In the burial practices of ancient Rome and Roman funerary art, marble and limestone sarcophagi elaborately carved in relief were characteristic of elite inhumation burials from the 2nd to the 4th centuries AD. At least 10,000 Roman sarcophagi have survived, with fragments possibly representing as many as 20,000. Although mythological scenes have been mostly widely studied, sarcophagus relief has been called the "richest single source of Roman iconography," and may also depict the deceased's occupation or life course, military scenes, and other subject matter. The same workshops produced sarcophagi with Jewish or Christian imagery. Early Christian sarcophagi produced from the late 3rd century onwards, represent the earliest form of large Christian sculpture, and are important for the study of Early Christian art.
They were mostly made in a few major cities, including Rome and Athens, which exported them to other cities. Elsewhere the stela gravestone remained more common. They were always a very expensive form reserved for the elite, and especially so in the relatively few very elaborately carved examples; most were always relatively plain, with inscriptions, or symbols such as garlands. Sarcophagi divide into a number of styles, by the producing area. "Roman" ones were made to rest against a wall, and one side was left uncarved, while "Attic" and other types were carved on all four sides; but the short sides were generally less elaborately decorated in both types.
The time taken to make them encouraged the use of standard subjects, to which inscriptions might be added to personalize them, and portraits of the deceased were slow to appear. The sarcophagi offer examples of intricate reliefs that depict scenes often based on Greek and Roman mythology or mystery religions that offered personal salvation, and allegorical representations. Roman funerary art also offers a variety of scenes from everyday life, such as game-playing, hunting, and military endeavors. Early Christian art quickly adopted the sarcophagus, and they are the most common form of early Christian sculpture, progressing from simple examples with symbols to elaborate fronts, often with small scenes of the Life of Christ in two rows within an architectural framework. The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (c. 359) is of this type, and the earlier Dogmatic Sarcophagus rather simpler. The huge porphyry Sarcophagi of Helena and Constantina are grand Imperial examples.
Cremation was the predominant means of disposing of remains in the Roman Republic. Ashes contained in cinerary urns and other monumental vessels were placed in tombs. From the 2nd century AD onward, inhumation became more common, and after the Roman Empire came under Christian rule, was standard practice. The Sarcophagus of Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus is a rare example from much earlier. A sarcophagus, which means "flesh-eater" in Greek, is a stone coffin used for inhumation burials. Sarcophagi were commissioned not only for the elite of Roman society (mature male citizens), but also for children, entire families, and beloved wives and mothers. The most expensive sarcophagi were made from marble, but other stones, lead, and wood were used as well. Along with the range in production material, there existed a variety of styles and shapes, depending on where the sarcophagus was produced and whom it was produced for.
Inhumation burial practices and the use of sarcophagi were not always the favored Roman funerary custom. The Etruscans and Greeks used sarcophagi for centuries before the Romans finally adopted the practice in the second century. Prior to that period, the dead were usually cremated and placed in marble ash chests or ash altars, or were simply commemorated with a grave altar that was not designed to hold cremated remains. Despite being the main funerary custom during the Roman Republic, ash chests and grave altars virtually disappeared from the market only a century after the advent of the sarcophagus.
It is often assumed that the popularity for sarcophagi began with the Roman aristocracy and gradually became more accepted by the lower classes. However, in the past, the most expensive and ostentatious grave altars and ash chests were commissioned more frequently by wealthy freedmen and other members of the emerging middle class than by the Roman elite. Due to this fact and the lack of inscriptions on early sarcophagi, there is not enough evidence to make a judgment on whether or not the fashion for sarcophagi began with a specific social class. Surviving evidence does indicate that a great majority of early sarcophagi were used for children. This suggests that the change in burial practice may not have simply stemmed from a change in fashion, but perhaps from altered burial attitudes. It is possible that the decision to begin inhuming bodies occurred because families believed that inhumation was a kinder, and less disturbing burial rite than cremation, thus necessitating a shift in burial monument.
Although grave altars and ash chests virtually disappeared from the market in the second century, aspects of their decoration endured in some stylistic elements of sarcophagi. The largest stylistic group of early sarcophagi in the second century is garland sarcophagi, a custom of decoration that was previously used on ash chests and grave altars. Though the premise of the decoration is the same, there are some differences. The garland supports are often human figures instead of the animal heads used previously. In addition, specific mythological scenes fill the field, rather than small birds or other minor scenes. The inscription panel on garland ash altars and chests is also missing on garland sarcophagi. When a sarcophagus did have an inscription, it seemed to be an extra addition and usually ran along the top edge of the chest or between the decorations. The fact that early garland sarcophagi continued the tradition of grave altars with decorated garlands suggests that the customers and sculptors of sarcophagi had similar approaches to those who purchased and produced grave altars. Both monuments employed a similar collection of stylistic motifs with only subtle shifts in iconography.
Sarcophagi production of the ancient Roman Empire involved three main parties: the customer, the sculpting workshop that carved the monument, and the quarry-based workshop that supplied the materials. The distance between these parties was highly variable due to the extensive size of the Empire. Metropolitan Roman, Attic, and Asiatic were the three major regional types of sarcophagi that dominated trade throughout the Roman Empire. Although they were divided into regions, the production of sarcophagi was not as simple as it might appear. For example, Attic workshops were close to Mount Pentelikon, the source of their materials, but were usually very far from their client. The opposite was true for the workshops of Metropolitan Rome, who tended to import large, roughed out sarcophagi from distant quarries in order to complete their commissions. Depending on distance and customer request (some customers might choose to have elements of their sarcophagi left unfinished until a future date, introducing the possibility of further work after the main commission), sarcophagi were in many different stages of production during transport. As a result, it is difficult to develop a standardized model of production.
Rome was the primary production center in the western part of the empire. A Metropolitan Roman sarcophagus often took the shape of a low rectangular box with a flat lid. As the sarcophagus was usually placed in a niche or against a wall in a mausoleum, they were usually only decorated on the front and two shorter sides. Many were decorated with carvings of garlands and fruits and leaves, as well as narrative scenes from Greek mythology. Battle and hunting scenes, biographical events from the life of the deceased, portrait busts, the profession of the deceased and abstract designs were also popular.
Athens was the main production center for Attic style sarcophagi. These workshops mainly produced sarcophagi for export. They were rectangular in shape and were often decorated on all four sides, unlike the Metropolitan Roman style, with ornamental carvings along the bottom and upper edge of the monument. The lids were also different from the flat metropolitan Roman style and featured a pitched gable roof, or a kline lid, which is carved in the style of couch cushions on which the form of the deceased reclines. The great majority of these sarcophagi also featured mythological subjects, especially the Trojan War, Achilles, and battles with the Amazons.
The Dokimeion workshops in Phrygia specialized in architecturally formed large-scale Asiatic sarcophagi. Many featured a series of columns joined together by an entablature on all four sides with human figures in the area between the columns. The lids were often made in the gabled-roof design in order to complete the architectural-style sarcophagi so the coffin formed a sort of house or temple for the deceased. Other cities in Asia Minor produced sarcophagi of the garland tradition as well. In general, the sarcophagi were decorated on either three or four sides, depending on whether they were to be displayed on a pedestal in an open-air setting or against the walls inside tombs.
A transition from the classical garland and seasonal reliefs with smaller mythological figures to a greater focus on full mythological scenes began with the break up of the classical style in the late second century towards the end of Marcus Aurelius' reign. This shift led to the development of popular themes and meanings portrayed through mythological scenes and allegories. The most popular mythological scenes on Roman sarcophagi functioned as aids to mourning, visions of life and happiness, and opportunities for self-portrayal for Roman citizens.
Images of Meleager, the hero who slew the Calydonian Boar, being mourned by his lover and hunting companion Atlanta, as well as images of Achilles mourning Patroclus were very common on sarcophagi that acted as grieving aids. In both cases, the mythological scenes were akin to mourning practices of ordinary Roman citizens in an effort to reflect their grief and comfort them when they visited the tomb. Playful images depicting Nereids, Dionysiac triumphs, and love scenes of Dionysus and Ariadne were also commonly represented on sarcophagi. It is possible that these scenes of happiness and love in the face of death and mourning encouraged the living to enjoy life while they could, and reflected the celebration and meals that the mourners would later enjoy in the tomb when they returned to visit the deceased. The third century involved the return in popularity of self-representation on Roman sarcophagi.
There were several different ways Roman citizens approached self-representation on sarcophagi. Some sarcophagi had actual representations of the face or full figure of the deceased. In other cases, mythological portraits were used to connect characteristics of the deceased with traits of the hero or heroine portrayed. For example, common mythological portraits of deceased women identified them with women of lauded traits in myth, such as the devoted Selene or loyal Alcestis. Scenes featuring the figures of Meleager and Achilles expressed bravery and were often produced on sarcophagi holding deceased men. Biographical scenes that emphasize the true virtues of Roman citizens were also used to commemorate the deceased. Scholars argue that these biographical scenes as well as the comparisons to mythological characters suggest that self-portrayal on Roman sarcophagi did not exist to celebrate the traits of the deceased, but rather to emphasize favored Roman cultural values and demonstrate that the family of the deceased were educated members of the elite that could understand difficult mythological allegories.
The breakup of the classical style led to a period in which full mythological reliefs with an increase in the number of figures and an elongation of forms became more popular, as discussed above. The proportion of figures on the reliefs also became increasingly unbalanced, with the main figures taking up the greatest area with smaller figures crowded in the small pockets of empty space. In the third century, another transition in theme and style of sarcophagi involved the return in popularity of representing mythological and non-mythological portraits of the deceased. Imagery of the four seasons also becomes popular during the third and fourth centuries. With the advent of Christianity in the third century, traditional motifs, like the seasons, remained, and images representing a belief in the afterlife appeared. The change in style brought by Christianity is perhaps most significant, as it signals a change in emphasis on images of retrospection, and introduced images of an afterlife.
Details from sarcophagus reliefs
Sarcophagi personalization is the customization of a sarcophagus to display the attributes, achievements, or history of the deceased through art and/or inscriptions.
The sculpted scene on the front of the coffin shows the deceased in the Underworld between two Charuns (Etruscan death demons) in which signified that his journey to the afterlife was successful. On the lid, Pulena is shown laid across, in a reclining position, resting on his left arm and in front of him, a list of his life’s achievements which were inscribed on an open scroll.
The Asiatic sarcophagus with kline portrait of a woman also carried an Etruscan influence of sculpting portraiture on the lid. Made of marble, with reliefs on all four sides of the box (a feature in Eastern Sarcophagi production), and sculpted mini statues of Greek gods and heroes in frames are depicted. The lid displays a portrait of the woman with Cupid (right end) and a little dog (in which the paws only remain at the left end).
The Portonaccio sarcophagus is an example of one of a group of about twenty-five late Roman battle sarcophagi, with one exception all apparently dating to 170-210, made in Rome or in some cases Athens. These derive from Hellenistic monuments from Pergamon in Asia Minor showing Pergamene victories over the Gauls, and were all presumably commissioned for military commanders. The Portonaccio sarcophagus is the best known and most elaborate of the main Antonine group, and shows both considerable similarities to the Great Ludovisi sarcophagus, the late outlier from about 250, and a considerable contrast in style and mood.
The face of the general is unfinished, either because the sculptors awaited a model to work from, or they had produced the work speculatively with no specific commission. The general and his wife are also each shown twice on the lid frieze, together holding each other's hands at the centre, and singly at the ends, again with unfinished faces.
The unusually large Ludovisi Battle sarcophagus shows a chaotic battle scene between the Romans and barbarian foes. At the centre, a young general wears no helmet nor wields any weapon and has emblem of Mithras, the Persian god of light, truth, and victory over death carved into his forehead. Several scholars have identified him as one of the sons of Trajan Decius, who died of plague.
A sarcophagus from the church of Santa Maria Antiqua with philosopher, orant, and Old and New Testament scenes is Early Christian art in which displays the story of Jonah on the left one-third, heads of a praying woman and a seated man reading from a scroll which are unfinished (intended to be portraits of the deceased) in the center, and continuing on, Christ as Good Shepherd, and the baptism of Christ.