Portonaccio sarcophagus
Marble. 180—200 CE.
Height 153 cm.
Inv. No. 112327.
Rome, Roman National Museum, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme Photo by Ilya Shurygin

Portonaccio sarcophagus.

Marble. 180—200 CE.
Height 153 cm.
Inv. No. 112327.

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

Found in 1931 in via delle Cave di Pietralata, near Portonaccio, Rome.

The Portonaccio Sarcophagus

From Rome, the Portonaccio district on the via Tiburtina (via delle Cave di Pietralata). Discovered in 1931 together with two other sarcophagi. The overall condition is rather good: the surface is well preserved, although with various minor chips and fractures. The cover slab is broken into four pieces. White medium-grain marble.

Ht. 114 cm, Ht. of the cover 36.5 cm, L. 239 cm, D. 116 cm; inv. 112327.

A sarcophagus of imposing dimensions, composed of a rectangular box and cover, and decorated on the front, sides and frontispiece of the cover. The front shows a battle scene between Romans and Barbarians, with the former led by a commander charging into the fray on horseback; on the left side, two prisoners are being escorted by Roman soldiers, and on the right side two Barbarians are represented begging the commander for clementia.

The frontispiece of the cover, framed by two Barbarian heads in the corners, presents four scenes from the life of the protagonist in correct succession: the presentation of the new-born child by the wet-nurse to the mother; his education, indicated by the presence of the Muses; his marriage, symbolized by the dextrarum iunctio between the husband and wife; and finally, an episode of clementia in favor of the Barbarians.

The frontal scene is distinguished by the exuberant richness of its composition focused on the figure of the general, who is larger than the other characters as a function of that hierarchical and idealizing perspective which became canonical in late antiquity. At the same time, the confusion of the battle is continually reinforced by the uninterrupted movement of the combatants, by the uneven rhythm produced by the skewed intersecting angles of the spears, and by the perspectival depth arising from strong chiaroscuro effects, evident in the skillful rendering of multiple layers of background activity. The parallels with the reliefs of the Antonine column (finished in AD 193, although begun some fifteen years previously) are undoubtedly strong: both these latter and the present sarcophagus show an expressivity in the characters bordering on dissolution of form, a stylistic conception born of the frenetic use of the drill which frilly asserts itself in the third century.

The date proposed on the basis of stylistic analysis is borne out by the available historical information. The commander has in fact been identified as Aulus Iulius Pompilius, who probably died, judging from epigraphic documentation, circa AD 180. This identification proceeds from the presence near the upper edge of the standard in the form of a boar’s head, which was the symbol of the first Italica and second Adiutrix legions stationed along the border facing the Quadi and Marcomanni (in lower Moesia and lower Pannonia, respectively) and indeed commanded by Pompilius, who found himself at the head of contingent of troops from both legions reinforced by a division of cavalry. This hypothesis is corroborated by the presence of the vexillum, which normally indicates the cavalry.

The sarcophagus as a whole thus comprises a monumental compendium of the generals life, culminating in the scene representing an attack against the Barbarians on the front, which lies outside the narrative sequence on the cover. The sides depict corollary representative moments of military activity, and the frontispiece of the cover bears salient episodes from the life of the deceased, following a biographic scheme well documented in Roman sarcophagi. One final thing which needs to be commented upon is the unfinished state of the protagonist’s face — not only in the composition on the front, but also in the marriage scene (where the bride’s face is also unfinished) and scene of clementia. This peculiarity throws light on the working methods of the atelier, which probably programmed the sculpting of the portraits for the end and confided them to a specialized technician.

Elena Calandra
S. Aurigemma, Le Terme di Diocleziano e il Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome, 19543, p. 31, no. 57;
Museo Nazionale Romano, Le sculture, I, 8. 2 (1985), pp. 177—189, IV, 4 (L. Musso).
© 2012. Photo: Ilya Shurygin.
© 2005. Description: Museo Nazionale Romano. Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. English Edition. Edited by Adriano La Regina. Electa, 2005 (First Edition 1998), pp. 162—163.

Keywords: marble sarcophagus sarkophag sarcofago Portonaccio sarcophagus sarkophag sarcofago biographical sarcophagus sarkophag sarcofago pseudo-biographical sarcophagus sarkophag sarcofago battle sarcophagus sarkophag sarcofago military officer general vita humana battle Aulus Iulius Pompilius Inv No 112327
History of Ancient Rome