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Dokimenische Säulensarkophage: Datierung und Deutung

July 2019 (123.3)

Book Review

Dokimenische Säulensarkophage: Datierung und Deutung

By Volker Michael Strocka (Asia Minor Studien 82). Pp. ix + 394. Dr. Rudolf Habelt, Bonn 2017. €85. ISBN 978-3-7749-4071-0 (cloth).

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This monograph is motivated by the recent restoration of the only known dated Dokimian column sarcophagus of standard type, Aydın  Archaeological Museum inv. no. 6089. Two inscriptions on its base and chest, deciphered and interpreted by Michael Wörrle, date the sarcophagus to 173 C.E., in the consulates of Cn. Claudius Severus and Ti. Claudius Pompeianus, under Iulius Amyntianus, who is known as a priest of Isis and Serapis in Tralles. Strocka combines publication and extensive illustration of this sarcophagus (ch. 2) with a catalogue of 244 other sarcophagi and fragments, including those identified since the last study of this material by Marc Waelkens in 1982. Strocka does not catalogue all Dokimian sarcophagi but particularly column sarcophagi of standard type (described in ch. 3). These are the large, rectangular chests with kline lids and a continuous colonnade on all four sides. The columns support elaborately ornamented, arched shell niches at the edges of the long sides and a gabled shell niche at the center of each side, all connected with straight lintels. One end niche (usually the left, as determined by the placement of the lid with a reclining figure or couple facing front) contains a relief of a tomb door. Each of the other niches, and the intercolumniations between, contains a standing or seated figure, sometimes with accessory figures to suggest a narrative scene. 

Not all the examples in the catalogue conform strictly to this description. One in the Antalya Museum (inv. no. 98.20.5) has a frieze of the combat of Menelaos and Paris on the rear side. Hunt scenes on some later third-century C.E. sarcophagi, including the famous Sidamara sarcophagus, take place before a row of conches whose supporting columns are entirely absent, again appearing as a continuous frieze. Strocka notes (30, 90–1) a 2015 find of a standard column sarcophagus with the same scenes as side B of the Aydın example and a roof lid instead of a kline. Given the fragmentary evidence of others of the type, identified mostly by architectural details, the question arises whether some of these, too, might have belonged to sarcophagi with more hybrid formats. When does a variant obviate the type or become a new type? And how does the existence of a type or variants reveal workshop practices, the preferences of patrons, or market conditions? These questions are not explicitly addressed in the book. However, Strocka discusses and illustrates earlier Dokimian ossuaries and sarcophagi of other types—especially garland, frieze, and columnar sarcophagi with continuous arcades or lintels—that pertain to the formation of his standard type (though many items in the catalogue are not illustrated). 

Chapter 1 is a useful account of the quarries of Dokimeion at modern Iscehisar and recent scholarship on the Roman marble trade. Scholars are divided on whether a single (imperial) workshop at the quarry produced all the types of Dokimian sculpture or whether private shops participated in evolving a common repertory, technique, and style. Strocka does not take a position on this but suggests that sarcophagi of this size and elaboration must have been individual special orders for delivery to private estates or suburban tombs in scattered locations in Asia, Italy, and the Levant, rather than stocked for a local market. He does not address the question of whether sculptors may have traveled with semi-finished pieces to finish them in place, although he notes some variability in the state of finish, increasing in later examples. 

Chapter 4 analyzes evidence for dating: one inscription, dates of tomb buildings, portrait evidence, and stylistic developments. Production is divided into a period of experimentation around the 140s C.E., followed by six stages of development at about 20-year intervals, eschewing Hans Wiegartz’s earlier attempt at five-year intervals. The Aydın sarcophagus of 173 C.E. is in the middle of stage two, relatively early in a production that now seems to have continued into Tetrarchic times. 

Chapter 5 adds to Strocka’s already considerable contribution to identifying mythological and allegorical motifs on the standard type columnar sarcophagi, partly in relation to earlier and contemporary Asiatic sarcophagi of other types. Scholars of the sarcophagi initially considered them to express Hellenic rather than Roman culture; they regarded them as ideational heroa, ornamented with statuary types of generic heroes, partly because the figures often stand on bases. Strocka explains this design as the result of aesthetic decisions about fitting seated and standing figures into the wider and narrower intercolumniations. The distribution of figures in intercolumniations and the tendency to alternate seated and standing figures inhibited the recognition that some of them interact across columns to form representative couples, mythological narratives, or allegorical antitheses. Strocka's careful analysis of attributes, figure types, and poses plus comparative examples from clearer contexts has allowed him to identify mythological narrative groups in many figures previously considered generic ideal types or representations of sculpture. For example, the alternating seated and standing male and female figures on the Aydın sarcophagus represent episodes of the Trojan War. Strocka notes that a single sarcophagus face may depict more than one myth, or combine myth and allegorical or biographical motifs. For example, in the National Museum of Beirut (cat. no. 69 in the book), a seated Daedalus is making a wing, a standing Ikaros is wearing one wing, and a pair of nude heroes are in combat in the center, one mounted, one on foot; and in the right niches a standing philosopher addresses a figure, possibly a seated woman, in a niche no longer preserved. Strocka reads this as a mythological analogy to the tragic loss of a son, with a central emblem of his heroism and figures representative of the bereaved parents who would have ordered the sarcophagus. 

Most of the sarcophagi, including the newly found one in Aydın, do not receive this level of synthetic reading, but Strocka proposes principles that may allow the interpretation of others in chapter 6, which focuses on funerary symbolism. His introductory account of the state of debate is a rather reductive proposal to find a truer way between the overly optimistic proponents of “prospective” happy afterlife iconography, identified with Franz Cumont, and the overly pessimistic adherents of “retrospective” iconography, identified with Arthur Darby Nock’s skepticism about symbolic import. These terms belong to a later generation of German scholarship than Cumont and Nock and do not, in fact, map seamlessly onto the terms of the old debate. Later in the chapter, however, Strocka provides more careful accounts of the development of scholarship on particular iconographic problems. 

Strocka also analyzes Greek epitaphs and funerary orations in chapter 6, identifying major themes as the memory and fame of the dead, the permanent resting place, lamentation, and the future continuation of the soul. Discussion of myths is organized into two categories: retrospective, for biographical commemoration, and prospective, for the fate of the soul. Retrospective scenes concern the mourning and care of the dead, most heroic combats (although Herakles may also imply hope of afterlife), and most mythological women and goddesses. Scenes of tragic loss like Niobe, Meleager, and Ikaros are treated under negative views of an afterlife. Positive hopes for the soul are represented by mythological salvations (e.g., Andromeda, Ariadne, or Paris saved from Menelaos), or soul journeys. Strocka then similarly categorizes nonmythological motifs (some of which may be mythological) including hunts, conversations, Muses, Seasons, Erotes, animal combats, and sea creatures. Strocka engages with debate on the meaning of similar scenes in the better-known funerary production of Rome. He sees the renewed popularity of the kline portrait as possibly related to the interest of Asian elites in Roman funerary effigies. In a chapter too rich to record in detail here, Strocka finds mythological scenes decreased and allegorical and daily life scenes increased over the third century C.E., as in other sarcophagus genres. The last chapter presents the evidence for patronage.          

As Strocka concludes, this publication is less a definitive catalogue than an embarkation point for further studies, but as such it is an essential contribution. Its excellent apparatus invites easy reference and cross-reference. The summaries in Turkish and English barely hint at the wealth of detail presented.

Alice Christ
University of Kentucky


Book Review of Dokimenische Säulensarkophage: Datierung und Deutung, by Volker Michael Strocka

Reviewed by Alice Christ

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 3 (July 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1233.christ

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