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Mit Mythen Leben: Die Bilderwelt der Römischen Sarkophage

Mit Mythen Leben: Die Bilderwelt der Römischen Sarkophage

By Paul Zanker and Björn Christian Ewald. Pp. 389, figs. 294. Hirmer, Munich 2004. €75. ISBN 3-7774-9650-2 (cloth).

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The authors detail the themes and meaning of Roman mythological sarcophagi of the second–fourth centuries A.D. Paul Zanker wrote the interpretative essays and Björn Christian Ewald authored the supporting catalogue of 36 sarcophagi. Zanker has published several relevant studies, notably Klassizistische Statuen (Mainz 1974); Katalog der römischen Porträts in den Capitolinischen Museen, with K. Fittschen (Mainz 1983); Kaiser- und Prinzenbildnisse (Mainz 1985); and Die Maske des Sokrates (Munich 1995). Ewald has published his dissertation as Der Philosoph als Leitbild (Mainz 1999) and essays, including “Men, Muscle, and Myth: Attic Sarcophagi in the Cultural Context of the Second Sophistic,” in Paideia: The World of the Second Sophistic (B.E. Borg, ed. [Berlin 2004] 229–75).

Zanker has long explored the reception of ancient sculpture, which forms a major point of departure for interpreting mythological subjects on marble sarcophagi. A major value of this volume is the synthetic treatment of the myths’ iconology and their interpretation in the context of Roman society. Numerous photographs, mostly in color, illustrate not only the sarcophagi but also comparative reliefs, statuary, stucco work, gems, paintings, and mosaics. The text in six chapters considers: (1) the later history of sarcophagi; (2) lament, sorrow, and consolation: myths as a help for grief; (3) visions of joyful times; (4) self-representation and images of value; (5) myths as paraphrases for roles of virtue and gender; and (6) scenes and values in flux.

The authors begin with the incorporation of Roman sarcophagi into Late Medieval tombs. The tomb of Beatrix of Tuscany (1076) in Pisa incorporates one with Phaedra and Hippolytus. In Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome, the 13th-century monument of Luca Savelli contrasts the ancient style with contemporary design and Christian imagery: three shields and the Madonna and child sit above a sarcophagus with two portraits and laughing, naked satyrs carrying garlands. Friedrich II, an avid hunter, employed a hunt sarcophagus in his tomb, and Charlemagne was buried in a sarcophagus with an apotheosis. In some cases, the subjects seem appropriate, but enigmatic in others, such as the naked satyrs.

The reuse of ancient reliefs has its own history. Nicola Pisano and Vasari later praise the Pisa relief for its beauty. Renaissance artists were interested in figural poses and forms, which inspired them to make their own figures more lifelike and emotional. From the 16th century on, sarcophagi were used as wall decoration in Roman palaces to demonstrate their owners’ knowledge of antiquity. By Burchhardt’s time (1855), sarcophagi had become important only for their myths and as reflections of lost Greek art. By 1890 the first volume of the Corpus der antiken Sarkophagreliefs by Carl Robert appeared, the first systematic attempt to publish sarcophagi; the Corpus is still unfinished.

Sarcophagi with mythological scenes begin in the early second century A.D. Marble, which signifies permanence, is important for inhumation burials, and expensive sarcophagi are a status symbol for the elite. On some, the symbolism is clear. In the elaborate Velletri sarcophagus, the house for the deceased is compared with the palace in which the dead will reside with Hades. Other themes are hard to understand. The expense and artistic quality convey little about the social status of the deceased, for people invested a lot of money in burial. The cost of a sarcophagus could take a half or whole year’s salary of a centurion in the praetorian guard, but one gladiator, who would have earned less, bought a multifigured sarcophagus for himself and his wife. As the authors point out, despite their costliness, most sarcophagi were crowded into small burial chambers and would have been seen in dim, flickering light. Celebrations took place at grave sites on special occasions, such as the parentalia, ferialia, and violaria; hence, graves were important places for social communication.

Many popular myths on sarcophagi are connected with subjects of pantomime. Some—Icarus, the Danaids, and Dirce—recall charades that occurred in the arena. Myths provided meaningful histories, as their protagonists could represent Everyman, provide examples for good or evil, and be appropriate for allegories.

The authors emphasize two main themes on sarcophagi: the allegory of help with suffering, and the representation of death; often, both appear together. With the Niobids, the primary interest is not in the hubris of Niobe but in the death of her innocent children. With Medea, the emphasis is on Kreusa and the tragic death of the new bride; this is an allegory for the sudden death of a family member. One emotional rendering has Kreusa’s hair rising up like flames. Identification of the dead and the living with mythical figures could be conveyed by combining a portrait head with a mythical body, as with Theseus/Ariadne, Endymion/Selene, Phaedra/Hippolytus, and Achilles/Penthesileia (altered from the Greek format, as the man could not be murdering his wife). Specialists were hired to sculpt the portraits, but some sarcophagi were used with the portraits uncarved. Reliefs may depict the deceased’s character, emphasizing concord, virtue, and piety. Multiple scenes from the life of a hero, such as Meleager, can emphasize how fortunate the deceased was before death.

Regarding lament and consolation, the messages vary, but the stories generally imply that one should remember life’s happiness as well as sorrow. Some show a clear relation to the rituals of death: washing and lamenting. Oineus is an exemplum for men who have a difficult fate in their old age. Joyful scenes suggest the dead wish they could continue as in life. Subjects such as the Iliupersis, popular ca. A.D. 150, evoke the horrors of battle and suggest anxiety about death. Acteon is an example of a hero who suffered a horrifying misfortune.

The death of Phaeton could be employed as an analogy for a fatal accident and for allegorical interpretations. The fall is related to the soul of the body, the world at the end of a cosmic cycle, or the regeneration of time. On one sarcophagus, the story of Phaeton is used by a mother for her 24-year-old son, with two Greek inscriptions: “no one is immortal” and “for the brave and high born.” Persephone scenes are popular, as they show the underworld god and the death of a beautiful maiden, sometimes as the willing bride of Hades. The rape of the Leucippidae could suggest the wedding of the deceased with the sons of Zeus, in a motif of hope. Sleep is a common analogy for death, but the image of the sleeping dead is not an obvious metaphor for consolation. Yet, scenes of the sleeping Ariadne and Endymion are popular.

Sarcophagi with visions of joyful times feature two main groups, nereids and sea monsters, and Dionysos and his companions. The great popularity of these subjects seems tied to the hope for a happy life after death.

Images of self-representation show the deceased, often with spouse, with symbols of culture and status. A man may be characterized by costume as a citizen, free born, a senator, a magistrate, a philosopher, or a man of learning. Portraits may show the deceased as Mars and Venus, as matrimonial Concordia, or even as river god and water nymph. Mythical roles as analogies for virtue and gender include Admetus/Alcestis, Selene/Endymion, Phaedra/Hippolytus, Mars/Rhea Silvia, Dioscuri/Leucippidae, Cleobis/Biton, and Jason. Hunters and generals appear as paradigms, Muses relate to the ideal of the self, and children as projection of elders’ wishes.

Scenes and values change in the third to fourth centuries. Compositions become denser, classical forms change, and the loss of clarity and of the importance of a beautiful line lead to a Late Antique style. The relief ground no longer plays a role and empty spaces disappear. A renewed interest in portraits corresponds to a reduced interest in myth. Newly popular are animal fights in the arena, the seasons, Muses, shepherds, and philosophers. Christian sarcophagi at first use older subjects, including naked sea nereids, but ca. 300, many Early Christian subjects appear, illustrating a radical change in thought about death.

There are some infelicities in the text, some disagreements on dates between text and catalogue (nos. 14, 16, 22, 25), a few typographical errors in figure references. The index, organized by city and museum, gives figure and catalogue numbers for each monument but not page numbers, and so it is difficult to locate multiple mentions of a piece.

The book has high-quality photographs, as one expects from Hirmer publications. One purpose of the book is to make Roman sarcophagi meaningful to a broader audience than just specialists, and it will be essential for all research and personal libraries in classical art and archaeology. It is hoped that an English version will soon be issued, for it would receive widespread use comparable to that of Zanker’s The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, translated by A. Shapiro (Ann Arbor 1988).

Mary C. Sturgeon
Department of Art
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599-3405

Book Review of Mit Mythen Leben: Die Bilderwelt der römischen Sarkophage, by Paul Zanker and Björn Christian Ewald

Reviewed by Mary C. Sturgeon

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 110, No. 2 (April 2006)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1102.Sturgeon

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