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Depicting the Dead: Self-Representation and Commemoration on Roman Sarcophagi with Portraits

Depicting the Dead: Self-Representation and Commemoration on Roman Sarcophagi with Portraits

By Stine Birk (Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity 11). Pp. 313, figs. 91. Aarhus University Press, Aarhus 2013. $56. ISBN 978-87-7124-018-4 (cloth).

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A Roman sarcophagus took the measure of a Roman man—and a Roman woman. Unlike the tomb in which it was displayed, the coffin was made to human scale and often carved with vignettes from the deceased’s professional and personal life. These scenes were, for the most part, formulaic set pieces selected from a narrow range of stock episodes highlighting such common Roman milestones as battles won, marriages consummated, children raised, and death conquered through immortality. While some of these narratives were straightforward depictions (e.g., the birth of a couple’s first child), others were presented through the veil of myth or legend. Experts on Roman sarcophagi have effectively decoded biographical and mythological sarcophagi, most recently favoring interpretations suggesting that recurring themes reflect shared Roman values. If they are right, such redundancy also deemphasizes the honoree’s individuality. In Depicting the Dead, the revised version of a University of Aarhus doctoral dissertation, Birk attempts to demonstrate that portraits on Roman coffins, which have never before been studied as a group, were significant commemorations in their own right and a persuasive form of self-representation. Since the Romans were not shrinking violets when it came to portraying themselves to best advantage, their personalization of generic scenes with an identifiable visage seems authentically Roman. If that visage was a recognizable face, it would transform a Roman coffin into a uniquely customized container.

The author divides the book into four chapters, preceded by an introduction and followed by a retrospect. The chapters focus on four main themes: negotiating identity, images for contemplation, visualizing gender, and commemorating children. These are followed by a bibliography and three appendices focused on sarcophagi (commemorating women, men, children, and couples; with blank portraits; and with portraits of learned figures), accompanied by a brief guide on how to use the catalogue. The catalogue entries supply the standard information: portrait on sarcophagus, location, condition, provenance, frontal relief, short ends, date, and bibliography.

Although these are a promising set of themes, Birk’s methodology is not entirely persuasive. For instance, if Roman portraits on sarcophagi are examples of self-representation or commemoration, why include sarcophagi with blank or unfinished portraits? Birk also does not fully explain what she means by self-representation and commemoration. The identity of those self-represented or commemorated family members also remains elusive. While a variety of monumental imperial tombs are preserved, only a small number of surviving sarcophagi have been connected with the imperial elite, with the most likely candidates dating to the third century. Birk, however, dismisses the Acilia sarcophagus as the coffin of Gordian III or another member of his family and rules out freedmen as sarcophagus commissioners because the coffins in her corpus are made out of marble—not a compelling argument, since some inscribed freedmen funerary reliefs were carved from marble already in the age of Augustus. By process of elimination, Birk identifies the “higher social classes” as the patrons.

Indeed, by the time Birk raises readers’ hopes that the long-awaited study of portraits on Roman sarcophagi has arrived, she dashes those hopes by saying that what she classifies as portraits are not individualized likenesses but idealized representations of the deceased. Furthermore, she considers these portraits so lacking in specificity that they are no different from a blank face. A full 30% of Birk’s corpus of 676 sarcophagi from Rome (90% of the preserved examples) have blank or unfinished portraits. If she is right, these portraits are no more individualistic than the sarcophagus’ stock scenes. And yet, the subjects of Roman imperial portraiture are always recognizable. Tiberius may resemble Augustus in his portraits, but their classicized likenesses are nonetheless distinguishable from each other and from those of succeeding Julio-Claudian emperors. While the Romans idealized or even fictionalized some of their portraits, they always incorporated enough individualism to make them identifiable. Surely the families of the deceased would have recognized their loved ones on the coffins they commissioned. In fact, lifelike representation and commemoration were customary for the wax ancestral masks of the Roman elite.

In addition, even though Roman sarcophagi were not produced in large numbers until the Hadrianic period, and the coffins Birk studies date from the mid second to early fourth centuries, self-representation was a high priority by the Early Empire. Augustus authored his own Res Gestae, and the events of Trajan’s Dacian Wars were scrolled documentary-style on his historiated column, both accounts serving as a kind of tell-your-own-story-before-someone-else-tells-it approach to Roman art. Also during the age of Augustus, the baker and contractor Eurysaces commissioned a series of bread making scenes on a tomb honoring him and his deceased wife, Atistia, presenting the loving couple prospectively as paired portraits reunited in perpetuity. Portrait sarcophagi made in Rome were also likely meant to depict specific individuals or couples, since, as Birk points out, most of these coffins held the remains of one or, at most, two family members. Even if the honoree’s features were generalized and the hairstyle derivative, inscriptions carved or painted on the sarcophagus or elsewhere in the burial chamber would have identified the subjects.

Birk is most effective when exploring gender on Roman sarcophagi through the “learned figures” of men and women holding scrolls. The male version has a long history; the female one emerges in the third century, suggesting a gender equality, but one that disappears when spouses are represented together. I wonder if third-century Roman women were suddenly presented as learned because of the Julia Domna effect? The highly educated Roman empress, who hosted intellectual seminars at the imperial palace, was surely an inspiration to Roman women.

Any new corpus relies for its impact on getting the word and the images out. Birk’s book has only 97 black-and-white illustrations, a scant 10 of which are portrait details, depriving this material of a proper debut. Nonetheless, the author deserves commendation for spotlighting a new and important topic. She raises interesting issues that may now be debated with the goal of ultimately taking the full measure of the faces of Roman men and women memorialized on sarcophagi.

Diana E.E. Kleiner
Department of the History of Art
Yale University

Book Review of Depicting the Dead: Self-Representation and Commemoration on Roman Sarcophagi with Portraits, by Stine Birk

Reviewed by Diana E.E. Kleiner

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 1 (January 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1201.Kleiner

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