Ancient Roman sarcophagi

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Relief panel from a 3rd-century sarcophagus depicting Labours of Hercules, a popular subject for sarcophagi

In the funeral and burial practices of ancient Rome, elaborately carved marble and limestone sarcophagi were characteristic of elite inhumation from the 2nd to the 4th centuries AD.[1] At least 10,000 Roman sarcophagi survive, with fragments possibly representing as many as 20,000.[2] Although mythological scenes have been mostly widely studied,[3] sarcophagus relief has been called the "richest single source of Roman iconography,"[4] 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.[5] 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.


Garland-style sarcophagus, the predominant type during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian (Walters Art Museum)[6]

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.[7]

Second century[edit]

Third century[edit]

The Ludovisi sarcophagus, an example of the battle scenes favored during the Crisis of the Third Century: the "writhing and highly emotive" Romans and Goths fill the surface in a packed, anti-classical composition[8]

Fourth century[edit]

Themes and imagery[edit]

Sailing scene on a late-3rd century sarcophagus

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.

Sarcophagus Of Lars Pulena[edit]

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.[9] 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.[9]

Melfi Sarcophagus[edit]

The Asiatic sarcophagus with kline portrait of a woman also carried an Etruscan influence of sculpting portraiture on the lid.[9] 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).

Battle of Romans and barbarians[edit]

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,[9] who died of plague.

Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus[edit]

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.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Zahra Newby, "Myth and Death: Roman Mythological Sarcophagi," in A Companion to Greek Mythology (Blackwell, 2011), p. 301.
  2. ^ Jaś Elsner, introduction to Life, Death and Representation: Some New Work on Roman Sarcophagi (De Gruyter, 2011), p. 1.
  3. ^ Elsner, introduction to Life, Death and Representation, p. 12.
  4. ^ Elsner, introduction to Life, Death and Representation, p. 14.
  5. ^ Elsner, introduction to Life, Death and Representation, pp. 1, 9.
  6. ^ Davies, "Before Sarcophagi," in Life, Death and Representation, pp. 21, 28ff.
  7. ^ Glenys Davies, "Before Sarcophagi," in Life, Death and Representation, p. 20ff.
  8. ^ Fred S. Kleiner, A History of Roman Art (Wadsworth, 2007, 2010, enhanced ed.), p. 272.
  9. ^ a b c d e Kleiner, Fred S. (2009, 2005). Gardner's Art Through The Ages 13th Edition. Thomson Wadsworth. ISBN 0-495-09307-6.  Check date values in: |date= (help)


  • Mont Allen, "Sarcophagus", in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, edited by Michael Gagarin, vol. 6, p. 214-218 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  • Susan Walker, Memorials to the Roman Dead (London: British Museum Press, 1985).
  • Paul Zanker and Björn C. Ewald, Living with Myths: The Imagery of Roman Sarcophagi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
  • (Italian) Becati G., L'arte dell'età classica, Firenze 1989 (VI edizione)
  • (Italian) Bianchi Bandinelli R., Roma. La fine dell'arte antica, Milano 1988 (IV edizione)
  • (Italian) Giuliano A., Il commercio dei sarcofagi attici, Roma 1962
  • (Italian) Matz F., see "Sarcofago" in Enciclopedia dell'Arte Antica, Classica e Orientale, vol. VII
  • (German) Robert C., Die Antiken Sarkophag-Reliefs, Berlin 1890-1919
  • (Italian) Testini P., Le catacombe e gli antichi cimiteri di Roma, Bari 1980
  • (Italian) Vaccaro Melucco A., "Sarcofagi romani di caccia al leone", in Studo Miscellanei 11 (A.A. 1963-1964)
  • (Italian) Valenti Zucchini G.-Bucci M., "I sarcofagi a figure e a carattere simbolico", in Corpus della scultura paleocristiana, bizantina e altomedievale di Ravenna, vol. II, Roma 1968