A lenos sarcophagus with processus consularis (a procession for the appointment of a consul)
Greek marble (Parian?). Rome, c. 270 CE. Inv. No. 126372.Rome, Roman National Museum, Palazzo Massimo alle TermePhoto by Ilya Shurygin

A lenos sarcophagus with processus consularis (a procession for the appointment of a consul).

Greek marble (Parian?). Rome, c. 270 CE.
Inv. No. 126372.

Rome, Roman National Museum, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
(Roma, Museo nazionale romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme).

From Acilia, Palocco (1950).

Sarcophagus with a consular procession.

From Acilia, the locality of Palocco (1950).
The right half is almost completely missing, and a number of the remaining figures on the left are mutilated. Marble from the Greek isles (Paros?). Ht. 149 cm, L. 248 cm., D. 128 cm; inv. 126372.

The sarcophagus, in the form of a monumental oval basin, is decorated with a series of at least fourteen richly attired figures sculpted in very high relief and skilfully portrayed on several layers of field depth.

The front conserves a scene of the dextrarum iunctio in the center, flanked on the couples left side by male figures wearing togas, all except one belonging to the bearded philosopher type, and on the right by female figures perhaps identifiable as Muses. A female head with the hair styled in a braid fixed at the back of the head, but too fragmentary for reconstruction, was almost certainly placed in the background, probably as a personification of Harmony (Concordia).

The interpretation of this piece—whose exceptional quality is clearly visible in the refinement of the sculpted decoration, which retains a number of traces of polychromy and gilding—is rather complicated. A few things are certain: for example, the form of the basin (the lenós or wine-beaker) refers to the heavenly harvest of the afterlife; the embrace of the couple on the front indicates that they are married; and the lateral figures represent philosophers and Muses. The figure in a toga with an upraised arm and a diadem on his head can be plausibly interpreted as the Genius of the Senate (Genius Senatus), based on a comparison with historical reliefs; the young male with close-cropped hair on the couple s left, on the other hand, defies easy identification.

While scholars agree on placing the sarcophagus roughly after AD 235 on the basis of the hairstyles of the youth and the female head, the exact chronology and signification of the scene, which are intimately correlated, are still the object of debate. Bianchi Bandinelli, who dedicated a memorable critical edition to the piece, proposed the first interpretation, identifying the youth as Gordian III (who acceded to the throne at a rather early age) on the basis of comparisons with coins and other known portraits, and the couple as the parents of the emperor. According to this hypothesis, the sarcophagus would date to AD 238, the year of his accession to the throne; the identity of the person who commissioned it, however, remains unclear, especially as the portrait of the youth appears to have been reworked. Following Bianchi Bandinelli’s example, scholars have attributed the sarcophagus to various princes who died at a young age, such as Hostilianus and Nigrinianus.

More recent scholarship, beginning with B. Andreae, tends to interpret the scene as a processus consularis, or the honorary procession of a consul to his inauguration, which occurred at the beginning of the year, on the first of January, following a precise and detailed ceremony in the presence of knights and senators, and concluded with a cult sacrifice on the summit of the Capitoline hill; in this reading, the present relief depicts the moment when the consul-elect takes leave of his family (wife and young son) in order to initiate the procession of the Genius Senatus.

The compositional scheme, already encountered in a number of sarcophagi from the reign of the emperor Gallienus, together with certain stylistic details, suggest a date in that period or in the following decade.

S. Aurigemma, Le Terme di Diocleziano e il Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome, 19543, pp. 122-123, no. 330; W. Helbig, Führer durch die öffentlichen Sammlungen klassischer Altertümer in Rom, III, Tübingen, 19694, pp. 231-235, no. 2316 (B. Andreae); Museo Nazionale Romano, Le sculture, A. Giuliano ed., I, 1, Rome, (1979), pp. 298-304, no. 182 (M. Sapelli); Archeologia a Roma. La materia e la tecnica nell’arte antica, M. R. Sanzi Di Mino, M. Bertinetti ed., Catalogo of the exhibition (Rome, April-December, 1990), Rome, 1990, pp. 145-146, no. 120 (M. Sapelli).

Elena Calandra
© 2010. Photo: Ilya Shurygin.
Text: museum inscription to the sculpture.
© 2005. Description: Museo Nazionale Romano. Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. English Edition. Edited by Adriano La Regina. Electa, 2005 (First Edition 1998), p. 172.
Keywords: γλυπτική sculptura sculpture sculptural scultura skulptur ρωμαϊκό roman romana romano romani römisch römische römisches römischen römischer romain romaine romains romaines κηδεία funeral funerary funeraria funerario begräbnisskulptur beerdigung funéraire σαρκοφάγος σαρκοφάγους sarcophagus sarcophagi sarcofago sarcofagi sarkophag sarkophage sarcophage sarcophages mythological with a myth of myths mitologico mitologici con un mito i miti mythologischer mythologische mythologique mythologiques ανακούφιση relief rilievo lenos calcatura greek parian marble consul processus consularis gordianus toga male portrait acilia inv no 126372
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