How do you deal with the loss of a loved one? Trying to cope with death and emotional attachment is part of human nature. The hope for those we have lost to be in a better place was as present in ancient times as it is today in the modern world.

To explore this concept, we will be turning to ancient Rome during the second and third centuries AD. The Romans would often depict their departed loved ones among mythological scenes on marble sarcophagi. Marble sarcophagi were a popular funerary tradition during the later Roman period. To learn more about the history of sarcophagi, click here.

The Romans were known for expressing ideas through mythological allegories. One did not need to be a scholar to understand the myths depicted. Instead the living could read the iconography and understand the message it was portraying. The myths depicted on marble sarcophagi had no single claim or statement about the deceased. Rather, these images had several different readings and contained multiple meanings to contemporary viewers.[1]

There is a wide range of myths and other scenes depicted on sarcophagi, but by far the most popular subjects were of sea scenes, Bacchic celebrations, and myths depicting sleep. All of these subjects were both aesthetically pleasing and assuring for the living to view. While in mourning, it would be comforting to see their loved ones among blissful mythological scenes enjoying the pleasures of the afterlife and escaping the exertions of real life.

This website explores the idea of Roman sarcophagi used as a coping mechanism for the living as they dealt with the loss of their loved ones by means of depicting those they have lost in happy and joyous mythological scenes. The reason that these three images of paradise were the most popular imagery found on sarcophagi is because they were comforting to those in mourning to see that their family members or friends have “gone to a better place.”



[1] Paul Zanker, “Reading images without texts on Roman sarcophagi,” Res 61/62 (2012): 167