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