Part of the front of a child's marble sarcophagus; greyish marble with large crystals from Proconnesus or Thasos. Four boys race chariots in the Circus Maximus at Rome. At each end of the scene are metae, pillars marking the limits of the course. In between are two domed buildings and columns supporting beams with four ovae and two dolphins, apparently used to mark the progress of the race.
- Made in: Rome
- (Europe,Italy,Lazio,Rome (province),Rome)
- Height: 34.2 centimetres
- Length: 115.5 centimetres
- Thickness: 5 centimetres (circa)
Smith, III, 328 no. 2318, 329 fig. 46; Reinach, RepRel II 500, no. 1; G. Lippold, VatKat III. 2, 66 no. 609 (wrongly cited as Sc.2378); C. Belting-Ihm, JBZMusMainz 8 (1961), 203 n. 36; Koch-Sichtermann, 123 n. 1, 124 n. 2; Humphrey, 202, 203 fig. 103.
Four bigae are driven by charioteers, each dressed in protective harness. The first and third charioteers turn to watch the progress of their immediate competitors. On the ground lie sparsores with (left to right) a flask to throw water from the Euripus at the horses' heads, two picks to break up the track [[amendment: the 'picks' are actually the axles and wheels of the chariots, turned with their backs to us]], and an overturned basket, which held sand for scattering on the track. Each biga is accompanied by a mounted escort, the hortator.(1) In the background are some of the familiar features of the barrier in the Circus Maximus.(2) This relief is similar to one now in Florence, apparently a re-use, dating to the early fourth century AD, of a second-century mythological sarcophagus.(3) At each end are metae. Behind the first biga are two dolphins set on a column (restored). Behind the second, a Corinthian order supports four ovae. In the centre is an obelisk, and between the third and fourth biga is the dome of a shrine or pavilion.(4)
The crowded composition and careless execution of the London relief suggest that it is to be dated towards the end of the third century AD: the horses' manes are strikingly rendered with rows of drilled dots, their docked tails are similarly unnaturalistic and the hair of the drivers and escorts is crudely drilled with short channels and irregularly spaced holes.
This is one of two known examples of mortal charioteers portrayed on a child's sarcophagus. Both are of late date, rather than transitional as Humphrey suggests.(5) They extend to children's sarcophagi the trend of later Roman sarcophagi to represent mortals engaged in activities formerly reserved for gods, heroes and other mythological figures, and represent the tendency of later third-century sarcophagi to portray scenes from public life.
1. G. Rodenwaldt, Jdl 55 (1940), 16; Humphrey, 198.
2. Humphrey, 196 -203 gives an account of representations of the Circus Maximus on sarcophagi.
3. M. Lawrence, Atti del 2. Convegno di Studi Umbri (1965), 130, fig. 12.
4. For a full discussion of the features of the Circus Maximus, see now Humphrey, 255-92.
5. Humphrey, 202 n. 67, 203 fig. 102-3. The two sarcophagi are compared by Koch-Sichtermann, 123-4.Cook 2011, nr. 149:
Hamilton’s account, dated 11 October 1775, lists only two objects: ‘Piranesi’s basso relievo’ at £4.13s. and a ‘bason’ at £20 (TY 8/111). Hamilton nowhere specifies the subject of the relief he acquired from Piranesi, and its identity must be inferred from other evidence. Fortunately the sequence of objects listed in his various accounts is followed fairly closely in ST 1 (fo. 21r). There before a circular ‘bason’ at £20 Townley lists a ‘Bass relief of Cupids driving chariots in ye circus’ at £4. This effectively identifies as Piranesi’s the circus relief, for which there is no other record of acquisition.
‘A Bas relief, the front of a sarcophagus, representing the Mystical chariot races of the Circus _ Four bigæ accompanied with horsemen, and attendants on foot, are in full course round the Spina, at each end of which appear the Metæ, and along the middle are arranged the ova Castoris, Delphini, ova; ædes Solis, obeliscus, &c. The bodys of the charioteers are bandaged round in the usual manner with cords. It is of a coarse style of sculpture, and about four feet six inches long’ (TY 12/3, unplaced).
Acquired from Piranesi by Hamilton on Townley’s behalf for 20 Scudi (letter dated 17 August 1775, TY 7/593), for which Hamilton charged £4.13s. on 11 October (TY 8/111). Townley later ignored the shillings when entering the relief in ST 1 (fo. 21r). By 17 December 1775 the relief was on its way from Rome (TY 7/600), and on 30 December Hamilton wrote that he had the Bill of Lading in hand (TY 7/601). It was enclosed in a letter of 16 January 1776 (TY 7/603).
Towards end of III (Walker). late III AD (Huskinson). Early IV (Schauenburg)
* Townley drawing 2010,5006.1877.24
- Synopsis of the Contents of the British Museum (post-1808#) XI.10, 3.
- A. H. Smith, A Catalogue of Sculpture in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, British Museum, Vol. III (London 1904), no. 2318
- Susan Walker, Catalogue of Roman Sarcophagi in the British Museum (CSIR Great Britain Vol. II, fasc. 2, London 1990), 20, no. 11 (bibl.), pl. 4.
- Konrad Schauenburg, Die antiken Sarkophagreliefs V.2. (Die stadtrömischen Eroten-Sarkophage. 3 Zirkusrennen und verwandte Darstellungen) (Berlin 1995), 86, no. 106 (bibl.), pls. 40.1 (front), 46.1-2 (details).
- Janet Huskinson, Roman Children’s Sarcophagi (Oxford 1996), 21, no. 1.10, pl. 6.1.
Not on display
The upper right corner, including the metae, most of the dolphins, and the head and shoulders of the first hortator, is restored. There are minor restorations to the upper and lower frame, the fourth biga and horses, and the meta at the left end.
- Topographic representation of: Circus Maximus
- (Europe,Italy,Lazio,Roma (province),Rome,Circus Maximus)
Acquired by Charles Townley before 1793. Provenance unknown.
Greek & Roman Antiquities
Part of the front of a child's marble sarcophagus: boys race chariots in the Roman circus. At each end of the scene are metae, pillars marking the limits of the course. In between are two domed buildings and columns supporting beams with four eggs and two dolphins, apparently used to mark the progress of the race.
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Object reference number: GAA8883
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