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The Death of Myth on Roman Sarcophagi


A perplexing development sweeps over Roman sarcophagi in the middle of the third century: the unexpected Entmythologisierung or "demythologization" of their imagery. These lavishly carved coffins, often sculpted with figural scenes of the most astonishing workmanship, had featured bold mythological characters since the very beginning of their mainstream production in the early second century, when inhumation had replaced cremation as the favored means for disposing of the dead. Evocative testament to Rome's ongoing love affair with classical Greek culture, they derived visual force from their resonance with an artistic tradition centuries old while providing catharsis and consolation to those still living. How then to make sense of this imagery's peculiar withering and subsequent abandonment on later sarcophagi, as mythological narratives were truncated, gods and heroes were excised, and genres featuring no mythic content whatsoever -- such as the late third century's endless procession of sarcophagi featuring bucolic shepherds and studious philosophers -- came to the fore? That it must represent a major shift of some kind in the cultural values of the Late Empire is usually taken for granted, given the central position occupied by sarcophagi in the Roman visual imagination of the third century. But no consensus exists regarding its precise significance; and most explanations proposed for the shift groan and collapse under the weight of other evidence.

This enigmatic phenomenon -- the extinction of mythological imagery on Roman sarcophagi -- is what this dissertation decisively reframes. For critical traction it turns to both archaeological and textual evidence, examining the altered spatial relationships between house and tomb that came to dominate in the Late Empire. This reveals what was at stake in sarcophagi's demythologization: new demands among the living, manifested across all social registers, for greater proximity to their dead. The dissertation thus integrates recent archaeological findings, social-scientific analysis of religious change, and analysis of hundreds of Roman metropolitan sarcophagi with a humanist's eye for shifts in cultural values as refracted through funerary art. The results will be of interest to Classicists, Archaeologists, and Art Historians as well as scholars of religious history and early Christianity.

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