Representing Women on Roman Sarcophagi
How people are commemorated in death tends to say more about society’s expectations than about them as individuals; major life experiences and personal characteristics are usually presented in terms that relate to the ideals and aspirations of the age. Roman women were no exception. More often than not the imagery used in their memorials represented their personal experiences in terms of what contemporary society valued in women, so that we learn more about what their roles were expected to be than what they experienced first hand. This essay looks at some ways in which women and their lives were depicted on sarcophagi from imperial Rome. As funerary memorials, the scenes carved on these sarcophagi provide many examples of women depicted in conventional social roles, as wives and mothers within the family. These reflect and reaffirm the qualities expected of elite women in contemporary Roman society, where their sexuality and ability to bear children were vital to the continuation of the family. Yet sarcophagi also include images that offer alternative views of Roman womanhood, where women appear to transgress accepted social roles, particularly in terms of power and gender. Some of these images are interestingly, if not uniquely different from the rest because they were formed in the production and usage of the sarcophagi themselves.
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