The Portonaccio Sarcophagus - Amazing Relic of Rome

3 January 2011

It is strange to think that this sarcophagus is eighteen hundred years old so vivid are the carvings on its sides.  Who was buried inside is unknown, but there are facts that can be gleaned from the study of the ornate sculpting.  Housed in the National Museum of Rome, the sarcophagus is displayed in a darkened room under spotlights which show its decorative figures beautifully.

It was discovered in 1931 near Via Tiburtina, in the eastern suburbs of the Rome. Its front depicts a symbolic picture of a battle which is on two levels.  The carving remains to this day an achievement – the dark and light contrast beautifully, a veritable chiaroscuro effect. This skill involved was enormous.

The sarcophagus was probably used in the burial of a Roman general who was closely involved in the campaigns of Marcus Aurelius.  He is seen on the front of the sarcophagus, frozen forever in a charge against his enemies.  Yet the face of the high ranking officer for which the sarcophagus was intended is left blank.

It is thought that it was left blank with the intention of the sculptor creating a death mask of the general in that position.  Yet perplexingly it has been left unfinished and we can only guess at the reasons for that.  We will never know if some form of shame descended on the general before his death or why it was his family or friends decided that he was to be left nameless and faceless for eternity.

Certainly it was not for expediency when it came to money.  This sarcophagus would have been incredibly expensive to create.  Plus the rest of it (and thus his reputation) was left intact.  You can see his troops laying in to their barbarian enemies.  Some are already on the ground, others apparently beg for his mercy.

Yet we can have a good guess. The military insignia which can be seen on the upper edge of the casket allows us to guess at the identity of the man.  It shows the eagle of the Legio IIII Flavia and the boar of the Legio I Italicai.  Historians who have studied the casket have pointed towards Aulus Iulius Pompilius. He was an official of Marcus Aurelius who was in control of two squadrons of cavalry which were on detachment both legions for the duration of the war against the Marcomanni (172-175AD).

Whether this does belong to Pompilius is not for certain known.  However, it is without any doubt that the battle depicted here was resoundingly won by the Romans and it probably represented a high point in the career of our unknown general.  We know this because if the over-sized nature of the carvings of the barbarians – trophies of war.  Their arms (and so their honor) are displayed by the victors.

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus who reigned from 161 to 180 CE was known as one (and the last) of the five good emperors.  "Alone of the emperors," wrote the historian Herodian, "he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life."  Yet he also conducted military campaigns against the Parthian Empire, the Marcomanni, Quadi, Sarmatians and the Germanic Tribes.

This sarcophagus would serve as a reminder to visitors to the necropolis of the strength, valor and achievements of this high ranking officer.  1800 years later its exquisite craftsmanship still serves this purpose especially when it is so beautifully displayed under spotlights in a darkened room as it is in the Palazzo Massimo.

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