Sponsored by: AIA-Dayton Society, Richard and Carole Cocks Art Museum, Miami University
A lecture by Mont Allen, Southern Illinois University
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 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 — art historical, archaeological, and taphonomic — this talk examines the plausibility of such an argument, with special attention paid to the visual material and to what we can reconstruct about how Romans would have liquefied within their sarcophagi.