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death and the afterlife in the ancient world cremation and burial. Child’s sarcophagus 170-180 CE. A classicist’s mystery: why was there a shift, Empire-wide, from cremation to inhumation?. Etruscan, from Chiusi, first half of the second century BCE.

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child s sarcophagus 170 180 ce

Child’s sarcophagus 170-180 CE

A classicist’s mystery: why was there a shift, Empire-wide, from cremation to inhumation?

alabaster child s sarcophagus etruscan 2nd cen bce paris on ship and helen being led aboard
Alabaster child’s sarcophagus. Etruscan, 2nd cen BCE. Paris on ship and Helen being led aboard.

Roman sarcophagus lid, 120-140 CE.
The sculpting technique and the girl’s hairstyle suggests a late Hadrianic date. With her right hand, she pets a small dog; at the foot of the couch are propped two small dolls (partly broken off). On the back of the couch, over her right shoulder, sprawls a small sleeping Cupid, whose left leg is crossed under his right in imitation of the pose of the girl. The fragmentary inscription emphasizes her beauty and short life.


A commemorated grandmother holds a patera in one hand, crown in other, a symbol of victory and immortality. Inscription: D AVRELIA VITALIS / M CVPIDINI ABIAE SUAE BENE MERENTI FEC[IT]. Found on Via Appia, Antonine period.
Baths of Diocletian, Rome.

greeks battling amazons greek 230 bce

Export trade dominated by:

  • Mt. Pentelicus, Attica
  • Proconnesus (island of Marmara)
  • Docimaeum, W. Asia Minor
Greeks battling Amazons. Greek, 230 BCE
a d nock s theories on shift to sarcophagi

A. D. Nock’s theories on shift to sarcophagi:

change in afterlife belief?

Influence of mystery cults?

Increasing cost of fuel?

Vogue in Greek culture?

Greater accessibility of marble?

advantages to sarcophagi

Advantages to sarcophagi:


sarc can be viewed at funeral

flexible in placement

gives a large field for decoration

Sarcophagus relief 
of pitched battle, with Achilles in the center holding the slain Penthesileia. 3rd century CE.
Vatican Museum, Rome.

Sarcophagus of Maconiana Severiana; Roman, 210-20 CE 

Maconiana died as a child, the daughter of parents of the senatorial class. Her sarcophagus is decorated with scenes relating to Bacchus (Dionysus), including small tiles on the lid. The inscription reads D[is] M[anibus] MACONIANAE SEVERIANAE FILIAE DVLCISSIMAE M[arcus] SEMPRONIVS PROCVLVS FAVSTINIANVS V[ir] C[larissimus] ET PRAECILIA SEVERINA C[larissima] F[emina] PARENTES [hoc monumentum fecerunt].
Santa Monica, Getty Villa.

Hercules dragging Cerberus through theGates of Hades
Rome: Museo Montemartini (found in Piazzale del Verano).

Marble sarcophagus with a scene in relief from the Medea myth:
gifts are given to the children by a seated Medea as Jason, the Nurse, the Paidagogos look on. Rome, 180 CE.


“tombstone” in the shape of an arched niche containing a couple in the marriage pose (clasped right hands), in relief between two putti holding garlands; the bearded husband holds a scroll, his wife holds a pomegranate(?); their boy child clings to his mother's leg. 2nd-3rd century CE.


Young child’s sarcophagus, Roman, c. 275-300 CE.
Made of Proconnesian marble; found in Ostia. Boys are shown playing with nuts.
Translation of inscription: "To the spirits of the departed and to Lucius Aemilius Daphnus of the Pomptine [voting tribe]. He lived 4 years and 6 days. Julia Daphne [had this made] for her dearest son."
London, British Museum.


Sarcophagus relief of an elite Roman woman. She appears in each of three panels: in the center, in a kind of aedicula, she stands veiled,with a child at her feet holding her cloak; on either side she is grouped in conversation with the same seated male and standing woman, all holding texts.
Vatican Museum, Rome.


Basin sarcophagus. The high relief depicts children holding masks, musical instruments and scrolls, perhaps symbolizing Muses, but certainly emphasizing the learning of the dead youth.
On the left, one boy holds a mask and another holds a cithara and plectrum (pick); in the center scene, the dead youth sits on stool holding an open scroll, while a boy on his left writes on a wax tablet with a stylus, and a figure on his right (whose clothing suggests that she may be a girl) holds a closed scroll with a bundle of scrolls at her feet; on the right, a boy holds a mask while another holds a double flute. 
Rome, Vatican Museum, Gallery of the Candelabrum.


Ossuary made by C. Iulius Andronicus (a freedman with the same patron) in the shape of a house with Ionic columns and a garland; a couple is posed iunctio dextrarum in an aedicula below the inscription: DIS MANIBVS C IVLIVS HERMES VIX[IT] ANN[IS] XXXIIII M[ENSIBUS]V DIEB[US] XIIII C IVLIVS ANDRONICVS CONLIBERTVS FEC[IT] BENE MERENTI DE SE. Found on Via Appia, end of 1st century CE.


Sarcophagus high relief depicting Roman marriage ceremony, 160-80 CE. Detail of couple clasping right hands (dextrarum iunctio) with Juno Pronuba between; groom holds scroll probably symbolizing betrothal contract.
 Made of Proconnesian marble; partly restored in the 18th century.
London, British Museum.