Marble funerary slab decorated with a skeleton

Roman, 2nd century AD
From Rome, Italy

The slab originally covered the front of a loculus, a small compartment in a family tomb or catacomb, into which the remains of the dead were placed. The Greek inscription can be translated as 'Passer-by, as you look at a fleshless corpse, can you say whether it was Hylas or Thersites?'. Hylas, one of the Argonauts, was the epitome of male beauty, while Thersites was renowned in mythology for his ugliness. The inscription mocks the vanity of both the dead and the living in a wry, though gentle way.

This slab is typical of many funerary monuments of the Roman and Greek worlds, in that it attempts to attract and hold the attention of the passer-by. There was no real concept of immortality as now exists in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but the dead could aspire to a place in the memory of the living, and a grave monument or marker was instrumental in this. The skeleton was a symbol of the fleeting nature of life, and the need to enjoy each moment as it comes. It was a common motif in Roman art, from mosaics to silverware.

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More information

Bibliography

A.H Smith, A catalogue of sculpture in -2, vol. 3 (London, British Museum, 1904)

S. Walker, Memorials to the Roman dead (London, The British Museum Press, 1985)

Dimensions

Height: 40.500 cm
Width: 32.500 cm

Museum number

GR 1805.7-3.211 (Sculpture 2391)

GAA9287

Townley Collection

Location

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