Abstract – Battle Sarcophagi in Ancient Rome: An Explanation for the Visual Differences Present of the Alexander, Portonaccio, Achilles and Penthesilea, and Ludovisi Sarcophagi

Over nearly six hundred years battle sarcophagi change compositionally and thematically. The Hellenistic Alexander sarcophagus (ca. 325-311 BC) represents a battle scene with empty space between figures. Approximately five hundred years later, this empty space is eliminated in the Roman Portonaccio sarcophagus (AD 180-190). The lack of space creates a more chaotic battle scene and larger figures on the far sides of the relief serve as boundaries to control the battle. By the middle of the third century, boundaries no longer are employed in the Achilles and Penthesilea sarcophagus (ca. AD 225-250) and the figures engage the audience even further with an outward gaze. A decade or so later, the Ludovisi sarcophagus (AD 250-260) not only does engage with the audience and escapes the designated confines of the sculpture, but creates a massacre instead of a battle scene. This motif is available in Roman literature, and recalls a scene out of Lucan (39-65 AD) where living bodies are crushed to death by the sheer weight of dead bodies. This paper suggests a way to help to understand the new stylistic tendencies that emerge through textual evidence and observation. A close examination of these sarcophagi reveals how Roman sculpture develops to articulate an age of slaughter in the Roman Empire.

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