Buying a Pre-Fab Sarcophagus in Ancient Rome (Yes, Really)

It seems that everywhere you turn in Rome, you see a sarcophagus. They’re in museums IMG_5522and churches. They’re being used as flower-pots and fountains. Few visitors, however, stop to wonder what happened to their contents! Were the remains of the person inside simply dumped, so his tomb could be recycled into a decoration for some rich Roman’s garden?

The history behind these sarcophagi, many of which are beautifully carved, is complicated. After all, we had a few barbarian invasions here over the centuries; and the intruders IMG_5527were known to break into tombs, searching for jewels and other riches which ordinarily were not there…

But in many cases, it’s safe to say that these tombs were never used. With some obvious exceptions, which were custom-carved for the very wealthy, ancient Roman sarcophagi were mass-produced, and sold after the fact to whoever wanted them–much like coffins are today.

IMG_5537How do we know this? Easy: look at the face. There are many examples of sarcophagi where the rest of the decoration is sharply defined, but the face of the person who is supposedly inside is an unidentifiable blur, like you see here. No, this isn’t because the weather wore down the sculpted features–it’s because those features were never sculpted at all.

The fact is, an ancient Roman stone-mason who specialized in sarcophagi would routinely carve lovely tombs with all sorts of adornments–but he would leave the face blank. When the time came for a buyer to purchase a sarcophagus, he would tell the sculptor whose body was going to be inside. If it was his wife, for instance, the customer could describe how she looked, her hairstyle, her favorite earrings or necklace … and the stone-mason would then carve those features into the blank space.

And the undeniable fact that there are so many ancient sarcophagi found today with busts which were never carved at all tells us that they were never purchased. It’s pretty simple!


Occasionally, it’s true, we run into an unusual situation which is less than clear. This sarcophagus appears to have been reused: as you can see, the face on this bust had been IMG_5530carved, but at a later date it was reworked. Since we know nothing about the person inside, it’s impossible to determine what the story was–but there must have been one.

When you visit Rome’s museums armed with this information, a lot of what you see suddenly makes more sense. Some sarcophagi were definitely intended for a specific person whose features can still be seen in the skillfully carved image on the front; others appear to be pre-fab tombs which never found a buyer. And yes, there are quite a few with decorations that don’t include an image (carved or not) of the person inside; in these cases we’re left in the dark.

Did you know that? Wouldn’t it make sense to visit Rome’s museums and other sites in the company of a knowledgeable guide, who can explain fascinating details like this?