May 30, 2007

roman culture and society essays

How do you account for the popularity of gladiatorial spectacles in the Roman world?

Violence and brutality were present throughout the Roman world, for example in animal sacrifice and brutal warfare; the gladiatorial games were thus taken simply as an extension of violence. In the Roman world the gladiatorial spectacles attracted great crowds because they lay at the heart of Roman culture. In attending the games one identified oneself as a Roman and as being part of the Roman Empire. The gladiatorial spectacles drew such crowds for a number of reasons. Primarily they were a form of entertainment, which evolved into a spectator sport for the people and the emperor. This was an entertainment where death and violence became ritualized and transformed into a dramatic art by the skill of the fighters. This entertainment was sought out in times of political strife and was a way of asserting the greatness of the Roman Empire to the common people.

Although there were many varieties of activities which constituted the spectacles like chariot racing and beast fighting, the most popular and significant event was the munus, the bloody gladiatorial combat. This combat brought the average citizen and their leaders together and provided a social forum in which they could interact with one another. People came to these fights to watch other people face death and in doing so they realised their own humanity and mortality. It also made them feel safe and secure in their own social position as these fighters were worse off than them as they were fighting for their lives socially and physically and thus maintained social order in Rome.

An aura of mysticism was attached to the games as they often recreated mythological and ancient battles.[1] This drew the people to the spectacles because it allowed them to touch their own history and it demonstrated the great power of their beloved emperor. The naval battles especially showed the emperors control over history and nature. The games enforced the people’s connection to the empire. They were a visual way of bringing the average person in contact with the Roman Empire: its power and leadership. These spectacles also retained a sense of mysticism since they originated from the funeral games provided to meet the dead person’s requirement for blood and for a long time they were mainly held at funerals. Thus a religious quality remained embedded in them and this sacredness attracted people to the games since there was the sense of seeing the other world here, that of the dead and dying there and of sacrifice being made for the greater good.

The games were popular amongst the politicians because it gave them a way of strengthening their power base amongst the population. The arena fighting could be used to re-enact and translate, even exaggerate the triumphs of the emperor to the people and thus increase the leader’s popularity. The people enjoyed watching these events because it reminded them that they were part of this military greatness and allowed them to actively engage in the culture of being Roman.

The spectacles acted as a tool of political persuasion on the people. The spectacles grew popular with politicians as they noticed the political benefits of holding lavish games since in doing so they could win the people’s favour. The games were used increasingly for this purpose in the late Republic. The editores, who held the games gained considerably in political terms if the put on entertaining games because after Tiberius came to power, the emperors limited the chances private figures had to put on games. They had no wish for any potential competitor to curry favour with the people which could lead to their rule being challenged. The spectacles not only allowed the emperors and other editores to display their generosity to the people, it also gave the people the forum to judge this generosity with blame or praise. The lower classes gained a sense of power when they came to the games for they came with the expectation of being entertained and this placed the games provider under the weight of their expectations, their control in a way.

The games were an excuse to show off the power of empire as many of the fighters were prisoners of war and criminals. In the arena people watched the threats to the empire and to social stability actively being destroyed and as a result the might of Rome was increased. As Rome expanded and different ethnicities and cultures became part of the empire, there was a need to ensure Roman identity stayed central in the people’s minds. The only shared experience amongst this diversity of people was that of belonging to the Roman military apparatus.[2] . The use of symbols and traditions from Rome’s traditional repertory convinced the masses of the legitimacy of Roman order.[3] The public display of fighting was an important way of integrating the new peoples of the empire into Roman culture and attracted people because they were a way of showing patriotism. This greater contact with non-Romans led to a demand for ‘self-definition’ and people would attend the games to feel like they belonged to the greater scheme of Rome

The spectacles were so popular because they empowered the people to a certain extent. They gave the public a forum in which their feelings and opinions could be voiced. The people utilized the spectacles to show approval or loathing of politicians, who were often present at the spectacles. When there was social disruption, the masses would flood to the games as the natural setting in which to demonstrate their power as a people and to voice their sentiments.[4] Attendance was a way of stating one was a true Roman, thus people went because it made them feel solidarity with their countrymen and enhanced their sense of being part of a community. The spectacles were an event given to the people by their emperor both for their enjoyment. They took this opportunity further though by speaking out about issues that mattered to them. The politician Cicero provides direct evidence of this, since he noted that the Romans voiced their views in three places – public meetings, popular voting assemblies, and the arena; more importantly they spoke out most truthfully at the spectacles[5] for they felt most comfortable in this environment. The brave actions of the arena fighters in facing death may have inspired the people to speak out boldly.

There existed a traditional right for people to speak freely at the spectacles and this drew people to them.[6] The crowd’s chants had little impact in the long term, in achieving their aims like taxation changes but the actual direct interaction between the emperor and the people was more important and is what the people came for. It was a way of becoming involved and the common crowd gained a feeling of superiority as “it actively intervened to determine the course of the events.”[7] The masses could demand certain fighters to appear and often the editore would grant these demands in the hope that the people would vote for him later on. The people felt that the leaders were giving into their demands here and thus they had a power here that they did not have elsewhere. The people tended to be the focus point at these spectacles, since the leaders who held the games wished to impress the Romans with the games so that they would win their vote.

The games were popular as they acted as a form of escapism for the lower classes. Plass has argued that in the arena normal life was suspended; the spectators became engaged in the spectacle of violence there and would then return to peaceful everyday life. The fights thus incorporated the disorder of violence and fighting into order in a measured way and attempted to ensure disorder remained in the arena. However this was not always the case as often the gladiatorial violence would provoke the crowd to violence themselves. In the late Roman Empire the needs of the urban people were no longer being satisfied thus society was growing alienated from Rome. The games drew the crowds then because they acted as a place where building tensions between the ruler and the ruled could be let out aggressively if need be.[8] There was thus a cathartic element to the games which helped maintain social order.

The gladiatorial spectacles brought the common people in touch with imperial glory and power and thus established a sense of social stability. The gladiatorial spectacles confirmed the social order of Rome since the very seating arrangements of the amphitheatre placed every person in their place in wider society. At the games, ordinary Romans could actually have interaction with the games provider who in some cases was the emperor. On these occasions the government was not seen as an impersonal body, isolated from the average person, but rather as a fellow spectator, someone the Romans could reach. The spectacles drew people from the provinces because the events connected them with the empire of Rome. The use of various exotic animals and prisoners of war in the gladiatorial games made a statement about how far the empirical boundaries of Rome had been extended and about Rome’s domination over all areas.[9] The amphitheatres in which the spectacles were held were designed identically across the empire and were thus places which symbolised the breath and the unity of the empire at the same time.

The munera exposed the common people to violence they would not have formerly known and promoted the toughness of being Roman. When one attended the games one always knew what to expect: blood, fighting and death. Therefore in times of social disturbance they could go the spectacles where they would be reassured that the state order was still in place. In the arena, the might of Rome was seen in the slaughter of military enemies, criminals and disobedient slaves. Those barbarous people threatened the stability of the Roman Empire and civilization and were thus punished in the arena. The spectators felt involved in that punishment, they were part of this vengeance when the state took revenge in the arena. People felt a sense of normalcy for it was here that the social order was reinforced with the viewing of violence in an isolated, controlled place and with the seating arrangements of the amphitheatre emphasising the social hierarchy.

The provision of the games was a way of the emperor showing he appreciated the community. People attended the games because it made them feel like they mattered to emperor, that it was being put on especially for them. The games provided them with probably the only contact that they would ever obtain with the emperor or their other leaders. The spectacles acted as a political platform where Pompey and his successors could appear before the masses and consolidate their popular foundation of authority.[10] Leaders would try to influence the audience as much as possible to move them in their favour at the games, since in the age of Nero, “throughout the entire period of the Greatest Games, gifts were distributed among the people; every single day a thousand birds…were given away.”[11] Augustus took this further by creating lavish spectacles incorporating 10,000 fighters and gained a monopoly over these events.[12] However the emperors who actually watched the spectacles in the company of the crowd also exposed themselves to public demands made by the crowd which they faced nowhere else.[13] The arena formed the centre of the struggle for power between the emperor and his people and the masses attended the games in order to feel involved in this power struggle and to make their voices heard.

The gladiators themselves clearly formed part of the attraction of the games. Although gladiators were greatly degraded in their social status, the sheer numbers of people who came to watch the games showed that they were also admired and feared. They faced the ultimate act in life: that of dying and if they did it with proficiency, demonstrating certain characteristics then they were praised highly.[14] As the games evolved, fans related increasingly to the gladiators, thus they would attend certain games to support their favourite fighters and became involved at a more personal level. Rome was a warrior state used to violence and cruelty and in the arena the gladiators were seen by some as soldiers, showing off prized military characteristics. As Roman Empirical security grew, the average person was no longer personally involved in the military frontline, yet a fascination with military virtues like courage and fighting competence remained. As many people would never be able to demonstrate these qualities in direct combat, they were drawn to the gladiatorial fights to watch these virtues being illustrated.

People were also attracted to the games because there was an erotic association with the gladiators, created by the inbuilt psycho-sexual attraction of violence, which the gladiators were intimately involved in. These gladiators were noxii, labelled déclassé and thus made the spectators feel more positive about their own position in society because they were not as low as the gladiators they were observing. The games were popular amongst the people because they explored the idea of redemption. Although the gladiators were accorded low social status: infamia they had the possibility of regaining their life socially if they showed great enough virtue in how they fought in the arena. The power to grant the gladiator’s rebirth back into society lay exclusively in the hands of the audience. This was one of the main attractions of the games: the common people for a time held the power of life or death over the gladiators, although they often needed the approval of the editore to enact their decision.[15] The important thing to note is that the common crowd had the illusion that they were superior to others at this time, they felt empowered.

The idea of rebirth was linked to death and violence in the gladiatorial combat and formed part of the popularity of the games. This was the idea that death was not an end but a transition and was reinforced by the idea that the empire never ends but keeps recreating itself. The munus originated in public funeral ceremonies and with them was the idea that the blood bled in ritualized fights ensured the continuity of the community even if the leaders were dead. The killing in the gladiatorial spectacles could therefore be interpreted as sacrifices which had to be made to order to ensure the greatness and continuation of the Roman Empire. People were attracted to the games because they believed that here they were witnessing the bloodshed that would guarantee the empire’s safety.[16] The spectacles reassured the common people that nothing could defeat their beloved Empire.

An intellectual and a Christian minority condemned the gladiatorial violence but there was no extensive opposition to games. As long as the spectacles were put on for the people and not the emperor and executed with a degree of propriety and sporting interest, people embraced and praised them.[17] All philosophers in the ancient world had a considerable stock of arguments against the games at their disposal but this does not prove that their readership disliked the spectacles.[18] Seneca and Cicero appear to criticise the spectacles but they were only against certain aspects of it. Seneca wrote that, “Man, an object of reverence in the eyes of the man, is now slaughtered for jest and sport.”[19] This condemnation only concerned the executions in the ‘midday shows’ though, not the actual munera.[20]

In the Roman world people were drawn to the games primarily because they were fascinated by death: their own mortality and that of others. The gladiatorial spectacles forced them to confront the act of dying at an intimate level. It thus made them aware of their own vulnerability to death and led them to rejoice in their own humanity. The arena was the place where civilization and barbarism clashed and it provided the people with an excuse to examine this barbarism which both fascinated and repulsed them. These spectacles momentarily empowered the common people because at these events they play the role of their leaders and could dictate who lived and who died. The common Roman was further empowered because they had the unusual opportunity at the games to make their voice heard and the spectacles provided him with a political and social forum where he could come together with his fellow man and speak out on issues that mattered to him sometimes in the presence of the emperor himself.

People attended the games because in doing so they found a great solidarity with the empire. Violence and death have always fascinated mankind, although this fascination has been shown in different guises. Humans enjoy watching others suffer because it makes them feel more positive about their own situation in life and that is primarily why people attended the Roman games. People came to the games to see power, for it was in the arena that the power of the empire and the power to evade death and begin life again at both a social and physical level were shown in a very accessible way. Death is the one event that is certain to happen to every human being and thus it fascinates all of us. The Romans were drawn to these spectacles because they provided gave contact with death without endangering them. As they watched how others dealt with death, they could reflect on their own ideas of mortality and rebirth in a socially acceptable place. The games showed them the power of death and life and that they held this power.

Bibliography:

Secondary Sources:

Beacham, Richard C., The Roman Theatre and its Audience (Routledge: London, 1991)

Futrell, Alison, Blood in the Arena: The Spectacle of Roman Power (University of Texas Press: Austin 1997)

Grant, Michael, Gladiators (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967)

Kyle, Donald G., Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (Routledge: London 1998)

Shelton, Jo-Ann, ‘XIV. Leisure and Entertainment: Spectacles’, As the Romans did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History (Oxford University Press: Oxford 1998) 307-358

Wiedemann, Thomas, Emperors and Gladiators (Routledge: London 1995)  



[1] Kyle, Spectacles of Death, p. 43

[2] Wiedemann, Emperors and Gladiators pp. 39, 40

[3] Wiedemann, Emperors and Gladiators p. 41

[4] Beacham, The Roman Theatre and its Audience, p. 191

[5] Cicero, Speech in Defense of Sestius, 50.106 in As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History, ed. Jo-Ann Shelton p. 331

[6] Beacham, The Roman Theatre and its Audience, p. 191

[7] Potter, ‘Performance, Power, and Justice in the High Empire’, 129-60 in Slater (1996) cited in Kyle, Spectacles of Death, p. 9

[8] Beacham, The Roman Theatre and its Audience, p. 194

[9] Kyle, Spectacles of Death, p. 9

[10] Beacham, The Roman Theatre and its Audience, p. 158

[11] Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars: Nero 11, 12 in As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History ed. Jo-Ann Shelton

[12] Grant, Gladiators, p. 35

[13] Grant, Gladiators, p. 37

[14] Wiedemann, Emperors and Gladiators p. 102

[15] Wiedemann, Emperors and Gladiators p. 92

[16] Wiedemann, Emperors and Gladiators p. 92

[17] Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome, p.4

[18] Wiedemann, Emperors and Gladiators p. 120

[19] Ep. 95.33, Loeb cited in Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome p. 3

[20] Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome, p.3

What do the pictures carved on marble sarcophagi tell us about Roman culture and society?

The pictures presented on marble sarcophagi reveal Roman attitudes towards life and death. They demonstrate how ordinary people wished to commemorate and memorialise these events. They suggest that there was widespread interest in Greek culture as much Greek imagery is utilized in sarcophagi decoration. The sarcophagi are devices for remembrance and are a way of documenting someone’s life and thus biographical. The images displayed upon the sarcophagi in particular the mythological imagery reveals what values and virtues the Romans aspired to, such as marital devotion and virtue. The patron who commissioned the sarcophagi could entirely manipulate these pictures to his own desires. They thus reveal how Romans wished to be remembered, what they held as important in their life and therefore in their death.

Some Sarcophagi imagery contains the theme of marital devotion, showing it was a value Romans were concerned with. This is evident in the example of the Velletri sarcophagus. One of the scenes shows what some believe to be the myth of Alcestis. This myth narrates how Alcestis sacrificed herself to save her husband, Admetus but Hades returned her from death. Others believe this scene comes from the myth of Protesilaus who was killed in the Trojan War. His wife Laodamia grieved so deeply for him that he was briefly reunited with her. Regardless of which myth it is, both stress death on earth and heavenly reunion. This image reveals that couples split apart by death to find each other again in the afterlife.[1] This theme is common to the sarcophagus of Cauis Junius Euhodus, found near Ostia. The earthly couple are directly placed in a mythological setting and thus aligned with the mythical example of marital commitment between Alcestis and Admetus. This is done in the hope that they were be reunited in the afterlife like the divine couple.[2] The wedding scene is included to stress their virtuous devotion to one another and that this virtue should be rewarded by a posthumous reunion. This idea of reward for a life well lived morally therefore was popular amongst Romans.

Sarcophagi imagery reveals the emphasis Romans placed on profession, that the work one did defined one’s character and life. Some sarcophagi depict professional scenes like that of a shoe maker and a racing-stable owner and have inscriptions revealing the deceased to be freedmen.[3] This imagery gave freedman the chance to establish a new identity. This could be done through private deification. This reveals the increased involvement of freedman in Roman cultural life. It illustrates the pride people had in their profession, that they felt their occupation was an integral part of their life. This is evident in the example of the Meleager sarcophagus in Tomb 29 located near Ostia. The choice of the Meleager myth is appropriate for commemorating the life of the smith, Verrius since it allows an emphasis on sharp-pointed objects such as the hunting spears. These images are thus compatible with the pride the smith had in crafting precise, sharp pointed tools within his own profession.[4] The focus placed on profession in some of the sarcophagi imagery reveals how some Romans wanted to be immortalised by their actions. The use of these images can also be interpreted as the freedman’s equivalent of battle sarcophagi.[5]  

The desire amongst ordinary Romans to triumph over death can be seen in the mythology depicted upon sarcophagi. The idea that one lived on in the pictures engraved upon the monuments was a key factor influencing which myths were placed upon the monuments. The Alcestis myth was a popular choice for sarcophagi because it showed that death could be overcome, that the gap between this world and the next could be traversed.[6] The dead could remain amongst the living through visual representation on sarcophagi.

The expense of commissioning a marble sarcophagi and the knowledge of Greek mythology often accompanying this commission suggests that the majority of people who had sarcophagi designed for them were wealthy patrons. Greek culture obviously attracted them as they had a history of commissioning Greek mythological statues. It is difficult to know the status of these patrons as few sarcophagi have been found in their original location with surviving epitaphs. The use of Greek imagery shows that in many ways Greek culture formed the basis of cultural life. The Romans at first only modified this Greek foundation as illustrated in the adaptation of Greek mythology on Roman sarcophagi to the patron’s or artists wishes.

This fusion of Greek and Roman culture illustrated in funerary art extended into other cultural areas such as portraiture. Eastern and Western styles were also combined as seen in the Velletri sarcophagus, discovered near Velletri. Its sloping roof and four-sided ornamentation shows eastern craftsmanship but the diversity of images suggests Western influence. The pictures therefore represent the blurring of cultural boundaries between East and West which applied more broadly to Roman cultural life.[7]

Hunting imagery was utilized in the imagery of sarcophagi to exemplify virtue and model conduct. Romans had come to believe that victory in the hunt symbolised victory over death. These sarcophagi use the idea of the hunt as a metaphor for battle which has long been established.[8] The boar hunt became part of the imperial iconography in the second century and came to form part of Hadrian’s successful repertory. The Meleager myth and in particular the Calydonian Boar hunt was employed widely in the imagery of sarcophagi because of its theme of the ups and downs of fortune, the impermanence of life and the inevitability of fate.[9] This can be seen in the sarcophagi located at the Isola Sacra Necropolis outside Ostia.[10]

Scenes of the banquet of the Calydonian boar hunt appear on many sarcophagi celebrating the end of the terror of the bull. It represents a turning point in Meleager’s fortune and implies that death could be a turning point for the deceased enabling the patron to identify with the hero through analogy and have a new start. The sarcophagus of the smith Verruis, found near Ostia is decorated with scenes from the myth of Meleager. The divine couple Atalanta and Meleager may represent the earthly couple as Verruis like Meleager died before his wife.[11] This shows the desire of ordinary Romans to be elevated to the divine level of the gods, to be shown at their best in death. The lid of this sarcophagus displays Meleager’s banquet. The deceased’s relatives would come to the monument to feast on the anniversary of the deaths of Verria and Verruis. This image therefore reflects the rituals associated with death. 

Myth is utilized as the vehicle through which the qualities that the deceased wishes to be remembered by are displayed. They are illustrated on a heroic, larger than life scale, raising the deceased themselves to the status of myth to be eternally remembered. It also implies that the dead possess divine virtues. This portraiture of the deceased was interwoven with the mythological figures since the myths encapsulate models of conduct which citizens aspired to.[12]

Mythology was a powerful force in the ancient world. This recourse to myth was an essential part of the continual development of cultural-identity, whereby the people and myths evolved side by side.[13] The equation of the deceased with mythological status and the divinities is evident since the deceased’s features have often been depicted upon the mythological figures of the sarcophagi in the guise of the gods.[14] It had the opposite effect of bringing the myths within the limitations of the earthly world. The mythological tradition was an effective medium through which the connection between the past and present was made clear and this connection was vital to the idea of tradition, popular amongst Romans.

Adaptations of mythological stories reveal that the Romans believed people would obtain the virtues they deserved even if they died prematurely. One could be remembered as virtuous in death. This is illustrated by the example of a child sarcophagus found in Rome. It depicts the myth of Prometheus. The dead child is likened to the miniature “first man” created by the hero and given the stolen gift of the fire of life. This association is enhanced by the fact that the small casket depicted on the sarcophagi is only large enough for a child.[15] The deceased is thus accorded the quality of virtue that they have not been allowed to obtain in life. The myths on sarcophagi acted as representations of virtue and challenge us to think about the lives of the dead in relation to the basic truths contained within the myths themselves.

Adonis is a popular myth for sarcophagi because it paints a positive, heroic image of death and would thus appeal to the patron commissioning the monument. The imagery focuses on the death of Adonis. The main scenes are of him departing for the hunt despite Aphrodite’s warning, the boar wounding him and his death in the arms of Aphrodite. The nudity of Adonis in these pictures represents the eroticism of their divinely union and the innate heroic nature of the mortal youth and by implication the heroic nature of the deceased’s life. The protagonists are depicted in such a way that they become types and evoke the themes of eroticism, heroism and virtue which were clearly popular among Romans. [16]

The sarcophagi imagery represents a succession of failures: the rejection of Aphrodite’s warning, Adonis’s failure to kill the boar, Aphrodite’s inability to protect him from death. However Adonis displayed exemplary virtue because he challenged fate and thus the failures are transformed into heroic symbolism. His brave acceptance of the boar hunt shows his character and therefore the kind of character that the Romans aspired to. These images highlight the inevitability and power of death as even the gods cannot save you from it. They suggest that it is the quality of life and death which lives on and must be remembered.[17] The myths deal with the theme of fate and its role in death. Fate was therefore an issue that concerned ordinary Romans.

Sarcophagi pictures reveal that Romans hoped by bearing the pain of suffering they could transcend death. The image of the Greek hero, Philoctetes suffering from a snake bite represented hope in the face of death. He was certain to recover because the gods needed him in order to achieve victory and thus rescued him. This image reminded people of the advantage of being stoic and the virtue innate in bearing the pains of this life for a higher cause.[18] These ideas would appeal to people when they were thinking about how they wished to be memorialised. At the heart of mythological imagery lies the idea of reciprocity between art and life. The art: myth has the effect of creating myths about the deceased’s life as it adapted to fit the wishes of the patron and his sarcophagus. The action of remembering is affirmed through the generation of new or altered myths. It sustained the deceased in a living tradition often associated with legends.[19]

Myth experienced a metamorphosis in its representation upon sarcophagi. The alterations made to the myths and their depiction with forms which related to other stories reveals the power and adaptability of Classicalism compared to Christianity.[20] The changes made to the myths depicted upon sarcophagi reinvigorated mythological history and showed the extent to which artists and patrons moulded these ancient tales to their own specifications. The patrons could go further than merely likening themselves to ancient heroes; they could use these myths as devices to signal a hope for the future, the idea that there was something greater to be found in or beyond death. The visual images depicted upon the sarcophagi allowed the observer to extract from these representations the significance of the myth and of the lives they were intended to symbolise.  

The use of military images on sarcophagi revealed the pride people felt about the Roman Empire. It also possessed a biographical function: celebrating the military victories an individual achieved in their lifetime. In a militaristic society like Rome the battlefield represented the place where one could show how worthy and moral they truly were. It was a test of virtue.[21] The mythological and militaristic genres overlap in the imagery of sarcophagi as seen in the mythological conflict involving the Greeks and Amazons; an image often depicted upon sarcophagi. Many of the motifs used familiar Greek prototypes like an Amazon woman being pulled by her hair from a rearing horse and show how Roman culture was rooted within that of the Greek.[22]

The idea that victory in battle gave you power over death was popular amongst Romans and is thus depicted upon sarcophagi. There were scenes of conflict between Roman soldiers and barbarians. Triumph over Rome’s enemies accorded the hero immortality and it was believed that courageous deeds sustained your reputation even in death. Sometimes the military events shown on sarcophagi evoked contemporary events. A sarcophagus from the Via Amendola depicts the battle between the Greeks and Pergamene Gauls which occurred in the second century BC and was meant to refer indirectly to current events. These images reveal that Romans believed the military was an important part of life and therefore needed to be remembered. They also give insights into contemporary politics.[23]

The images on sarcophagi performed a biographical function. They revealed a desire to document the deceased’s life in the style that they wanted. They portrayed the sought after virtues of clemency, piety and virtue through the different snapshots of an individual’s life. This was the ordinary Roman’s equivalent to the commentary depicted on Trajan’s column.[24] Scenes such as sacrifice and marriage were employed to illustrate these virtues. Images from private and public life were shown to give a fuller sense of the deceased’s life.

Sarcophagi pictures provide evidence for the Roman structures of vision and intellect, the basis upon which artists constructed their work. Memorialisation had an important role within Roman society; this is shown by the construction of memorial monuments like sarcophagi.[25] The content of the imagery inscribed upon sarcophagi reveals the changing nature of society under the influence of different emperors. The reign of Hadrian emphasised classicalism which is reflected in the myths chosen for sarcophagi, such as the Twelve Labours of Hercules. Commodus continued this theme, according Herculean characteristics to himself and the population followed suit, depicting the myth of Hercules on sarcophagi. This provides further evidence that people wished to associate themselves with the legends and shows their desire to avoid death as Hercules was granted immortality and they wished to emulate him.[26]

The images shown on the sarcophagi reveal the independence of thought amongst freedmen. The Imperial upper classes always depicted Mars as nude and Venus as nude on occasion to illustrate their heroism. However the freed class rejected this line of thought. In the funerary scenes which they commissioned all the men and nearly all the women were dressed. This suggested that they had independent artistic preferences to the higher classes. Freedmen were thus taking a more active role in Roman cultural life in the second century.

During the Antonines reign there was increased interest which originated from the imperial circle in mythologizing people. This period saw figural groups containing Mars and Venus being worked into sarcophagi decoration. The woman was depicted in the Venus of Capua pose and the man was shown as Ares Borghese. He was not depicted as Mars because Mars and Venus were adulterous lovers and sarcophagi imagery and ordinary Romans emphasised marital loyalty. This desire to be depicted as Venus was extensive in the second century; the empress was closely associated with her at this time. Freed women felt bold enough to follow the same route utilizing private deification in funerary art.[27] The images also reveal social changes. The Pratextaus sarcophagus for example, celebrates Balbinuis and his wife as equals reflecting the increased status of imperial women since the Antonines reign.[28]  

Under the reign of Marcus Aurelius military matters took priority and the imagery of sarcophagi reflects this with the increased popularity of battle scenes. The Portonaccio sarcophagus is a fine example as its main body depicts an intense battle scene between the Romans and barbarians. [29] Other scenes illustrate the submission of the barbarians to Rome. These images reveal the patriotism shared by individuals regarding the military might of the Empire. This sarcophagus is biographical, showing snapshots from the deceased general’s life.

One scene depicts a marriage ceremony where the right hands of the General and his wife are joined in the traditional dextrarum iunctio, emphasising their fidelity and the triumph of love over death. This concern with marital loyalty was reflected in general society.[30] Clemency was another value that Romans valued as the Clementia sarcophagus dated to 170 BC illustrates. In its main scene a general gives clemency to a barbarian foe while the Roman is given the wreath of victory. This demonstrates the deceased’s piety. It also reveals that Romans believed it was important Rome acted justly in her imperialist endeavours in order to achieve real victory.[31] Sarcophagi images capture the qualities of virtue, clemency and piety which Romans attempted to uphold in life and death.

Sarcophagi pictures aimed to make the link from verbal to visual memorialisation, which played a key role in society. They tell us much about Roman culture and society revealing how Roman culture was set within a Greek framework. It reveals that Greek mythology appealed to much of society because it fitted with the desire to be immortalised in death amongst the gods. It endowed their life with the divine virtues displayed in legend. The pictures reveal that Romans believed they could defeat death through military or heroic triumph, marital devotion and the possession of attributes like clemency, piety and virtue. These images above all show that an extensive desire among Romans to escape death. Romans hoped they would live on in death through visual imagery and the memory of others and therefore never truly die.   

Bibliography:

Secondary Sources:

D’Ambra, Eve, Art and Identity in the Roman World (London, 1998)

D’Ambra, Eve, ‘A myth for a smith: A Meleager sarcophagus from a tomb in Ostia’, in American Journal of Archaeology (1988) 92 pp. 85-100 

Wood, S. ‘Alcestis on Roman Sarcophagi’, in Roman Art in Context: an anthology, (ed.) Eve D’Ambra (1993) pp.84-99

Kleiner, Diana E. E. Roman Sculpture (London: Yale University Press, 1992)

Koortbojian, Michael, Myth, Meaning and Memory on Roman Sarcophagi (Berkeley University of California Press, 1995)



[1] Kleiner (1992) 259

[2] Wood (1993) 86

[3] Kleiner (1992) 259

[4] D’Ambra (1988) 98

[5] Kleiner (1992) 303

[6] D’Ambra (1998) 124

[7] Kleiner (1992) 259

[8] Koortbojian (1995) 34

[9] D’Ambra, (1988) 91

[10] D’Ambra (1988) 93

[11] D’Ambra (1988) 95

[12] D’Ambra (1998) 120

[13] Koortbojian (1995) 3

[14] Koortbojian (1995) 17-18

[15] Koortbojian (1995) 7

[16] Koortbojian (1995) 29

[17] Koortbojian (1995) 39

[18] Koortbojian (1995) 57

[19] Koortbojian (1995) 125

[20] Koortbojian (1995) 146

[21] D’Ambra (1998) 122-23

[22] Kleiner (1992) 304

[23] Kleiner (1992) 257

[24] Kleiner (1992) 303

[25] Koortbojian (1995) 4-5

[26] Kleiner (1992) 282

[27] Kleiner (1992) 281

[28] Kleiner (1992) 385

[29] Kleiner (1992) 301

[30] Kleiner (1992) 301

[31] Kleiner (1992) 302


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