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Identity in the funereal world

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Finds from ancient cemeteries tell stories of people who were once alive: the tombs allow to obtain information on the life of the deceased.

The sarcophagi with the deceased at a banquet

The sarcophagi that portrayed the deceased dining at a banquet, or lying at rest, became widespread in Roman funerary art since the early imperial age. The depiction was very realistic: men are generally shown holding a cup or a garland, women almost always in the act of resting or sleeping. The banquet was in fact considered a male activity and it was improper for a Roman matron to be portrayed in the act of drinking wine. The people, however, who chose to be depicted in death lying down to enjoy the pleasures of life wished to leave a vestige of their economic well-being, for their clients, friends and family.

"Philosophers" sarcophagi

From the second half of the third century A.D. the custom of carving sarcophagi with reliefs celebrating the value of culture and philosophical education began to be widespread. In the so-called “philosophers” sarcophagi, the dead were depicted in the typical dress of intellectuals, while reading, philosophising or teaching, often in the company of professional philosophers or the Muses. Being portrayed as a philosopher was a way to exalt the philosophical culture or lifestyle, an ideal to be realized in the reflection on the right way to live. This kind of depictions was not limited to particularly well-educated people only, but was common in the upper classes in general.

Sarcophagi with portraits in a clypeus

From the third century A.D. the custom of portraits on sarcophagi became more widespread, at first attached to the bodies of gods, and later more realistic. Portrait busts were also very common, often within a clypeus (round shield) and supported by allegorical or mythical figures such as marine creatures, Victories, Cherubs, Satyrs and Centaurs, which symbolised the idea of happiness and freedom. The rest of the surface of the sarcophagus was decorated with the most diverse objects and scenes: Dionysian figures, mythical events, masks and baskets of flowers.

The portraits of the deceased on funerary monuments

In ancient Rome, portraying the dead was a widespread custom since the Republican age, both for the elites and for the lower and middle class. There are numerous funerary stelae and reliefs depicting the deceased with greater or lesser realism, often in settings or attitudes to do with private life, the craft or official position held in life. The richest funerary monuments were often decorated, both inside and outside, with sculptures depicting the deceased members of the family that owned the tomb.

The finds from ancient cemeteries tell stories of people who were once alive. Indeed, the tombs allow to acquire information on the life of the deceased: their social status, bonds of affection and identity.

In fact, the portraits of the deceased, the funeral inscriptions and the grave goods bear witness to the way the living reconstructed the identity of the deceased so that their memory would be shared and renewed every day by all. Identity and memory were therefore recreated through an effective system of signs: the more or less truthful portraits or depictions of the deceased, the objects through which social affiliation was recognizable, and the story of their life in writing or pictures.