From the second century onward, well-to-do Romans were often buried in stone sarcophagi. Most sarcophagi from Rome have lavish relief decoration on the front, low relief on the short sides, and an undecorated back (which would have faced the wall of the tomb chamber). The reliefs depict narratives from the public and private life of the Roman upper class, as well as hunt and battle scenes. Many reliefs depict Greek myths in which certain elements are emphasized so as to relate to the deceased. The Berlin sarcophagus of a Roman general is a rare case, however, in that it presents the deceased’s public office and civic virtues directly beside a Greek myth.
The front of the sarcophagus is divided into two halves by a pillar in the center. Similar pillars appear on the edges of the short sides as well, setting the two different scenes within a single overarching architectural space. At the far left, the virtuous deceased is shown in a formula very familiar to the ancient viewer: wearing a toga (the official garment of Roman citizens) and senatorial shoes, the deceased extends his hand toward his wife. The gesture is one of concordia (harmony) and symbolizes the rite of marriage. In the next scene to the right, the deceased wears the armour of a high-ranking officer and carries out a sacrifice. The victim, a bull, is led in from the side. Two assistants to the slaughter, victimarii, are about to kill the animal while the deceased pours a libation from a bowl – an expression of his pietas, the fulfillment of pious acts toward the gods. Standing behind the deceased in both scenes are beautiful young women representing concordia and pietas.
The righthand half of the relief illustrates the Greek story of the handsome young hunter Adonis. Adonis was killed by a boar sent out of jealousy by Mars, but each year was allowed to return to the earth for six months to see his beloved Aphrodite. The themes of death and reawakening can be viewed in relation to the deceased shown in the lefthand scenes; and moreover, the mythological death by hunting accident may reflect the death of the Roman general.
The figural compositions of the two halves differ markedly from each other. At left the figures stand in a compact row, as if processing across a frieze on a public monument. In the Greek myth at right, by contrast, they are spaced out in the manner of Hellenistic reliefs. Above the arched entrance to the boar’s cave, Adonis’ two companions appear to occupy a more distant plane – as do the Dioscuri riding in from the upper left.
The elegant figures with elongated proportions and the dry, linear treatment of the drapery suggest a date around AD 200. The portrait heads were later reworked. Ever since its discovery, presumably in the mid-sixteenth century, this sarcophagus has been the subject of several drawings on the grounds of its unusual iconography. It resided in the collection of a Florentine family, the Rinuccini, from 1727 until the beginning of the twentieth century. At that time it was sold in the USA and subsequently, in 1987, put up for auction in New York.