Front of sarcophagus with lion-hunt

Inv. Scu 221

Front of a large “lenòs” (tub-shaped) type sarcophagus. It depicts an animated lion hunting scene, with lionesses, fallen hunters, warriors, framed on the top left and right by two lion heads.
On the left is the personification of Virtus, the Roman goddess of courage and military valour. She is wearing the distinctive helmet with a long crest, a thin chiton down to her knees that leaves her right breast bare, a balteus hanging from her right shoulder, the sheath of the sword on her left side; a mantle fastened on her left shoulder with a large broach, and elaborate “mullei” (sandals) made of wild animal skin with paws hanging on the sides.

The deceased is in the center of the scene riding a horse.  He has the features of a mature man and his cloak fluttering behind him suggests movement. He wears a lorica decorated with scales over a short tunic that is folded and fastened right above his waist.  A paludamentum is fastened by a broach on his right shoulder and flutters on the back at full speed.  He wears high tied mullei on his feet, while the sheath of the sword hangs from the balteus on his left side.

The portrait dates to the mid-3rd century AD.  The cubic structure of the head, the elongated proportions of the face, and the hair parted in the middle of the forehead are stylistic features that support this date. The monumental size of the sarcophagus and the stylistic rendering of the hair of the hunters with long “flaming” locks also supports the age of the piece.

The sarcophagus probably belonged to a high ranking Roman officer or an important magistrate. Its imagery can be interpreted as a figurative theme that celebrates the courage shown by the deceased in life and also as a symbolic victory over death (the fallen lion) and the consequent immortality earned by the deceased through his virtus.

This work belongs to the tradition of large sarcophagi with lion hunting that was mainly popular the 3rd or 4th century AD. They were produced in workshops in Rome around AD 230, inspired by sarcophagi decorated with mythological scenes representing the departure and boar hunt of Hippolyte as well as myths connected to the adventures of Adonis and Meleager.  The main changes were that the boar was replaced by the nobler lion, and the heroic nudity of the protagonist was modified, clothing the hunter with military outfit.

The hunting theme appears in official Roman art during the reign of Hadrian. The round reliefs reused in the Arch of Constantine establishing a model of virtus that included not only military activity or hunting, but also the individual qualities of the emperor. Hunts were also staged in the public amphitheatre: the Venationes, which in turn influenced various genres during the 3rd and 4th century AD.

The sarcophagus was found on the via Appia, near Vigna Moroni.