portonaccio sarcophagus


Ancient Worlds - BBC Two 

Episode 5 “The Republic of Virtue”

The Portonaccio sarcophagus is a 2nd-century ancient Roman sarcophagus found in the archaeological site of Portonaccio, quarter of Rome. It was probably used for the burial of a Roman general involved in the campaigns of Marcus Aurelius (a military insignia which can be seen on the upper edge of the casket identifies the deceased as Aulus Iulius Pompilius, official in command of two cavalry squadrons during the Marcomannic Wars -German and Sarmatian Wars).

The marble sarcophagus shows on its front a symbolic -and very dramatic- picture of a battle between Romans and Germanic tribesmen staged on two levels. The composition focuses on the progress of a Roman horseman (his face unfinished) in a melee of soldiers, spears and horses. The Romans are delivering savage blows, devastating their enemies -undoubtedly winning the battle. The bloody scenes are framed by standards and standing prisoners who, while sharing the same space as the figures battling are larger and do not engage in the action. 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 harsh lines and drilling result in great contrasts between the light and dark. The extreme contrast of shadow and deeper lines makes the expressions of pain and suffering more painful. 

The sarcophagus would serve as a reminder to visitors to the necropolis of the strength, valor and achievements of this high ranking officer.

Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome, Italy

Germanic shields

Who knows what ancient germanic shields look like? Evidence for this is very thin archaeologically, but there is evidence for unimaginable types. I give you the ‘Portonaccio Sarcophagus’. A highly skilled piece of stone carving depicting a hellish Roman campaign against germanic tribesmen in the 2nd century BC (Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome). Although it is from the 2nd century, germanic warfare (including equipment), according to historians, did not change much until about the 5th century, when the coming of the germanic 'round shield’ age arrived.

A quick glance and there are immediate similarities with the British 'hide shaped’ shield. Unfortunately, the real accuracy of the shields doesn’t look good as there are romanticizations of this scene. However, a person simply cannot dream up such designs to this length, especially since this was meant to represent a real generals campaign trail. One of the German men to the right hand side is protrayed quite accurately in detail, with his 'suebian knot’ hair style. Nonetheless, you may have to take this carving with a pinch of salt but it is still quite valuable