Funeral genii, or Erotes, are a very common motif in Roman sepulchral art, particularly on sarcophagi. They are generally depicted with various attributes such as garlands, wreaths and torches which should be interpreted as funerary symbols. The torch-bearing genii symbolize the soul of the deceased and sometimes, especially when there are no wings, they are identified with Thanatos (Death). If it is shown upside down, the torch alludes to the extinguishing of life, whereas if it is shown upright with the burning flame, it has been interpreted as a symbol of hope. Often the genii are also found outside sepulchres, at the sides of doors, as guardians and keepers of the tombs.
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Sarcophagi of the Merolli - FATA collection
The 161 surviving objects of the Merolli - FATA collection mostly consist of funerary material, mainly sepulchral inscriptions and fragments of sarcophagi.
The production of sarcophagi with a sea theme goes from the beginning of the second century AD to the early fourth century A.D. These figures were depicted as couples in love: the Nereids, of human form, daughters of the sea god Nereus and Doris, are featured along with aquatic creatures like the masculine Tritons, with human torso and fish head and tail, or marine Centaurs, with horse body and fish tail. These monsters hold masks or portraits of the deceased or they play special instruments. The sea symbolises a place of timeless happiness that bodes well for a happy life in the hereafter.
Large numbers of sarcophagi that depict the seasons were produced around the end of the third century AD. The seasons were represented either through the gifts of nature, woven into garlands or offered in baskets, or in the shape of Erotes or child genii that carry flowers and fruits to symbolise spring, ears of wheat for the summer, bunches of grapes for the autumn and olives for the winter. The figures of the seasonal genii are often combined with other figures that symbolise happiness and prosperity: Victories, Cupids, Dionysus and his retinue, Mother Earth. The seasons, with their alternation, symbolise the idea of eternal return and offer consolation and comfort.
The Merolli-FATA collection is mostly made up by funerary material, mainly sepulchral inscriptions and fragments of sarcophagi.
Some evidence suggests that in many cases they were unearthed directly in the suburban agricultural land that the Merollis owned near the most important consular roads, such as the Appian Way, along which, in Roman times, stretched vast burial areas.