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Museum Report: Sarcophagus with Scenes from the Life of Achilles

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Sarcophagus with Scenes from the Life of Achilles; artist anonymous;
180-220 AD; marble, very high-relief carving, some elements are sculpture in the round;
52x83x57 in; well preserved with some damages on the right and left sides.

I. This is a three-dimensional rectangular object with a massive lid that has a shape of a flat couch with two figures reclining on it. Even though both figures look alike and their faces are unfinished, they are slightly different. The figure in the front is a female. She has long hair, small breast, and a round face. The other figure is a male. He has a beard; details of his face are more masculine and angular. Both figures have long clothes. All four sides of the rectangle are carved. The back is not visible because the object is placed up against the wall. The central figure on the front relief is a man holding a big shield. He steps into a chariot with two horses and listens to another man who probably shows him a direction. Another naked male figure is on the ground. He seems to be tied up to the chariot. There are other male figures on this relief; some of them are naked, and others are dressed. They all are in different movement postures. On the right side is a relief of a young naked male with a big shield. His right leg is in front; his head is turned to the opposite direction. He is probably leaving and is looking at those who stays. A woman puts her hands around the young man's neck and falls on her knees. On the right side is a bearded half dressed man seating on a chair with three women by his side. There is another bearded man on the left in a hat. All are looking at the young man. The relief on left side doesn't have much action. The central figure is a man in a helmet with a shield behind him. He is being help by other men: one is in the front, and the other is on the side attaching some details to his garments. II. This work of art has a three-dimensional form. The front section is highly polished and has a very smooth texture. The right and left sections have some damages; therefore, their textures are rough. The space on the front and right sections is fully used. Their scenes are very dynamic. The proportions of some figures were not completely observed. For example, horses on the relief in the front are very small comparing to humans. Another example is the man on the left section. The sculptor had to give him an unnatural posture awkwardly bending his legs, so that the man did look taller than the central figure. III. The subject-matter of all three visible sides of the sarcophagi is the scenes from the Achilles' life. He is a Greek mythical hero of the Trojan War. The subject-matter of the relief on the right is the discovery of Achilles hiding among the daughters of Lykomedes. According to the myth, Achilles’ mother, Thetis, wants to prevent her son's death and sends him to the court of Lykomedes on the island of Skyros where Achilles is hidden among the young girls. Soon he is discovered by Odyssey (the bearded man on all three relieves) with whom he goes to Troy. On the relief in the front, Achilles mounts his chariot to drag Hector's body before the walls of Troy. Hector was the son of the Trojan king Priam. Hector mistakenly killed Achilles' friend Patroclus. Overwhelmed by his grief, Achilles kills Hector. The relief on the left side depicts Achilles putting on his armors with Odysseus' help. The relief in the back is unfinished and is not visible. Its subject-matter is the scene of the battle between the Greeks and the centaurs, which is unrelated to the Achilles' life. IV. Cremation was the most common funerary practice in Roman Empire. Under the influence of Christianity, inhumation became widespread by the third century CE. As a result of this shift, a sudden demand for sarcophagi and their decoration arose. Sarcophagi were subject of commerce in Roman Empire. Some of them were custom made, but the majority were manufactured in workshops and stored until a "customer" was found. Therefore, the faces of the couple on the lid are unfinished: features of deceased and other details could be added later. V. This sarcophagus could belong to the Greek culture. First of all, the subject-matter of this work of art was taken from the myth about the Greek hero Achilles. Second of all, people on this work of art look alike, and none of them has any emotions except for the archaic smile that is inherent to Archaic Greek sculptures. Many males are nude. This is another feature of Greek sculptural art called heroic nudity. Wet drapery is another originally Greek element. All this aspects identify this sarcophagus as Greek work of art, but we should remember that Romans were great admirers of Greek art. They copied many Greek sculptures and adopted their sculpture techniques and traditions. Moreover, sarcophagi were not used in Greece. The Greeks buried deceased in graves. Inhumation was Roman funerary practice. This sarcophagus was probably made in Greece, but this work of art belongs to Roman culture. Bibliography:

James Hunter, Achilles, Encyclopedia Mythica, “n.d.” 1997, revised 2005,, May 5 2012.

Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Concise Western History (Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2010).

Toynbee, J.M.C. Death and Burial in the Roman World. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1971).

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