This attractive relief was part of a large marble
sarcophagus, designed to commemorate an
important Roman individual. The original
composition depicted an entire assembly of
figures in high relief. Two women are preserved
on this segment: standing in the foreground is a
young woman, facing the viewer, and behind her
a much older companion who looks on.
Clearly the focus of the composition, the young
woman has an expressive face with rounded
cheeks and piercing eyes. She is dressed in a
chiton belted below the breasts and has a
himation draped over her shoulders and head.
Her hair is neatly combed in a scalloped
arrangement, following the fashion popularized
by the Empress Julia Domna during the early
third century AD. The coiffure confirms that this
is a portrait of a lady who lived sometime during
the Severan dynasty.
At that time the practice of cutting portrait heads
on figures on sarcophagi reliefs was a favourite
conceit of the Roman world. The wealthy
individuals who were able to commission such
sarcophagi often selected famous mythological
episodes as the subject for their monument and
had the story personalised by carving the head of
the protagonist to resemble their own likeness.
The deceased was therefore glorified by
appearing in a mythic context, taking on the
guise of a famous hero or heroine and acting out
the expected role within the prescribed narrative.
On this piece the young woman has chosen to be
shown as a heroine of Greek myth. She is
accompanied by an elderly servant woman whose
exaggerated features indicate a very advanced
age. The servant woman is a stock figure who
appears on many mythological sarcophagi,
particularly those depicting Phaedra’s story of
forbidden love or the tragic tale of the
enchantress Medea. Although it is difficult to
discern which of these myths is shown on this
beautiful relief, the piece successfully captures
the pathos of Greek tragedy and transports us
into a world where myth and reality loose all
distinction, and where real people present
themselves as actors in famous legends from the
For mythological sarcophagi in general see, C.
Robert, ‘Die antiken Sarkophag-Reliefs,’ vol. 3.2.