Fragment of a sarcophagus for a soldier

A fragment from a side of a sarcophagus worked from one piece of marble. The piece is in high relief and represents a scene from a battle. We can see an almost complete figure of a soldier. As part of the face is missing, we cannot be sure of the identity, but it could be of a particular hero or warrior. The body is in semi-profile, with the figure looking to the right, where a battle is taking place. He is raising his shield, holding it in his left hand, while with his right arm he would have been holding a sword in the hand and brandishing it toward the enemy.

The relief has a flat background with an arched vertex above the figure indicating the upper limit of the cube. Therefore, this element corresponds to a scene on the front of the cube, as the smooth upper surface marks the area where the lid would have been in contact. It is clear to see how skilled the workmen who carved this scene were: the background has been carefully smoothed, the anatomy of the soldier rendered in detail and in depth. The head of the figure - in high relief – is almost separated from the rest of the background. It is, without doubt, an example from an important tomb given its technical and artistic level.

This male torso is part of a complete sculpture of a soldier. Although it might seem that he is wearing the armour directly over his body, it was normal under the armour to also wear a tunic or colobium which fell to the knees and which had short sleeves. In sculptures on a larger scale or on a life-size scale, such tunics can be seen. In this case, particularly as the legs are missing, we cannot be sure that the artisan sculpted this garment.

The breastplate follows the form of the chest and the lower belly. It is decorated with a double ribbon knotted over the stomach. The leather straps or baltea fall down directly from the bottom of the breastplate over the legs and the arms. At both shoulders and at each side of the waist the straps that attached the front of the armour to the back can be easily seen. The quality of the iconic representation of the armour stands out.

Given the position of the soldier mentioned above, it is clear that he was making an attack, and therefore it suggests that this lone soldier would have formed part of a larger, more complex scene, with other participants. It would represent a particular battle, a myth, a memorable one, a battle or scene from a war: these were common themes in the iconography of Roman sarcophagi. There are many examples of different sizes, and of greater or lesser quality, both to be found in museums as well as in private collections.

It was usual in Roman culture to bury the dead in coffins, most of which were made from stone, while there are also some examples made from lead. All had some sort of decoration, even if this was merely a description or a figurative or geometric decoration. The most notable ones were so large that the figures in relief were more than a metre high. There are quite a number that have been worked so deeply that they have almost free-standing figures. Although the decorative motifs of the container and the lid varied depending on the zone where they were found, it is easy to recognise that they are sarcophagi from the Roman period or culture.

The Roman sarcophagi were used in funerary practices in Ancient Rome. Those made from carving marble and limestone in relief were characteristic of the burial of the elite in the 2nd to the 4th century AD. Although scenes from mythology were widely used in different sites, the reliefs from sarcophagi make up “the richest source of Roman iconography”. There are examples which, instead of decorations of mythological elements, are decorated with scenes depicting the occupation or events in the life of the deceased, such as military scenes, among others.

Most of them were made in cities of importance, such as Rome and Athens, and they were exported to other cities. In other locations, tombstone steles continued to be the most common recourse. They were always expensive elements, therefore used by the elite, especially those relatively few examples made with carvings. Most of them were relatively simple, with inscriptions or symbols or garlands. Sarcophagi have been divided into various styles, depending on the area of production.

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