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Sarcophagus with Marine Thiasos

Roman art

The long side of this sarcophagus is decorated with a marine thiasos, in the centre of which is a portrait bust of the deceased inside a round shell. The complex marine procession is arranged symmetrically to the sides, covering the entire surface and composed of pairs of ichthyocentaurs with Nereids and numerous winged putti.

The sculpture, which was depicted in a drawing by Cassiano Dal Pozzo in the seventeenth century, was in the fourth room of the Villa Borghese in 1832 and in its current location in 1841.

The iconographic motif of the marine thiasos became popular in Roman funerary art, specifically sarcophagus decoration, in the late Antonine period. The hairstyle worn by the deceased, which is similar to that in depictions of Orbiana, wife of Emperor Alexander Severus, suggests a date during the first half of the third century CE.

Object details

prima metà III secolo d.C.
white marble
height cm 57; length cm 207; depth cm 66

Borghese Collection, depicted in a drawing by Cassiano Dal Pozzo in the early seventeenth century (Vermeule 1966, p. 41, fol. 54, no. 8608). Mentioned in the fourth room of the Villa Borghese in 1832 and in its current location in 1841(Nibby 1832, p. 115; Nibby 1841, p. 922, no. 13). Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 51, no. 152. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 19th century - Restoration work. From the left: the centaur’s left hoof and the left knee of the Nereid. The arm, left tibia and right knee of the musician putto at the top. The second pair: the hoof of the ichthyocentaur; the third pair: the nose and left hoof of the ichthyocentaur and the nose, left cheek and part of the hair of the Nereid. The upper part of the border was added.
  • 1996–97 - Liana Persichelli


This decorated panel, which is the front of a fully preserved sarcophagus, was depicted in a drawing by Cassiano Dal Pozzo in the early seventeenth century (Vermeule 1966, p. 41, fol. 54, no. 8608). In the Villa Borghese, Nibby mentioned it in the fourth room in 1832 and then in its current location in 1841 (p. 115, no. 8; p. 922, no. 13).

The relief is of a symmetrically arranged marine thiasos, in the middle of which is a large round shell held up by two ichthyocentaurs. The creatures have thick, clearly defined locks of hair and seem to be turned, with the slight twist of their torsos and heads, towards the two Nereids sitting on their backs The goddesses are nude with the exception of the drapery that billows up over their heads (a stylistic device called velificatio) to then drape over a leg. At each end of the panel, there is a pair composed of a Nereid and an ichthyocentaur. The putti are used to fill in every blank spot in the scene, in a kind of horror vacui.Beneath the shell, there is an anguiped creature hitting a sea monster called a ketos on the right, which Rumpf identified as Scylla, the unfortunate nymph who a jealous Circe turned into a terrible monster (Ovid, Metamorphoses 13-14). In the middle of the shell, there is a portrait bust of the deceased, who is wearing a chiton and a himation arranged to form an arc. 

The theme of the marine procession in a continuous frieze with a central motif first appeared on Roman sarcophagi in the second quarter of the second century CE. At first, the central image was of Oceanus (as we see in a similar sarcophagus in the Borghese Collection, inv. LXXXVII), which was then replaced in the early third century by the imago of the deceased in a clipeus, which was often in the shape of a shell, surrounded by the symmetrically arranged figures of the procession. The meaning of the marine thiasos in relation to the image of the deceased has been widely debated. In the seventeenth century, Buonarroti interpreted it as a procession of mythical beings who accompany the soul of the deceased to the afterlife: ‘In molti sepolcri scolpirono de’ geni marini per corteggio delle anime, che andavano agli Elisi’ (‘many sarcophagi are sculpted with marine spirits to accompany the souls who were going to Elysium’; p. 44). This theory was accepted by many scholars, including Cumont in 1942 and Brandenburg in 1967 (p. 166; p. 195). Rumpf departed from the theory of eschatological meaning, imagining a purely decorative function, based on the presumed absence of literary and epigraphic documentation to corroborate the interpretation, besides the use of the iconographic theme in non-funerary contexts (1939, pp. 131–132). According to other scholars, the subject was steeped in hedonistic messages, visually circulated through images of joy, nudity and eroticism, arguing that the presence of the Meerwesen on the sarcophagi alludes to the atemporal blessedness of the afterworld (Sichtermann 1970a, pp. 214–215; Sichtermann 1970b, pp. 236–238; Zanker, Ewald 2004, pp. 117–119, 132–134).

Both theories can in fact be considered, with the images of the marine thiasos on sarcophagi evoking all the multiple semantic facets of the chthonic world, from the ones relative to the call to an idyllic afterworld to those relative to ‘death by water’, understood as the symbolic journey of the soul to the Isles of the Blessed (Sichtermann 1963, p. 422; Quartino 1987, p. 52; Zanker, Ewald 2004, p. 133). 

The hair of the deceased portrayed on the Borghese sarcophagus, parted in the middle and arranged in regular, wavy, slightly puffy locks, seems similar to that of Orbiana, wife of Alexander Severus and Augusta from 225 to 229, as depicted in a portrait head in the Louvre (Kersauson 1996, pp. 426–427, no. 197). This link would provide a terminus post quem for the relief and confirm Rumpf’s theory dating it to the third century CE (1939, p. 29, no. 74, pl. 24).

Giulia Ciccarello

  • F. Buonarroti, Osservazioni istoriche sopra alcuni medaglioni antichi, Roma, 1698, p. 44.
  • A. Nibby, Monumenti scelti della Villa Borghese, Roma 1832, p. 115, n. 8.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1840, p. 22, n. 13.
  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno 1838, Roma 1841, p. 922, n. 13.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano del Palazzo della Villa Borghese, Roma 1854 (1873), I, p. 25, n. 13.
  • E. Z. Platner, Ch. Bunsen, E. F. W. Gherard, Beschreibung der Stadt Rom, III, 3, Stuttgarta 1842, p. 252, n. 13.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 42.
  • M. Dressler, Triton und die Tritonen, II, Würzen 1893, p. 14, n. 31.
  • G. Giusti, The Borghese Gallery and the Villa Umberto I in Rome, Città di Castello, p. 44.
  • A. Rumf, Die Meerwesen auf den antiken Sarkophagreliefs, in “Die antiken Sarkophagreliefs”, V, 1, 1939, p. 29, n. 74, tav. 24.
  • F. Cumont, Recherches sur le symbolisme funéraire des Romains, Paris 1942.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, (III Ed.) Roma 1954, p. 18.
  • R. Calza, Catalogo del Gabinetto fotografico Nazionale, Galleria Borghese, Collezione degli oggetti antichi, Roma 1957, p. 18, n. 210.
  • H. Sichtermann, s.v. Nereo e Nereidi, in “Enciclopedia dell’Arte Antica, V, 1963, pp. 421-423.
  • C.C. Vermeule, The Dal Pozzo-Albani Drawings of Classical Antiquities in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, “ Transactions of the American Philosophical Society“, 56, 2, Philadelphia 1966, pp. 5-77.
  • H. Brandenburg, Meerwesensarkophage und Clipeusmotiv. Beitrage zur Interpretation romischer Sarkophagreliefs, in ”Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts“, 82, 1967.
  • H. Sichtermann, Beiträge zu den Meerwesensarkophagen, in “Archäologischer Anzeiger”, 1970a, pp. 214-215.
  • H. Sichtermann, Deutung und Interpretation der Meerwesensarkophage, in “Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts” 85, 1970b, pp. 224-238.
  • P. Moreno, Museo e Galleria Borghese, La collezione archeologica, Roma 1980, p. 18.
  • P. Moreno, S. Staccioli, Le collezioni della Galleria Borghese, Milano 1981, p. 102, fig a p. 92.
  • L. Quartino, Frammento di sarcofago con thiasos marino. Ricostruzione ed interpretazione,in “Xenia” 14, 1987, pp. 51-58.
  • P. Baldassarri, Frammento di sarcofago con thiasos marino e conchiglia con ritratto del defunto (inv. 56966), in Museo Nazionale Romano. Le sculture, 1/10, Roma 1988, pp. 16-19, n. 18.
  • N. Icard-Gianolio, A. Szabados, s.v. Nereides, in “Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae”, VI, 1992, p. 799, n. 187.
  • K. Kersauson, Catalogue des portraits romains : Musée du Louvre, II, De l’année de la guerre civile, 68-69 après J.-C., à la fin de l’Empire, Paris 1996, p. 426-427, n. 197
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 165, n. 17b.
  • P. Moreno, A. Viacava, I marmi antichi della Galleria Borghese. La collezione archeologica di Camillo e Francesco Borghese, Roma 2003, p. 231, n. 219.
  • P. Zanker, B. C. Ewald, Mit Mythen leben. Die Bilderwelt der römischen Sarkophage, München 2004.
  • C. Parodo, La morte per acqua. Iconografia di un thiasos marino su un frammento di sarcofago inedito del Museo Civico “Giovanni Marongiu”, Cabras (OR) 2018.
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008482, P. Moreno 1976; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020.