properly an epithet of lapis,
a flesh-eating stone from Assos in the Troad,
in which Pliny (Plin. Nat. 2.211
) says bodies were buried, and
consumed all but the teeth within forty days. The word has come to be
commonly used for any coffin (e. g. Juv.
), and especially for a coffin in stone with sculptural
decorations. The introduction of these into Greece and Rome was due to
foreign influence; and they are not found in either before the period of
decline. In Egypt they existed from the earliest period, and they were
thence introduced into Phoenicia. But the object among these people, as well
as in Greece and Rome, was to preserve the body, not to destroy it; hence
the name “sarcophagus” is peculiarly inappropriate.
We may distinguish the coffin for the reception of the body, inside the tomb,
often plain and sometimes cut in the solid rock, from the ornamental
erection of a similar shape placed in a conspicuous position to serve as a
monument. But the ornamentation of the one was naturally enough often
transferred to the other.
The Egyptian sarcophagus was, as the dwelling [p. 2.596]
the deceased, sometimes made in the form of a house; and a similar
architectural form is found in Greece and Rome. The earliest sarcophagus
showing the influence of Greek
Fig. 1. Sarcophagus from Golgoi in Cyprus. (Cesnola.)
style comes from Cyprus; here we see the myth of the Gorgon and a
hunting scene, on other sides a banquet and a chariot group. Unfortunately,
there is no trustworthy record of its discovery. In Lycia, the tomb often
takes the form of a large sarcophagus mounted on a base; scenes of life,
such as fights and banquets, are favourite subjects. In Greece we do not
find sarcophagi till the Hellenistic period, when foreign influences were
common. They were at first, like those of Asia Minor, intended as visible
monuments outside the tomb; and accordingly we find that the reliefs are
never allowed to interfere with the lines of the architectural form (fig.
2). The subjects are often purely decorative; often children are represented
in various employments, perhaps because their short and plump figures best
suit the field to be filled. Mythological subjects also occur, such as the
combat with the Amazons, and a few other scenes.
Fig. 2. Sarcophagus found at Patras. (|
Sarcophagi of stone with architectural decoration were made in Rome as early
as the third century (e. g. the famous ones from the tomb of the Scipios);
but the marble ones with scenes in relief belong to imperial times, and are
not common till the second century A.D. These form by far the most numerous
class of sarcophagi, and are usually meant when the word is used. Partly
because they were usually inside the tomb, partly from want of artistic
feeling, the reliefs are less subordinate to the structural form; they are
often crowded with figures, and even the corners are not clear (fig. 3). The
back is usually plain. The execution of these varies from fair Graeco-Roman
work to the last and worst attempts of classical art; but the style does not
rise above that of handicraft, and figures and groups are repeated from
conventional models. The variety of subject is such that it can only be
touched on here. A most extensive gallery of mythological scenes, Dionysiac
and other processions, Muses, and Cupids may be found on them; also scenes
from daily life, and sometimes a succession of scenes, often representing
the various ages of man. Sometimes the same is represented by mythological
or mystical symbolism.
Here sarcophagus has been taken to mean stone coffin, but the word is often
loosely used for a coffin of other material, especially of terracotta. Fine
painted terra-cotta coffins, of archaic period, have been found in Asia
Minor; and also in Etruria they are frequent, ornamented with painting or
reliefs.. A figure of the deceased often reclines on the top, as in the
smaller Etruscan urns or boxes for the ashes of [p. 2.597]
Fig. 3. Front of Sarcophagus from Genzano. The labours of
Hercules. (Brit. Mus.)
the dead, in stone, which may also be regarded as a variety of
(No complete work on the subject exists, but one has been undertaken by the
German Institute. Meanwhile, isolated articles must be consulted, e. g.
Matz, Arch. Zeitung,
1872, p. 11 sqq.;
Milchhöfer, Annali d. Inst. Arch.
p. 87 sqq.;
Overbeck, Geschichte der
ii. pp. 475 sqq.