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Corpse Wine: The Fermentation of the Dead in Roman Sarcophagi

March 21, 2024 @ 5:30 pm CDT

Swallow Hall 101, University of Missouri
507 S 9th Street
Columbia, MO 65211 United States

Lecturer: Mont Allen

Why are roughly one-ninth of all surviving Roman sarcophagi shaped not like rectangular boxes with squared-off ends, but instead like lenoi: those large tubs or vats with rounded ends in which Greeks and Romans pressed grapes and fermented the juice to make wine, an association underscored by the Dionysiac imagery that often appears on the sides of these lenoid sarcophagi? What purpose did it serve within the funerary context? Or to put it most bluntly: Why did so many Romans want to imagine their dearly departed as resting within a wine vat?!

I suggest that it explicitly invited viewers — bereaved family members — to reconceive the corpse’s decomposition and moldering within the vat-like casket in Dionysiac terms: as a process of fermentation like that which transformed grapes into wine. It offered mourners a comforting fantasy, to reimagine the deceased’s putrefaction as instead a transubstantiation into a delicious elixir, something elevated, intoxicating, and divine. Exploring a wide variety of evidence — archaeological and taphonomic — this talk examines the plausibility of such an argument, with special attention paid to what we can reconstruct about how Romans would have liquefied within their sarcophagi.

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March 21, 2024
5:30 pm CDT
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Swallow Hall 101, University of Missouri
507 S 9th Street
Columbia, MO 65211 United States
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