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

§1.1 Over the nearly six hundred years that they were produced Greek and Roman sarcophagi with representations of battles change compositionally. There are striking differences from the clear and distinguishable form of the Alexander sarcophagus about 320 BC to the overwhelmingly visually confusing Ludovisi sarcophagus about AD 250. Why was there a shift away from a clean and organized to a more chaotic form? While these renderings have visually been interpreted in terms of general stylistic characteristics, I have found evidence that they are reflections of specific features of the experience of war that are articulated in Roman literature.

§1.2 First, we may begin by considering the marble Alexander sarcophagus from Sidon, now in Istanbul, dating around 325-311 BC. It is an example of the Attic type.[1] The sarcophagus was most likely the sarcophagus of Abdalonymos, the last king of Sidon, who was established as king by Alexander after the battle of Issus in 333 BC.[2] The sarcophagus has six relief panels and was originally painted. The four reliefs on the body of the sarcophagus show lion hunt scenes on a long and on a short side, and battle scenes on a long and on a short side. Let’s look at the battle scene on the long side.[3] The battle between Greeks, mostly on the left, and Persians, most on the right, is usually interpreted as the battle of Issus.[4] The figure at the far right is the Persian enemy, and the far left Alexander. Alexander is conspicuously represented as a heroic rider with a flying cloak. The figures stand out from an empty background and are placed one next to the other with enough space between them to give the impression that they have room to swing a sword or advance toward one another. All the figures share the same ground line; that is to say every figure is either standing on, or connected by his horse and that there are no “floating” figures above or below. Groups of soldiers are easily discerned and complete figures are almost entirely visible.

§1.3 The situation is very different in the sarcophagus from Portonaccio on the Via Tiburtina, dating around AD 180-190.[5] The sarcophagus is marble, of the Roman or Western type, characterized by a flat front with mask-like heads on the sides, and it features three main relief panels and a figured lid. The upper relief on the lid portrays events from the life of the deceased general whose sarcophagus it was. Although the panel is crowded, it is easily resolved into three main episodes on the ground line formed by the base of the lid. The figures are complete and in this respect, the scene is similar to the Alexander sarcophagus. There is a contrast, however, between the lid and the chaotic battle scene of the lower, main panel. The general is the central figure, whose face is incomplete. The battle is framed on either side by standards and standing prisoners who, while sharing the same space as the figures battling are larger and do not engage in the action. Instead, they frame the pictorial field, and function as a means of confining the battle. The battle seems uncontrollable. Figures are shown only partially as they attempt to climb over one another. There is no background in the pictorial field; instead the entire surface is carved with densely packed action. The battle appears too compressed to be plausible.

§1.4 We may also observe the stylistic differences from the Alexander sarcophagus. The harsh lines and drilling result in greater contrasts between the light and dark. The extreme contrast of shadow and deeper lines allows for deeper furrows in foreheads, mouths that are more open with screams, and eyes that look more tired. The style makes the expression of pain more painful.

§1.5 What we see is a kind of representation completely different from the Greek example. The space more confined, and the handling of light and shade more contrasting. It reminds us that Roman art, while it borrows from Greek art has its own principles. One of the most notable is the alternative to rendering figures in space. For example, let’s examine two scenes from the column of Trajan of AD 113. On the left is a scene of adlocutio where Trajan, as princeps, addresses his troops. The soldiers clustering around Trajan look as is they are stacked vertically.[6] On the right is the so-called hanging brook.[7] The scenes must be read almost like a diagram in order to understand the information that is being presented. Above is behind and we understand that the apparently stacked soldiers are extending back into space. Similarly, the hanging brook is not a waterfall but extends back into the space. The mode of representation here is fundamentally different from what we saw previously on the Alexander sarcophagus.

§1.6 These spatial convections are capable of powerful effects as we see where there are even greater contrasts between light and shade on the column of Marcus Aurelius of AD 180-192. On the left is a detail of a massacre of barbarians, and the scene of the captured women and children on the right.[8] The deep drill-work results in a more intense contrast between the light and the shadow. Resulting in a heightened level of emotionalism, and is similar to what is represented on the contemporary Portonoccio sarcophagus.

§1.7 Similar features of composition and style are on the Achilles and Penthesilea sarcophagus, dating around AD 225-250, in the Vatican Museum.[9] The sarcophagus is marble likewise of the Roman or Western type. The six major figures here appear surrounded by smaller, densely interwoven figures and similarly are clustered together, and there are figures not in full view and situated behind other figures. The confusion of the battle leaves the viewer with a disoriented feeling perhaps similar to being present within an actual battle. As on the Portonaccio sarcophagus, there are defeated figures on the bottom.

§1.8 The analysis of these Antonine and Severan sarcophagi ordinarily focus on the general visual qualities and the overall interpretation for the confusion. What I would like to suggest is that we have evidence that can account for some of these specific features from earlier in the Roman Empire. Book two of De Bello Civili by Lucan, who lived AD 39-65 exists as an explanation. Lucan, gives an account of the Roman Civil War of 49-45 BC. At this point in the epic, despite the public calling for an end to war, the battle continues when Caesar crosses the Rubicon and rallies his troops to march on Rome. This is how online poker works if you are looking to play poker online from usa as explained in this US poker site. This passage describes the horror that has previously occurred in Italy:
… vix caede peracta
procumbunt, dubiaque labant cervice; sed illos
magna premit strages peraguntque cadavera partem
caedis: viva graves elidunt corpora trunci <[10]
… hardly can the bodies tumble forward after the fatal stroke, but totter with rolling neck; the massive carnage crushes the survivors and corpses carry out some of the slaughter: headless trunks crush the living with their weight.<[11]
Lucan 2.203–206

§1.9 As Lucan vividly describes, in this battle there is so much slaughter that the dead bodies themselves are causing death by the sheer weight of corpses bearing down on living bodies.

§1.10 With these lines in mind, we may examine the Ludovisi sarcophagus, now in the Palazzo Altemps, in Rome dating to AD 250-260.<[12] It was discovered in Rome in 1621 and later purchased by Cardinal Ludovisi. The exact battle represented is unknown, but the panel is believed to represent a scene of warfare between the Romans and their northern enemies the Goths.[13] As Fred Kleiner observes, every inch of the sarcophagus has been filled with figures that are “writhing and highly emotive, with no illusion of space behind them.” [14] There seems to be no sense of order, but the scene represents sheer mêlée. Roman soldiers climb on top of the barbarian bodies below them, which in turn crush more bodies below them. Additionally, the expressions on the faces of the barbarian soldiers suggest the agony they are in as their hair is grabbed, faces pulled, and bodies crushed by those above. The figures, both living and dead, litter the bottom of the panel. A man on the right side of the scene sags lifelessly, about to tumble off his horse. The man behind him and to the left on the horse is similarly limp, and his arms and head both sag as he falls to the left where a barbarian kneels, his face twisted upwards in agony.Lucan also describes a similar situation: permixtaque viva sepultis corpora (De Bello Civili 2.152–153), [15] “the living bodies mixed with the buried.” The living bodies above crush the bodies below. It is a variation of a motif common in Imperial iconography; for example in the statue of Hadrian with his foot on the back of a barbarian from Crete, around 120-125.[16] In this sculpture, Hadrian crushes the barbarian enemy literally and figuratively. On the Ludovisi sarcophagus, the theme of barbarians crushed by Romans finds new expression: instead of the Roman Empire being represented figuratively by the single body of a Roman Emperor, as in the statue of Hadrian, a collection of Roman soldiers represents the power of Rome. We also see this on the Portonaccio sarcophagus. The iconography is reinforced by composition and depth of carving. Perhaps the scene is better categorized as a massacre than a mêlée. The imperial battle sarcophagi quite literally represent experiences of war already articulated in Roman culture.

§1.11 The Roman Empire was an age filled with conquest, civil war, and war with other civilizations. Battle reliefs on sarcophagi reflect their times. Ancient Roman culture was distinctly different from Greek culture, and Roman art found the Greek “language” of art expression inadequate for expressing Roman culture. The Romans developed their own unique language to communicate their ideas. Through this new language, Romans were able to articulate their own culture and experiences more accurately and engage viewers on a new level. By exploiting these visual features, Romans were able to conquer art, and, through exaggeration, lead to authenticity.


Coarelli, Filippo. 2000. The Column of Trajan. Rome.

Fantham, Elaine, ed. 2010. Lucan, De Bello Civili, Book II. Cambridge.

Kleiner, Diana E. E. 1993. Roman Sculpture. New Haven, CT.

Kleiner, Fred S. 2010. A History of Roman Art: Enhanced Edition. Boston, MA.

Morton Braund, Susanna, trans. 2008. Lucanus. Civil War. Oxford.

Pollitt, J. J. 2006. Art in the Hellenistic Age. Cambridge.

Schefold, Karl. 1968. Der Alexander-Sarkophag. Berlin.

Ramage, Nancy H. and Andrew Ramage. 2005. Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ.


Note 1
Pollitt 2006:39.

Note 2
Pollitt 2006:38.

Note 3
Schefold 1968:47.

Note 4
Pollitt 2006:38.

Note 5
D. Kleiner 1993:302.

Note 6
Coarelli 2000:90.

Note 7
Coarelli 2000:70.

Note 8
Ramage and Ramage 2005:270.

Note 9
D. Kleiner 1993:350.

Note 10
Lucanus De Bello Civili 2.203–206 Fantham.

Note 11
Morton Braund 2008:23.

Note 12
D. Kleiner 1993:388.

Note 13
F. Kleiner 2010:272.

Note 14
F. Kleiner 2010:272.

Note 15
Lucanus De Bello Civili 2. 152–153 Fantham.

Note 16
F. Kleiner 2010:172.

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