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Ancient literary sources (5)
- Assos: Perseus Encyclopedia
At Assos in Troas, there is found a stone of a laminated texture, called "sarcophagus." It is a well-known fact, that dead bodies, when buried in this stone, are consumed in the course of forty days, with the sole exception of the teeth. According to Mucianus, too, mirrors, body-scrapers, garments, and shoes, that have been buried with the dead, become transformed into stone. In Lycia, and in the East, there are certain stones of a similar nature, which, when attached to the bodies of the living even, corrode the flesh.
- Pliny the Elder, The Natural History
Sarcophagus properly an epithet of lapis, a flesh-eating stone from Assos in the
Troad, in which Pliny (H. N. ii. 211; xxxvi. 161) says bodies were buried, and
consumed all but the teeth within forty days. The word has come to be commonly
used for any coffin (e. g. Juv. x. 172), and especially for a coffin in stone
with sculptural decorations. The introduction of these into Greece and Rome was
due to foreign influence; and they are not found in either before the period of
decline. In Egypt they existed from the earliest period, and they were thence
introduced into Phoenicia. But the object among these people, as well as in Greece
and Rome, was to preserve the body, not to destroy it; hence the name sarcophagus
is peculiarly inappropriate.
We may distinguish the coffin for the reception of the body, inside
the tomb, often plain and sometimes cut in the solid rock, from the ornamental
erection of a similar shape placed in a conspicuous position to serve as a monument.
But the ornamentation of the one was naturally enough often transferred to the
The Egyptian sarcophagus was, as the dwelling of the deceased, sometimes
made in the form of a house; and a similar architectural form is found in Greece
and Rome. The earliest sarcophagus showing the influence of Greek style comes
from Cyprus (see image);
here we see the myth of the Gorgon and a hunting scene, on other sides a banquet
and a chariot group. Unfortunately, there is no trustworthy record of its discovery.
In Lycia, the tomb often takes the form of a large sarcophagus mounted on a base;
scenes of life, such as fights and banquets, are favourite subjects. In Greece
we do not find sarcophagi till the Hellenistic period, when foreign influences
were common. They were at first, like those of Asia Minor, intended as visible
monuments outside the tomb; and accordingly we find that the reliefs are never
allowed to interfere with the lines of the architectural form (see image).
The subjects are often purely decorative; often children are represented in various
employments, perhaps because their short and plump figures best suit the field
to be filled. Mythological subjects also occur, such as the combat with the Amazons,
and a few other scenes.
Sarcophagi of stone with architectural decoration were made in Rome
as early as the third century (e. g. the famous ones from the tomb of the Scipios);
but the marble ones with scenes in relief belong to imperial times, and are not
common till the second century A.D. These form by far the most numerous class
of sarcophagi, and are usually meant when the word is used. Partly because they
were usually inside the tomb, partly from want of artistic feeling, the reliefs
are less subordinate to the structural form; they are often crowded with figures,
and even the corners are not clear (see image).
The back is usually plain. The execution of these varies from fair Graeco-Roman
work to the last and worst attempts of classical art; but the style does not rise
above that of handicraft, and figures and groups are repeated from conventional
models. The variety of subject is such that it can only be touched on here. A
most extensive gallery of mythological scenes, Dionysiac and other processions,
Muses, and Cupids may be found on them; also scenes from daily life, and sometimes
a succession of scenes, often representing the various ages of man. Sometimes
the same is represented by mythological or mystical symbolism.
Here sarcophagus has been taken to mean stone coffin, but the word
is often loosely used for a coffin of other material, especially of terracotta.
Fine painted terra-cotta coffins, of archaic period, have been found in Asia Minor;
and also in Etruria they are frequent, ornamented with painting or reliefs.. A
figure of the deceased often reclines on the top, as in the smaller Etruscan urns
or boxes for the ashes of the dead, in stone, which may also be regarded as a
variety of sarcophagus.
This text is from: A dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology, 1873 (ed. William Smith). Cited Aug 2005 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks
- A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890) (eds. William Smith, LLD, William Wayte, G. E. Marindin)
Sarcophagus (sarkophagos). Literally, "fleshdevouring." A name given to a kind of limestone quarried at Assos in Troas, and remarkable for possessing the peculiar power of consuming or eating away the flesh and bones, with the exception of the teeth, of a body enclosed within it, in the short period of forty days (Pliny , Pliny H. N.xxxvi. 27). On account of this property it was extensively employed for making coffins, when the corpse was buried entire without burning; and thence the term came to be used in a general sense for any kind of coffin or tomb, without regard to the materials of which it was made.
- Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898)
- Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary
- Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon
- Sarcophagus: Perseus Lookup Tool