Saturday, April 01, 2023


The Ludovisi Sarcophagus

Paul Zanker and Björn C. Ewald, Living with Myths: The Imagery of Roman Sarcophagi, tr. Julia Slater (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), illustration 207 on p. 228, followed by description on p. 229:
The Ludovisi battle sarcophagus made from a single block of marble is the biggest and artistically one of the most important Roman sarcophagi. The deceased appears in the midst of a battle against barbarians as the victorious commander. The barbarians are shown as inferior people over whom the Roman troops can triumph with ease. The commander is denoted with a cross on his forehead (not satisfactorily explained). Since at least one other portrait of him survives, he must have been a rather well-known personality. Rome. Museo Nazionale Romano. Palazzo Altemps. Around 260.
Id., pp. 227-229 (note omitted):
Here we would like to cast at least a brief look at the famous battle sarcophagi which depict the victories of Roman troops over barbarians. They form a small group to which little importance is generally attached, with the exception of the Ludovisi sarcophagus (Ill. 207). The sarcophagus workshops originally articulated the battle theme through mythological and historical battles (Greeks against Amazons, Romans against Gauls), without a chief protagonist, and the fighting itself was evidently used as a formula for virtus. But later the figure of the commander would be highlighted as the victor amidst the mêlée of a great battle scene. The most arresting example is the Ludovisi battle sarcophagus, made at some time after 260, whose size and unusually high quality make it one of the most important of all Roman sarcophagi. The man who is buried in the sarcophagus and clearly commemorated in the portrait of the victor was once thought to be a son of the emperor, but may well have been a noble young officer, since at least one other surviving portrait head represents the same man. But this is just as uncertain as is the commander rank on the other military commander sarcophagi; here too, even more clearly than on those, the figure of the victorious emperor served as the epitome of all virtus. The young commander appears like the emperor, with his victorious gesture in the midst of the barbarians who have been mown down by the Roman legionaries. The barbarians are depicted not as dangerous opponents, but as despicable and ugly figures, who need to be wiped from the face of the earth. The relief shows not so much a victorious battle as a massacre, creating the impression that the culture of the Imperium Romanum can only be saved by the extermination of the barbarians. As if divorced from both time and place, the commander with his victory gesture is untouched by the horrors unfolding around him: he is surrounded only by the aura of the victory which the trumpets are sounding.

At the time when the Ludovisi sarcophagus was produced, this kind of battle representation had long fallen out of fashion in the sarcophagus workshops. Like the military-commander sarcophagi, these other battle reliefs date back to the late second century. Perhaps their popularity was connected with the political and social mood of part of the elite in the face of the first serious threat to imperial power by barbarians at the time of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus.

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