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Festooned Sarcophagus with Nereids Bearing the Arms of Achilles; front section

Roman art

This slab fragment was part of a sarcophagus of which there are other surviving portions (Room VIII, inv. CCXXVII; Entrance Hall, invv. IIL, XXXV, XXXVII). The scene depicts two Erotes – a recurrent motif in Hellenistic art also frequently found in Roman art – with plump, childlike bodies holding up a garland of flowers, leaves and fruit. The lunette created by the garland contains a Tritoness, a minor marine divinity part of Poseidon’s retinue, headed to the left holding two greaves. The episode referred to is narrated by Homer in the Iliad, Thetis and her sisters the Nereids bearing the arms of her son Achilles which had great success and fortune in Greek and Magna Graecia ceramics in particular. The type belongs to a series of sarcophagi decorated with garlands produced between the first and fourth century CE, which was particularly appreciated in the Hadrian and Antonine Ages; the marine retinue – an allusion to an idyllic afterlife condition – decorating the lunette is among the most widespread themes in Roman funerary sculpture.

Object details

130-150 d.C.
blue-veined white marble
altezza cm 52, larghezza cm 80

Borghese Collection (pre-1671?); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 53, no. 179. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1828, Antonio D’Este
  • 1996/97, Liana Persichelli


The slab fragment, set in a modern frame, includes two Erotes with plump childish figures and soft facial features framed by wavy curls, holding up a garland of leaves, fruits, berries and ribbons. Above the garland appears a Tritoness, facing left, with her body ending in two fish tails; her right hand holds a fold of her mantle fastened to her neck that opens revealing her body, while in her left hand she holds two greaves. The scene corresponded to the right section of the front of a sarcophagus, complemented in the centre and on the left by the slabs – set on modern bases – displayed in the Entrance Hall, IIL, Room VIII, CCXXVII (specular to this one), while the short sides are displayed in the Entrance Hall (XXXV; XXXVII).

It is likely that the present fragment was among those transferred in 1671 together with statues and bas-reliefs from Villa Pinciana to Palazzo Borghese in Campo Marzio to decorate the garden, and that were later relocated to Villa Pinciana, before Giuseppe Gozzani, Minister of the House of Borghese in charge of the new family collection, entrusted its restoration to Antonio D’Este in 1828.

The type belongs to a long series of sarcophagi decorated with garlands, characterised by the presence of the relief festoon motif that was very popular in Rome from the late age of Trajan to the early years of Hadrian’s rule (most recently Herdejürgen 1996). The theme of the marine thiasos ornamenting the lunette is among the most widespread in Roman funerary sculpture and can be interpreted as a reference to an idyllic otherworldly condition (Parodo 2018). In this specific case, the subject is one narrated in Homer’s Iliad, with Thetis and her sisters the Nereids bearing the arms of her son Achilles just forged by Hephaestus (Iliad, XVIII, vv.615-616; XIX, vv. 1-13), an offering that will determine the hero’s tragic fate (Odyssey, XXIV). The theme of the handing over of arms was very popular especially on Attic and, later, Italiote ceramics (Barringer 1995, 17 ff., 141 ff.; Icard-Gianolio, Szabados 1992, pp. 812-814). Later, in Proto-Hellenistic vase production and, especially, in Apulian ceramics from the end of the fourth century BCE, the motif became even more widespread, becoming one of the most popular iconographic subjects (see Roscino 2015, pp. 56-57).

An important contribution to the propagation of the motif in Hellenistic and Roman art was the group ‘with Neptune, Thetis, Achilles, the Nereids sitting on dolphins, cetaceans, or hippocampi, then the Tritons and the procession of Phorcus, Pistrices and many other sea creatures’ attributed to Skopas (possibly Skopas minor) that Pliny (Naturalis Historia 36, 4, 26) records as being in the area of the Temple of Neptune in Rome.

Technical and stylistic details suggest the Borghese sarcophagus may date to the Andrian or Early-Antonine Age.

Jessica Clementi

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  • C. Parodo, La morte per acqua. Iconografia di un thiasos marino su un frammento di sarcofago inedito del Museo Civico “Giovanni Marongiu”, Cabras (OR), in “Layers” 3, 2018, pp. 1-20.
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008545, P. Moreno 1976; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2021