Sean P. Burrus, Remembering the Righteous: Sarcophagus Sculpture and Jewish Identities in the Roman World (Duke University, 2017).
From the 2nd to 5th centuries C.E., the sarcophagus was the height of burial fashion in the Roman world. Wealthy Romans across the Mediterranean purchased sarcophagi not only to protect their remains, but to display their social status, to demonstrate their cultural sophistication, and to memorialize and narrate their sense of self. At least in this regard, elite members of Jewish communities at this time were no different from their non-Jewish neighbors. The ways in which Jewish patrons adopted, adapted, and avoided certain motifs and modes of sarcophagus burial offer an important window into Jewish culture in late antiquity.
In Remembering the Righteous: Sarcophagus Sculpture and Jewish Identities in the Roman World, I examined two groups of sarcophagi from the Jewish communities of Beth She'arim and Rome and explored how the different provincial and cosmopolitan contexts of each influenced the choices and tastes of Jewish patrons. At Beth She'arim, the site of a major ancient necropolis located in the rural Galilee, 125 limestone and 20 imported marble sarcophagi have been discovered. A smaller number of marble sarcophagi, some two dozen, are known from the Jewish catacombs of Rome. Though they are few in number compared to the larger body of Roman sarcophagi, they are nonetheless among the best preserved and most elaborately decorated funerary artifacts that survive from Jewish antiquity.
My basic approach was to situate the sarcophagi and their sculptural programs according to three scales of context: (1) Local, (2) Provincial; and (3) Pan-Mediterranean. This geographic structure captures the complex nature of the myriad visual resources and cultural traditions circulating in the late ancient Mediterranean by breaking them into overlapping scales of interaction. The narrative unfolds chapter by chapter from the provincial Galilean Jewish population to the contemporaneous community of Rome at the heart of the empire. Each chapter isolates a different group of sarcophagi belonging to Jewish patrons by identifying the cultural and visual resources they engage, and places them in conversation with the broader corpus and conventions of Roman sarcophagus sculpture.
I began by surveying the major, local traditions of stone sculpture in Palestine (Chapter 3) in order to counter the dominant narrative that most sarcophagi from Beth She’arim were copies of Roman imports. Instead, my study revealed how ‘Roman influence’ is often heavily mediated by local history and local sculptural traditions. Indeed, it was primarily through these local traditions—and not via the influence of imported marble sarcophagi—that many of the tropes and motifs traditionally associated with ‘Roman’ visual culture entered the sculptural programs of sarcophagi at Beth She'arim (Chapter 4). I concluded that the choices of the patrons and sculptors at Beth She’arim reveal not only a cultural memory of earlier, Second Temple period sculptural traditions, but a deep stylistic and technical engagement with local visual resources, an indebtedness that is rarely acknowledged.
From this point, I broadened my perspective to consider how sarcophagi and their patrons from Beth She’arim fit into the province of Roman Syria (Chapter 5). The sarcophagi excavated at the nearby necropolis of Tyre served as a case study against which I compared the sarcophagi from Beth She'arim. I found that both communities shared many of the same patronage and viewing practices as well as similar tastes in the style and sculptural programs on sarcophagi, from the gabled lid to a preference for simple designs in local stone. Above all, three forms of sarcophagi imported from Proconessus in Asia Minor—‘pedimental gable,’ quarry-state and ‘finished’—occupied such a prominent position in both corpuses and exerted such an outsized influence on the local production at both Beth She'arim and Tyre, that the type should be considered characteristic of the province.
Other sarcophagi belonging to Jewish patrons demonstrated a broader familiarity with sarcophagus styles popular across the Roman Mediterranean (Chapter 6). This was particularly the case for members of the Jewish community in Rome who had access to one of the largest sarcophagus markets in the ancient world by virtue of their cosmopolitan location. Not surprisingly, they tended to opt for sarcophagus styles that were in fashion, with popular tropes drawn from ‘neutral’ figural imagery including seasons and cupids. Among Jewish patrons, the popularity of such neutral imagery may have been driven by a desire to avoid the allegorical association between the deceased and mythic figures commonly associated with narrative, mythological sarcophagi. The leaders of the Jewish community, identified by titles and honorifics in their inscriptions, likewise purchased fashionable sarcophagi (and especially favored the strigilar style). However, they preferred more visually restrained models, with little to no figural imagery and prominent inscriptions. Jewish sarcophagus patrons at Beth She’arim also had the means and ability to specially commission and import sarcophagi from Attic and Asiatic producers. Like patrons at Tyre, they imported sarcophagi with scenes of Greek myth and epic battles, including more than one Amazonomachy, a depiction of an epic battle between Greeks and Amazons. Contrary to traditional interpretations of this evidence though, I argued that for the Jewish patrons who acquired these sarcophagi, the sculptural programs must have been much more than ‘mere decoration.’
Ultimately, what came out in this investigation was the active and creative approach Jewish patrons took to the choices involved in sarcophagus burial. The use of sarcophagus burial by Jewish patrons was a highly variable mode of cultural interaction, representing an ongoing negotiation of Jewishness by different individuals from different communities in the context of enduring cultural exchange. By not reducing the sarcophagi to ‘copies’, and by understanding the social functions of funerary monuments in constructing self-narratives, memory and elite display, I located significant agency on the part of sarcophagus sculptors and Jewish patrons. At the same time, I consider how different settings—provincial and cosmopolitan—influenced the choices made by sarcophagus patrons and found that the majority of Jewish patrons at both Beth She'arim and Rome were familiar with ‘Roman’ visual culture first and foremost as it existed in their local environment.
I also found extensive evidence of shared culture and commonalities in patronage practices and attitudes towards visual culture between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors in both Beth She’arim and Rome. Wealthy Jewish sarcophagus patrons behaved much like other local and provincial elites in the Roman world. They desired the same kinds of funerary monuments, were comfortable with Roman material, cultural and visual resources, and shared conceptions about appropriate forms of memorialization and representation. From this perspective, the Jewish sarcophagus patrons at Beth She'arim and Rome look more or less like any other local people—especially local elites—negotiating the cultural changes brought on by Roman rule and the increasing connectivity and cultural exchange in the Mediterranean in Late Antiquity.
Other visual artifacts from Jewish antiquity—including mosaics, wall paintings, epitaphs and the luxury arts—all deserve the same socio-cultural treatment given to the sarcophagi here. My next project, Image and Empire: Jewish Identities and Visual Arts under Rome, will apply the approach developed here to a series of case studies of different forms of visual artifacts from the Jewish diaspora in Late Antiquity. As these artifacts may have been used by different members of the community than the sarcophagi, including less wealthy Jews, it will be interesting to see whether we can observe similar patterns of interaction and participation in local, provincial, and pan-Mediterranean culture.
Sean P. Burrus is currently the Bothmer Research Fellow in the Dept. of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Next year Sean will join the Frankel Center at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor as a Research Fellow. You can find him on Twitter @seanpburrus and at www.seanpburrus.com