In the second century AD there arose a great movement amidst the elite of Roman society to commit one’s mortal remains to eternity within a finely sculpted stone sarcophagus. While the practice already had a long tradition in the eastern Hellenistic world, the reign of emperor Hadrian in the first half of the second century brought all things Greek into Roman fashion, including highly decorated receptacles for inhumation. At the same time, philosophical and religious ideas began to take a turn towards thoughts of the life beyond, with the immortality of the soul and resurrection of the body becoming more commonly accepted answers to questions relating to the afterlife. Marble sarcophagi provided a safe and protective home for their occupants in this context and also provided an opportunity for the artistic expression of one’s beliefs. The trend spread quickly around the Roman empire and finely carved sarcophagi became an important symbol of status.
In a sense, immortality was realized in these fine specimens of Roman artistic culture – a great number of sarcophagi having survived the millennia, providing a large corpus of sculpture. The subject matter and themes brought to bear in this commemmorative art have been paramount to understanding the Roman ethos in relation to death, where religious aspirations are projected through allegory and myth. This vibrant and deeply-drilled sarcophagus panel, carved in Parian marble, expresses this. The patron of this Roman sarcophagus chose the Greek myth of the hero Meleager and the hunt for the Calydonian boar as his personal allegory.
This renowned story has come down to us through multiple streams of the Greek literary tradition: in the epic and non-epic versions of the same myth. In the first, epic version, Meleager is the great hero whose wrath keeps him from fighting for his native Calydon against the neighbouring Curetes of Pleuron. The non-epic version is more concerned with the hero’s love for Atalanta, the murder of his uncles, and his punishment, as outlined below. The multitude of Roman artistic representations of this myth, including the present example, illustrate the non-Homeric version.
Meleager was the son of Oeneus, the King of Calydon. According to the myth, Oeneus had upset the goddess Artemis by neglecting to make sacrifices to her after a successful harvest. In her rage, she set a monstrous boar upon the Aetolians, which ravaged their land and wreaked general havoc. To bring an end to this situation, Meleager assembled a band of heroes to destroy the beast. Depicted at the centre of the panel, Meleager appears at the climactic moment of the hunt, as his spear is about to plunge into the boar. To underline his importance as the protagonist of the story, in centre stage, Meleager is depicted in a larger scale than the other figures represented. Just before him is the huntress Atalanta, the object of his affections, who is rushing forward with her bow in her left hand, having checked the target with her arrow. The twins Castor and Pollux (the Dioscuri) stand behind Meleager, recognizable in their Pilos helmets. The assembly of hunters is accompanied by hounds, and one of the participants has fallen below the stampede.
This subject was a popular choice for sarcophagi and many, akin to this example, preserve the height of the drama along the front panel. Some sarcophagi present scenes on smaller side panels or along the sarcophagus lid, as in an example from the Isola Sacra Necropolis near Ostia. According to the narrative on our panel, when the boar has been slain, a banquet ensues and Meleager, after falling in love with Atalanta, presents her with the prized pelt and tusks. Meleager’s uncles are offended that his lover wished to share in such splendour. Insulted at having his chivalry questioned, Meleager slays his kin. In a rage, Meleager’s mother kills her son with a curse, his demise quickly overshadowing his heroic triumph.
The fine drill-work and deep undercutting of this composition essentialize the drama of this tragic myth. In antiquity it would have been enhanced with gilding and set within a niche in the necropolis, visited by family and friends who would celebrate the life of their loved one with candle-lit banquets. The flickering of the fire light reflected in the gilding and the way it would have danced in the shadows of the carving would bring this scene to life – where the protagonist, Meleager, as avatar of the deceased, is forever frozen in his heroic moment as he finishes the boar with his drawn spear.
The choice of this narrative scene on our sarcophagus by its patron is interesting, and this of course applies to other examples. A prominent clue to its selection appears on the relief of a medallion on the Arch of Constantine in Rome. This depicts emperor Hadrian slaying a wild boar and testifies to his preference for hunting, but also expresses his courage in battle, for which hunting served as a metaphor, portraying the emperor as a hero. The brave deeds of the imperial and aristocratic circles in the Roman period, which encapsulated the quality of virtus (virtue), as shown through hunting, conveyed an important social message to one’s peers and was a conspicuous indicator of prestige. For this reason, the myth of Meleager found important expression in a range of artistic media in different social contexts, especially opulent private houses. A fourth-century floor mosaic in the dining room (triclinium) of the Constantinian Villa at Antioch (modern Antakya in southern Turkey), provides a good illustration of this. The message conveyed that the patron enjoyed hunting and had sufficient means to stage such activities, while emphasizing his virtue, likening him to Meleager. This iconic personality of Graeco-Roman myth was certainly not immortal but, curiously, his selection as part of the artistic programme of our sarcophagus, demonstrates that its patron sought to be immortalized in the guise of the hero.
One of the most celebrated sarcophagi depicting this subject belongs to the collection of the Capitoline Museums (Inv. Scu 917, first half of the third century AD). Perhaps the closest parallel to the present example is a sarcophagus panel of a similar date in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Inv. AN1947.278).
Private Collection, Switzerland, 1973-2015.
Exhibited: Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva, 2000-2016.
Published: G. Koch, ‘Kaiserzeitliche Sarkophage in Einer Privatsammlung’ in Archäologischer Anzeiger 1993, pp. 146-148, no. 4, pls 13-16.