15 Aug 2016

The Portonaccio Sarcophagus

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PortonaccioSarcophagus1
Portonaccio Sarcophagus, 2nd Century A.D., Museo Nazionale Romano

Kuriositas profiles an exceptionally spectacular ancient sculpture featuring particularly realistic and fine battle scenes:

It was discovered in 1931 near Via Tiburtina, in the eastern suburbs of Rome. Its front depicts a symbolic picture of a battle which is on two levels. The carving remains to this day an incredible achievement – the dark and light contrast beautifully to produce a veritable chiaroscuro effect. This skill involved was superlative.

The sarcophagus was probably used in the burial of a Roman general who was closely involved in the campaigns of Marcus Aurelius. He is seen on the front of the sarcophagus, frozen forever in a charge against his enemies. Yet the face of the high ranking officer for which the sarcophagus was intended is left blank.

It is thought that it was left blank with the intention of the sculptor creating a death mask of the general in that position. Yet perplexingly it has been left unfinished and we can only guess at the reasons for that. We will never know if some form of shame descended on the general before his death or why it was his family or friends decided that he was to be left nameless and faceless for eternity.

Certainly it was not for expediency or money. This sarcophagus would have been incredibly expensive to create and would probably have taken over a year to create. Plus the rest of it (and thus his reputation) was left intact. You can see his troops laying in to their barbarian enemies with gusto. Some are already on the ground, others apparently beg for his mercy. …

The military insignia which can be seen on the upper edge of the casket allows us to try to figure out the identity of the man. It shows the eagle of the Legio IIII Flavia and the boar of the Legio I Italicai. Historians who have studied the casket have pointed towards Aulus Iulius Pompilius. He was an official of Marcus Aurelius who was in control of two squadrons of cavalry which were on detachment to both legions for the duration of the war against the Marcomanni (172-175AD).

PortonaccioSarcophagus2
Portonaccio Sarcophagus, 2nd Century A.D., Museo Nazionale Romano

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