The Portonaccio Sarcophagus is a large sarcophagus that can be found in the Palazzo Massimo, one of the four locations of the Museo Nazionale Romano. It is an impressive piece of second century craftsmanship. The sarcophagus was found in 1931 near the Via Tiburtina and can be dated to around 180. It is now on display in one of the rooms of the museum. This room is mostly dark and the lighting brings out the images on the sarcophagus very well. These images are very detailed and it pays to take a closer look.
On either end of the lid is a large head of a bearded man. The two heads are identical. I have not found a scholarly source explaining whose heads we see and the information panel in the museum simply refers to “two corner masks”. My guess is that the heads represent the two-faced Roman god Janus, who was the god of doors, passages and time, but also of the beginning and the end. One of the heads is looking into the past, the other is looking into the future. Since a decorated sarcophagus is about the life and death of the deceased person, it seems like a good choice to include Janus on the coffin.
In the centre of the lid, we see the deceased and his wife (image on the right). They are holding each other’s right hand, a posture known as dextrarum iunctio. The faces of the man and woman have not been completed, so there can be serious doubt about whether the sarcophagus was ever used by the person it was intended for. According to the information panel in the museum, on the left of the lid we see the wife educating her children, while on the right, the husband accepts the submission of his barbarian enemies and shows his clementia. This is a familiar theme in Roman art (and propaganda). This specific Roman was obviously a high-ranking officer and the sarcophagus celebrates his military career. On the lid, we see the officer sitting on a folding chair, with two bearded men kneeling in front of him. Although this part of the lid has sustained some damage, it seems likely the officer on the chair had no face to begin with. The wife is again shown near the far left end of the lid and her face is missing again too.
It is somewhat of a mystery why these faces were never completed. Perhaps the Roman officer fell out of favour with the emperor or died somewhere in the provinces, far away from Rome. So who was this sarcophagus made for? The museum claims we can make an educated guess about the officer’s identity by looking at some of the decorations on the sarcophagus, especially the military insignia. The caption refers to “the eagle of the Legio IIII Flavia and the boar of the Legio I Italica”, which supposedly allow us to connect the sarcophagus to one Aulus Julius Pompilius, who – according to the museum – commanded two cavalry squadrons detached to these two legions during the Marcomannic Wars of the emperor Marcus Aurelius.
There are, however, a few problems with this explanation. There seems to be no reason to specifically connect the eagle to Legio IIII. Every Roman legion had its own eagle, and the emblem of the Fourth Legion Flavia Felix was a lion. The reference to the First Italian legion is probably more convincing. Although two other legions had a boar as their emblem – Legio X Fretensis and Legio XX Valeria Victrix – only Legio I Italica seems to have been fully involved in Marcus Aurelius’ Marcomannic Wars.
There seems to be some confusion about what part of the decoration actually constitutes the boar. Professor Robert B. Kebric in his very interesting essay about the sarcophagus – in which he compares the opening battle of the movie Gladiator to the images on the Portonaccio Sarcophagus – argues that it is the thing between the two crossed sticks to the left of the eagle (see the image above and to the right; more on these sticks below). He refers to it as a “high-snouted, curled lipped boar”. But the object he is referring to is clearly a draco, a military standard used by the Roman cavalry. It is basically a windsock with a dragon’s head and a long winding tail, and it also appears on another famous sarcophagus, the Ludovisi sarcophagus which is in the Palazzo Altemps, also part of the Museo Nazionale Romano. I am quite confident that the boar identified on the sarcophagus is actually the animal to the right of the eagle. Although I only have my digital photographs, it is clear that this animal has the manes or neck hair so often seen on boars, for instance in the emblem of Legio XX.
Did Aulus Julius Pompilius command two cavalry squadrons? Not much is known about his life, but if he served under Marcus Aurelius and was subsequently implicated in the plot against Commodus, that might explain why the sarcophagus was presumably never used. Surely a traitor did not deserve such a splendid final resting place for his ashes. Other sources indicate that Aulus Julius Pompilius was not a cavalry commander, but the commander of the two legions. So while it is quite possible that this sarcophagus was intended for him, there is no definitive evidence. Note that, like on the lid, the face of the central figure on the coffin has not been completed.
The decorations on the coffin represent a chaotic battle scene, with brave Romans (mostly cavalry, but supported by infantry) defeating their ‘barbarian’ opponents. The central figure is the deceased, a Roman officer on horseback charging into the ranks of the barbarians. He is slightly larger than the other figures in the scene. It is not quite clear whether he is holding a spear or a cavalry sword, or in fact something completely different. A sword – the typical cavalry sabre called the spatha – seems unlikely, as there is no hand guard and the object looks more like a stick than a blade. I first assumed the object was a spear shaft, with the part with the spear tip missing (these parts of the decorations would have been quite thin and vulnerable). However, the aforementioned professor Robert B. Kebric convincingly argues that the officer is not holding a broken spear. He refers to the items wielded by the officer and the horseman to his left as “battle sticks” and “battle truncheons”. To quote Kebric:
“The “Battle Truncheons” that Pompilius and his lieutenant wield, however, appear to have a handgrip, indicated by the fact that Pompilius holds his at its base with his index finger opened over the top edge of it for a tighter grasp. If there were no grip there, his fingers would be closed all together like those of his fellow horsemen who hold lances. In fact, no one can hold a lance or a sword in the way Pompilius holds his Truncheon – nor could his lieutenant hold any other type weapon but a Truncheon with his hand positioned in the backward manner it is and still be able to strike downward on an enemy’s head.”
There is no Latin word for a battle truncheon. The weapon may have been some kind of mace, but it remains somewhat of a mystery (Kebric does refer to a possible second example on Marcus Aurelius’ column). The officer wears a cuirass and has a crested helmet with a very distinctive plume on his head. The horseman on his right has scale armour (lorica squamata). The level of detail is very impressive: note the image of a ram on this soldier’s helmet.
Most of the Romans in the scene are fighting on horseback, but one foot soldier just below the officer caught my attention (see the image above). The legionary is wearing the famous segmented armour that we always see in Hollywood movies (lorica segmentata). This is evidence that this kind of armour was still in use during Marcus Aurelius’ reign. It can also be seen on Marcus Aurelius’ column in the Piazza Colonna in Rome. The legionary is carrying an oval shield in his left hand, not the more familiar rectangular scutum. It is flat, but it may have been convex in reality. The soldier is wearing a helmet which is probably of the Imperial Gallic type. He is striking his opponent with his sword. What is interesting, is that the legionary has his sword belt (balteus) over his right shoulder. He would thus be carrying his sword on the left if it was sheathed. In earlier times, legionaries wore their swords on the right. Like most of the Romans on the sarcophagus, the soldier has a full beard. While the Romans preferred the clean-shaven look for soldiers and officers alike for hundreds of years, beards became fashionable again during the reign of Hadrian (117-138).
The lower corners of the front of the sarcophagus show us two pairs of what are presumably prisoners. Each pair consists of a man and a woman. One of the women has her dress dishevelled and one of her breasts is bare. These figures are about the same size as the central horseman. Above them are two tropaea or ‘trophies’. A tropaeum was a monument erected on the battlefield after a victory, consisting of a cross from which battle gear (spolia: armour, helmets, weapons, shields) of defeated enemies was hung. The level of detail is again quite impressive. Note for instance the face on the round shield of the left tropaeum and the scabbard suspended from the shield (image on the right).
One final mystery on the sarcophagus is the object directly to the right of the eagle (see the large picture above). What on earth is it? It looks like an oversized birdhouse. It is most likely this is some kind of standard as well, since we already have the eagle, the boar, the draco and the vexillum, i.e. the square flag above the officer in the centre. It could be the imago, the image of the emperor carried by the imaginifer. However, it is hard to make out any image. It is perhaps possible that the image was to be added later, like the faces of the officer and his wife. But we cannot be sure and the object remains puzzling.
Update 5 March 2022: images have been improved.