monuments and how their evolution from the first and third centuries AD possibly reflects a broader change in mentality and a shift toward increasing concern with death and its finality.

(p. 392) Classes of Roman Funerary Monuments with Sculptural Decoration

Roman Funerary Reliefs of Liberti

Funerary reliefs come into fashion among Roman freedmen and -women (liberti) in the early first century BC (Zanker 1975; Kleiner 1977; Kockel 1993; Pflug 1997; Zanker and Ewald 2012, 176–8). Almost 300 examples are currently known (Kockel 1993). The bulk of the material dates to the years 40–10 BC, and most are carved from Luni marble (Kockel 1993, 57–8). Numbers decline sharply in the first century AD, although production continued into the second century AD.

Funerary MonumentsClick to view larger

Figure 4.4.1 Funerary relief of the Vettii (Kockel 1993, 145, no. H 13). Vettius Nicephor (second from the left) and Vettia Calybe (right) were still alive when the relief was made, as is indicated by the v(ivit) above their names. Vettius’s wife, Antonia Rufa (left), as well as his son, Vettius Secundus (with bulla), had apparently already died. All of the adults were liberti. Late first century BC. Rome, Via Po.

Most reliefs depict half portraits of the upper body, including the hands, which gesture to communicate virtues of the individuals or relationships between figures (figure 4.4.1). Fewer show portrait busts or entire figures. Framing is usually simple, but can include vegetation, architectural elements, or attributes reflecting professions. German scholars have nicknamed the boxed-in half-length figures Fenstergucker, or window-peekers (Zanker 1975). The meaning of the format is unclear; the few reliefs documented in situ decorated the façades of house-type and altar-type tombs, among others (Kockel 1993, 7–9). These reliefs were thus intended to confront passersby directly, inviting them to contemplate the likenesses and read out loud the inscriptions carved into the lower margin of the reliefs or the wall of the tomb itself. Nevertheless, such reliefs occasionally appear in the interior of tombs, such as columbaria, where one late example was found.

(p. 393) The most compelling interpretation of the half- and full-body relief portraits suggests that they imitated in an abbreviated form the statues that decorated elaborate multistory tombs (Kockel 1993, 7–14, 77–81), the statue galleries on display in public spaces, or even the aristocratic portraits that adorned public buildings (Pflug 1997, 501). They probably did not imitate the cupboards (armaria) in which aristocratic Romans kept the images of their ancestors (imagines maiorum; Kockel 1993, 12–14). In most of these reliefs, the artists focused on the face (vultus, facies) and gestures as bearers of meaning and as a vehicle for identifying the tomb occupants and their relations to one another (Corbeill 2004; Bettini 2011, 131–68). The depiction of similar facial characteristics was often employed to produce a “family look” (Kockel 1993, 67–70). In this respect, portrait reliefs are related to the aristocratic imagines maiorum, which likewise amounted to “a sort of iconographic archive of the family’s physical features” (Bettini 2011, 158).

The social status of the patrons explains the overwhelming popularity of the toga, the Roman national costume, as the most common mode of representation for men (Kockel 1993, 15–24). The toga not only announces achieved social status, but also distinguishes between generations. Old men wear a particularly old-fashioned, tightly draped toga. Young men can be shown in the toga or in a heroizing scheme, with naked upper body and sword (but without other common heroic formulae, such as turned head or opened mouth), which harks back to aggrandizing Hellenistic statue types and, in this specific context, likely refers to an office as military tribune (tribunus militum: Kockel 1993, 24–5). The rights to marry and have legitimate offspring were the most important benefits of liberti status (Zanker 1975); therefore the women are shown in a common pudicitia scheme, which celebrates female qualities of modesty and chastity, often clasp hands with their husbands (dextrarum iunctio) as a sign of their marital status (Kockel 1993, 25–31, 35–53), and have veiled heads to emphasize their virtues. The children often wear the bulla (figure 4.4.1), the amulet of the freeborn male child, and are prominently positioned (Zanker 1975, 289–91; Kockel 1993, 53–4). As the first in the family to have the full rights of freeborn Roman citizens, the hopes of the family—sometimes shattered prematurely—rested upon them.

Roman Funerary Altars

The typology and decoration of Roman funerary altars was entirely in line with their cultic function (Boschung 1987); except for the inscription they are almost indistinguishable from altars for the gods. In fact, altars for deities could even be rededicated to the manes of Roman individuals, and vice versa (Boschung 1987, 12). Garlands, sacrificial instruments, candelabra, tripods, and other iconographic elements expressed the idea that pious duties toward the deceased had been fulfilled and also defined the funerary precinct as a locus religiosus. Gorgoneia and other apotropaic symbols provided magical protection against violation and reuse, a concern voiced by many funerary inscriptions.

Funerary MonumentsClick to view larger

Figure 4.4.2 Funerary altar of eight-year-old Carienius Venustus (Boschung 1987, 88, no. 349). Second century AD. Toronto, Royal Ontario Museum (formerly London, Lansdowne House).

Funerary altars become popular in Rome during the reign of Tiberius, perhaps under the influence of the altars of the Lares that had been erected in Rome’s 265 neighborhoods (vici) (Boschung 1993). The chronological distribution of Roman funerary altars centers on the late first and the early second centuries AD. Over the course of the second century (p. 394) AD, numbers declined sharply, and only a few examples were produced in the third and fourth centuries AD (Boschung 1987, 53). The idea of honoring the dead with a public display of pietas was already present in the monumental altar tombs of the first century BC (Boschung 1987, 53); in a development typical for the art of the early imperial period, the funerary altars are sharply reduced in terms of size, but more refined and precious in terms of decoration and material, which is usually marble. The direct successors of the altars are the second-century AD garland sarcophagi; they take up many motifs found on garlanded funerary altars, including mythological vignettes (Boschung 1993, 40–41).

The early altars show mainly garlands and emulate altars for deities, while the Neronian and Flavian altars offer a richer repertoire of forms, including architectural framings; in the early second century AD, designs become simpler again. Figural representations become more popular after the Flavian period, including reclining figures, togate figures, Dionysiac figures, sea creatures, and mythological scenes such as the abduction of Proserpina or the death of Archemoros. There was also room for portraits of the deceased and their relatives, in the form of small-scale or miniature busts (figure 4.4.2), portraits in shells, or the couple itself, often in dextrarum iunctio (Boschung 1987, 50–52; Kleiner 1987). The imagery of Roman funerary altars usually communicates (p. 395) fulfillment of pious duties toward the deceased; commemoration and praise of individuals and couples in an elevating, aggrandizing, and poetic fashion; celebration of marital concord; and it begins to make use of mythological themes, as either metaphorical laments of the human condition or evocations of the pleasures of being.

Roman Marble Urns

Funerary MonumentsClick to view larger

Figure 4.4.3 Funerary urn of Claudius Chryseros, Iulia Theonoe, and Claudia Dorcas, with Lupa romana under the tabula (Sinn 1987, 143, no. 204). Chryseros was a libertus of either Claudius or Nero. Early Flavian. Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano, inv. no. 297191. From Rome, Via Appia, Vigna Codini, Tomb III.

With over 700 examples known, mostly from Rome and Ostia, marble urns are comparable to altars in number (Sinn 1982; 1987). They served as containers for the cremated remains of the deceased (the ashes and bones that had been gathered, sprinkled with wine, and wrapped in a cloth) and various grave goods, such as coins, unguentaria filled with perfume oils, or even jewelry (Sinn 1987, 13). Chronologically, the urns spread from the Augustan period into the third century, with the bulk of the material dating from the Neronian to the Trajanic period (figure 4.4.3). Their popularity thus parallels that of the altars, to which they are closely related. Marble urns were a more (p. 396) expensive and exclusive option than terracotta urns (ollae): among the 460 loculi (containing two ollae each) in the Columbarium I in Vigna Codini in Rome, for example, only twelve were marble (Sinn 1987, 14n30). Marble urns were usually intended for single burials, but some urns have as many as three consecutive inscriptions, indicating use for three burials. Some were conceptualized as double urns from the beginning, with two or more tabulae next to one another. These multiple urns are similar to sarcophagi in shape. Libation holes for the pouring of wine onto the remains allowed continued interaction with the dead (a second hole could provide drainage). Such urns resemble similarly equipped funerary altars.

In accordance with a general shift toward more “inward-looking” forms of representation that begins in the late first century BC (Hesberg and Zanker 1987; Hesberg 1992; Feraudi-Gruénais 2001; 2003), marble urns were intended to decorate the tomb interior, not the exterior (like the reliefs of the liberti), or a funerary precinct (in the case of the altars). The urns stood in grave chambers of various sizes, from the large columbaria of the early imperial period to small family tombs (Sinn 1987, 12–14). They were placed in niches, on pedestals in front of a wall, simply on the ground, or even buried. Unbound to the cultic format of the altar, the typology and decoration of the urns illustrates how the sculptors attempted to come to terms with and interpret the new function of the urns as permanent receptacles for the remains. The artists and their patrons mostly opted for hybrid designs that draw on various aspects of the tomb, as both a house of the dead (Wallace-Hadrill 2008) and as a place at which the survivors fulfilled their religious duties toward the deceased (Sinn 1987, 63–5). The most common form is that of a rectangular box with a roof-shaped lid and gable, which defines the urn as a house or a miniature shrine for the deadthough the urn itself was placed within the larger structure of the tomb, which was also conceptualized as a domus aeterna. Isodomic blockwork in relief, pilasters, and prominent doors (a feature that will recur on the sarcophagi) also allude to the domus aeterna. Sometimes couples take leave at the opened doors (Sinn 1987, 63), or victories open the doors. Whether doors signify the entrance to the domus aeterna or that of the underworld, they clearly emphasize the liminality of death as a moment of separation and passage into another realm. The corners of the roof-shaped lids can be crowned by acroteria, while the pediments are decorated with idyllic motifs (such as birds or sea creatures), or somewhat more authoritative attributes such as eagles or honorific wreaths. Often, the lids end in pulvini reminiscent of altars, making explicit the religious dimension of the tomb (figure 4.4.3). Other urns resemble chests (Sinn 1987, 23) or imitate the shape of wicker baskets in order to illustrate their function as containers, like the famous example that probably comes from the tomb of the baker Eurysaces. It is not clear if associations with a bread basket or with a Dionysiac cista mystica (depicted on other urns) were intended. The particular aesthetic interest in this shape seems to be the imitation of wicker in marble, a mannered and self-conscious illusionism that renders an inexpensive, ephemeral material in a more precious, permanent medium.

The most common decoration is vegetation (Sinn 1987, 56–62): garlands, trees and branches, even scrollwork, reminiscent of that found on the Ara Pacis, and also (p. 397) inhabited by a rich fauna of birds and insects. Such decoration defines the urn as a symbolic place of bliss (locus amoenus) for the dead, by evoking the same positive ideas of peaceful repose that were also associated with lush funerary gardens (cepotaphia; Toynbee 1971, 94–100; Sinn 1987, 56–62). The omnipresence of laurel trees and wreaths shows how heavily the artists borrowed from the aurea aetas iconography of Augustan art. These references, however, remain playful and largely stripped of their political connotations. Even an emphatically Roman motif such as the lupa Romana with the twins becomes a positive symbol of nurturing piety (figure 4.4.3); in one case it alludes, as the inscription suggests, to fraternal lovewithout (we must assume) any sinister secondary meanings (Sinn 1987, 71). The deceased themselves (and sometimes living relatives) can be evoked in the form of miniature busts in shells or are carried by figures (such as Erotes) that were meant to reflect positively on the deceased’s physical qualities. Scenes of dextrarum iunctio reflect on the significance of marriage for the liberti who dominated this class of monuments. Largely absent, however, are themes such as the profession of the deceased or his office. From the second century, the thematic development of the urns corresponds to that of the sarcophagi (as did that of the funerary altars), with a range of mythological themes such as the abduction of Proserpina (often used on urns for males as a symbol for the love of the couple), Meleager, Venus and Adonis, Hippolytus and Phaedra.

Kline Monuments

Funerary MonumentsClick to view larger

Figure 4.4.4 Kline monument depicting a woman holding a garland. Early second century AD. Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano, inv. no. 72879.

Kline monuments, that is depictions of the deceased reclining on a couch, were used from the Augustan period into the third century and are relatively rare. Most date from the Flavian to the early Antonine periods (Wrede 1971; 1981; Koch and Sichtermann 1982, 58–61; Zanker and Ewald 2012, 185–90), thus they preceded and perhaps influenced the mass production of sarcophagi. The motif of reclining figures had a long history, including Greek and Etruscan precedents. Kline monuments could be used in a variety of ways. Since cremation was still dominant when they came in fashion, they sometimes accommodated the ashes of the deceased. They could also be prepared to receive the offering of libations. In this respect they are related to the urns and altars on which similar symposium imagery can sometimes be found. In the case of a kline monument in Copenhagen, the cup held by the reclining male functioned as a libation hole, allowing the commemorators to fulfill their religious duties while literally “dining with the dead.” But kline monuments could also cover a burial in a forma or a simple sarcophagus; in these cases their function was practically that of the later sarcophagus lids, which similarly depict reclining figures. Kline monuments were also placed on bases, on the floor of a grave chamber or funerary precinct, or in a niche, and could thus serve as funerary monuments in their own right (Koch and Sichtermann 1982, 59). The famous crane relief from the tomb of the Haterii depicts the female deceased in the guise of just such a monument, which we have to imagine as having been part of the funerary shrine below (Wrede 1971).

(p. 398) The substitutive function of kline monuments is made particularly obvious by the three-dimensional rendering of a body on a kline, often understood as a portrayal of the deceased in a happy beyond. Often the honorand is shown sleeping, with flower garland in hand, as if she had gently nodded away at a symposium (figure 4.4.4). Sleep is here used as a rather transparent and consoling euphemism for death. But beyond that, more concrete associations with the body lying in state or even with the wax effigies placed on biers or couches for funerals in effigie would have been inevitable. The combination of an actual body, hidden from view in a container or sarcophagus (theke), with an openly displayed effigy on a kline above the body is attested for the funerals of both Augustus and Pertinax (Cass. Dio 75.4.2–5; Erasmo 2008; Arce 2010). Other kline monuments use a more upright, wakeful pose (Roller 2006). Similar funerary iconographies had been used since the Hellenistic period, illustrating the patron’s opulent lifestyle and savoir vivre. On one (now lost) example, the kline monument of a certain Saturneinos, the inscription identifies the deceased with Dionysos (Wrede 1981, 261, no. 174). Males and females can be equipped further with various gendered attributes of domestic luxury, such as thick pillows, garlands, drinking cups, erotes, or dogs. The rendering of the body can also vary considerably, and sometimes depicts both men and women as partially (p. 399) nude. The attention drawn to the body anticipates the corporeal aesthetic of Roman mythological sarcophagi, on which half- (or even entirely) naked mythological figures can also be used for comparison and identification. In the later second century, the dominant ideal of the couple appears on the kline monuments; around the same time, reclining couples also begin to be featured on the kline lids of both Roman and eastern sarcophagi.


Relief decorated marble sarcophagi come into fashion in various parts of the Roman Empire during the second century AD (figure 4.4.5). The general function of sarcophagi was the containment, preservation, and concealment of one or several bodies, as is shown by the slight elevation for the head usually found inside on the right; still, some sarcophagi were used for cremation burials. The decomposing body was literally concealed by the marble facade of the sarcophagus front which often displayed the immaculate marble bodies of gods and heroes, as a substitute and “redemption” for death and decay (Ewald 2011). The emergence of sarcophagi is thus related to the gradual transition from cremation to inhumation during the second century (Nock 1932), although it has often—and rightly—been noted that the popularity of elaborate, relief decorated sarcophagi is not an inevitable consequence of this change in burial customs. Rather, what contributed to the wide diffusion of relief decorated sarcophagi must have been the possibilities offered by the new format itself: for increased self-presentation (albeit in a private venue), for sprawling mythological storytelling, and for an intensified visual discourse about life, love, death, corporeality, emotions, virtues, and family relations. At Rome the thematic range found on relief sarcophagi is firmly situated within these thematic coordinates, which moreover corresponded to the rather private character of the tomb as a memorial space for the family unit; the latter could include slaves, freedmen, and friends who could also be buried in such family tombs (Feraudi-Gruénais 2001; 2003). However, the actual contexts and circumstances of viewing and display of sarcophagi varied greatly across the Roman Empire. Though most often displayed in tombs, sarcophagi could also occasionally be buried in the floor of tomb chambers, so that their relief decoration was no longer visible; at the other extreme, they could be raised by funerary platforms and high bases in the open so that they could be seen from afar, as is the case in the necropolis of Tyre in Lebanon (Linant de Bellefonds 1985; De Jong 2010).

In terms of quantity, sarcophagi are the most numerously preserved body of funerary art. A rather conservative estimate puts the number of extant pieces (and fragments thereof) found across the Roman Empire at between 12,000 and 15,000 (Koch 1993, 1), suggesting that sarcophagi must have originally numbered in the hundreds of thousands, depending on the ratio between lost and extant pieces one uses in such calculations (e.g., Smith 2012). Thus, in most places, this type of burial must have been somewhat affordable. The greatest number of sarcophagi (about 6000, according to Koch 1993, 94), as well as the greatest variety of sarcophagus shapes and themes, is found (p. 400) (p. 401) in the city of Rome itself (Koch 1993, 2). Other types of Roman funerary sculpture, such as the few urns, altars, and funerary reliefs of liberti produced in the second century, began to use decorative motifs pioneered on sarcophagi. Apart from Rome and Ostia, important workshops (or “centers of production”: Koch and Sichtermann 1982; Koch 1993) were located in Athens and Asia Minor (Ephesos, Aphrodisias, Dokimeion). Upon closer inspection, however, the picture becomes complicated: raw materials (often marble from a variety of quarries, in particular Prokonnesos in the Sea of Marmara) and sarcophagi in various stages of completion were traded along the lines of a complex and only superficially researched network of trade relations (Walker 1985; Koch 1993, 3–17; Russell 2011). In addition, many local workshops throughout the empire carved sarcophagi from either locally available or imported materials (limestone or marble), often imitating the design of costly imports.

Funerary MonumentsClick to view larger

Figure 4.4.5 Roman sarcophagus with Amazonomachy. Mid-second century AD. Toronto, Royal Ontario Museum.

Sarcophagi come in a great variety of shapes and types (Koch 1993, 17–32). Sarcophagi at Rome usually emphasize the sarcophagus front, while the sides can be summarily carved and the back is often left undecorated. Sarcophagi from Athens and Asia Minor, however, tend to be carved on all four sides, giving them the character of an independent heroon. Many of them were (perhaps recursively or self-referentially) displayed in tombs that were also understood as heroa (Cormack 2004). As has been observed in the case of the marble urns, the different types of sarcophagi provide clues as to how the new format could be conceptualized (Elsner 2012; Platt 2012). Vat-shaped sarcophagi are often decorated with Dionysiac scenes, thus conceptualizing the tomb as a positive space of abundance and bliss. Columnar sarcophagi evoke the impression of an elaborate heroon or a decorative facade in which statues of mythological figures or the sarcophagus patrons are displayed. Strigillated sarcophagi, particularly popular in Rome during the third century, provide visual interest while at the same time simplifying figural decoration; they illustrate the gradual emergence of a new late antique aesthetic and the turn away from the abundant mythological storytelling of the late second and early third centuries.

In terms of interpretation, mythological sarcophagi are one of the most contested bodies of material in Roman art history, because of the complexity of the reliefs, which lend themselves to a variety of hermeneutic approaches (Nock 1946; Koch and Sichtermann 1982, 583–623; Elsner and Huskinson 2011; Elsner and Wu 2012; Zanker and Ewald 2012). Older symbolic interpretations anachronistically projected concern about the afterlife and used textual references to recognize in sarcophagi a kind of eschatology in images that turned pagan Romans into mere proto-Christians. Recent approaches, however, emphasize the autonomy and primacy of the visual tradition over (and even against) presumed literary references, and read the sarcophagus imagery as a system of signification that was based primarily on visual analogies and cross-connections rather than textual references (Koortbojian 1995; Zanker and Ewald 2012). A particular concern of scholarship over the past few decades has been the question of how the mostly Greek myths depicted on sarcophagi were tailored and appropriated for their Roman purposes (Giuliani 1989; Müller 1994; Koortbojian 1995; Bielfeldt 2005; Elsner and Huskinson 2011; Zanker and Ewald 2012). Recent scholarship also examines the possible meanings (p. 402) of the complex formal and thematic shifts observable on Roman sarcophagi from the second to fourth centuries (Ewald 2012; Zanker and Ewald 2012). Other topics of interest are the contexts and viewing conditions of sarcophagi (D’Ambra 1988; Bielfeldt 2003; Dresken-Weiland 2003; Borg 2013; Meinecke 2014), portraiture (Newby 2011; Birk 2013), polychromy (Liverani 2010), the selection and creation of specific iconographies for certain social or age groups (Huskinson 1996; Wrede 2001; Ewald 2003; Reinsberg 2006), the sarcophagus trade (Russell 2011; see essay 2.7, Russell), and cross-cultural comparisons with China (Elsner and Wu 2012).

Sociology and Patrons

Who was able to afford a funerary monument with sculptural decoration during the imperial period? In the most general terms, it is certainly correct to connect the wealth of monuments to the existence of a large, monument-producing “middle class” (Mayer 2012), whose economic potency, desire for representation, and resulting visibility in the archaeological record did not necessarily correspond to their legal status or political relevance. But the link between the social class of patrons and the iconography of a funerary monument is rarely as straightforward as in the case of the funerary reliefs of Roman liberti, whose analysis by P. Zanker (1975) has become something of a model case for the sociohistorical interpretation of Roman funerary art. Conclusive evidence can come only from inscriptions, which teach us that some classes of monuments were preferred by customers from certain social groups, while others were used by a wider range of clients; they demonstrate that preferences shifted over time, and that the size and context of a funerary monument mattered. An examination of inscriptions from Roman imperial period tombs with painted and stucco decoration demonstrated that nearly all were owned by members of the lower orders of society (Feraudi-Gruénais 2001; 2003). Examination of the over 500 inscriptions on Roman marble relief urns yielded similar results: the patrons were mainly slaves and freedmen who had worked either in private households or in the imperial administration; the latter were important agents and multipliers of new funeral fashions and imperial iconographies in the private realm (Sinn 1987, 84–7). From the later second century on, however, when inhumation had become the new fashion, soldiers and military veterans play a more important role as patrons of marble urns; they apparently continued to practice cremation, perhaps because they often died abroad and were cremated in the field. In single cases, marble urns were even used for equestrians and senators (Sinn 1987, 86n745). Funerary altars are found across the entire social spectrum, though the ones used by the aristocracy were larger (over 1 m in height) than those used by patrons from lower classes (Eck 1998). Altars were mostly commissioned by imperial freedmen and slaves as well as “craftsmen, money changers,. . . musicians and actors” (Boschung 1987, 55), but we also have a good number of altars for equestrians, senators, and even members of the (p. 403) imperial court, such as the son-in-law of the emperor Claudius (Boschung 1987, 55; 1993, 37). Inscriptions on Roman funerary altars occasionally mention the actual prices of such monuments: 10,000 sesterces in the case of one altar; 50,000 sesterces in the case of an ensemble of two altars, or about one-sixth the annual salary of an imperial procurator of high rank (Boschung 1987, 39).

The clientele of marble sarcophagi appears to have been just as varied. The cost of an elaborate mythological sarcophagus has been estimated to be about a year’s salary for an equestrian military officer of high rank (Fittschen 1975) but the great numbers of extant sarcophagi and fragments demonstrate that they were clearly in reach of many. The inscriptions, which have never been studied comprehensively (cf. Dresken-Weiland 2003), reveal a remarkable range of clients, as well as considerable regional variation. We encounter patrons from all walks of life, from freedmen to consuls, from a musician turned pimp or slave trader to high military officers, from craftsmen to star rhetoricians. In Aphrodisias in Caria, for example, marble was so readily available that many ex-slaves were able to commission garland sarcophagi with inscriptions (Smith 2008). In Roman Tyre (modern Lebanon), on the other hand, rich purple-producers and dyers imported immensely expensive (Attic) sarcophagi with heroic scenes from Athens, which were proudly displayed on funerary platforms in the open (Chéhab 1984; Linant de Bellefonds 1985; De Jong 2010). As far as the city of Rome is concerned, we again find slaves and freedmen at the lower end of the spectrum, for example in the case of the sarcophagi from the mausoleum of the Marcii (Mausoleum Phi) on the Via Cornelia in Rome, or the sarcophagi from the tomb of the Octavii on the Via Triumphalis (Feraudi-Gruénais 2001, 59–60, 63–5). At the top end, senators and equestrians probably commissioned the lavish, large-scale third-century sarcophagi with singular iconographies (Wrede 2001; Ewald 2003; Reinsberg 2006; Zanker and Ewald 2012, 182–4). To what extent they inspired the development of new themes and iconographies is controversial (Wrede 2001; Ewald 2003); it appears that thematic shifts observable on Roman sarcophagi from the mid-second to the late third centuries AD may indicate profound changes of attitudes toward life and death and not just sociohistorical transformations. In the greater scheme of things, the development of Roman funerary art cannot be separated from the emergence of new forms of subjectivity that had ultimately been engendered by the advent of the imperial system (Bartsch 2006; Alston and Spentzou 2011). These processes of individuation encompassed an intensified reflection on and concern with death and its finality, combined with an increasing reluctance to accept this finality, by setting something more permanent—a funerary monument or image—against it (Wrede 1971; Ewald 2012).


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