Drusus´ Funerary Honors

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In spite of differing views about how the imagery on sarcophagi should be read, one commonly acknowledged goal in interpreting Greek myths on Roman sarcophagi is to identify the way Romans understood the myths in their own society, so that we might better understand their use of these myths in the context of death.  The group of Roman sarcophagi depicting the triumphal return of Dionysos from India is particularly useful for this purpose, because the Roman version of the myth is intertwined with a fundamentally Roman institution. Previous interpretations of this group of sarcophagi, from an initial reading of the symbolism of the triumph of life over death to, more recently, a general understanding of scenes of Dionysos as exhortations to enjoy bacchic pleasures in the face of mortality, have focused primarily on the mythological qualities of Dionysos.

This paper will follow a combination of visual, historical and mythological threads of the triumphal tradition in order to examine the depiction of Dionysos in triumph in a funerary context.  Evidence of triumphal processions appearing in republican tombs reflects the early tradition of commemorating specific achievements.  In the midst of Augustus’s restrictions on triumphal honors, two consolation texts negotiate the postmortem attribution of triumphal honors to Drusus by describing his funeral procession in terms of the triumph he earned but died too soon to receive.  In light of recent studies that have brought attention to the idealized nature that the Roman triumph develops after Augustus’ transformations, I will suggest that this group of sarcophagi perform a similarly consolatory function by appealing to historical and symbolic associations with the triumph through the figure of Dionysos.

Our earliest evidence for the visual tradition of triumphal associations in a funerary context comes from republican tomb paintings.  The images of a procession in the republican tomb of Quintus Fabius on the Aesquiline, also known as the Arieti tomb, have been dated according to varying interpretations between the second half of the third and second half of the second centuries BCE.  Some interpretations have seen the procession as a funeral procession or a magistrate’s journey to the underworld accompanied by games, though most recent interpretations follow Colini’s interpretation of it as a triumphal procession [1]. Overlapping qualities in the nature and depiction of these processions may blur the distinction, but either way, an overall scheme that associates a prominent figure with military feats is discernible.  The fragmentary nature of the evidence discourages absolute conclusions, but we can identify features in the procession that reappear as essential elements in later triumphal imagery.

A watercolor made at the time of the excavation incorporating fragments now missing shows a procession with a quadriga preceded by lictors carrying fasces [2]. One surviving fragment showing a lictor wearing a short, red military tunic with a white stripe carrying fasces [3], and another that shows three similarly dressed lictors moving in the same direction, are probably part of the procession [4]. The two missing fragments reportedly showed the quadriga and more attendants. In addition to signs of a formal procession, there are combat scenes that have been interpreted either as games or as battle. In one, a figure wearing a shield on the left arm raises the right arm in a fighting stance [5]. On another, a soldier fights on his knees with a shield on his left arm and a sword in his right [6]. Yet another fragment depicts a bearded, naked, front-facing figure with raised arms [7]. The interpretation of this figure varies the most widely, depending on how the overall program of the tomb is understood.

Coarelli, among others, follows Colini in interpreting the reconstruction of the tomb imagery as a triumphal procession rather than a funeral procession for the following reasons: the presence of four lictors suggests a triumphing general with the rank of praetor (although if there were originally more lictors, he could have been of consular rank); the lictors wear the red sagum, which, according to Cicero, was worn only for military campaigns or, inside the city, for the triumph; and in a funeral, we might expect the lictors to carry the fasces upside down. Coarelli further argues that the front-facing man with raised arms represents a crucified figure, alluding to the practice of torturing a prisoner at the conclusion of the triumph. He combines this reading with his supposition about the rank of the central figure to conclude that the imagery commemorates a specific battle that resulted in the triumph of M. Aquilius in 126 BCE. While Moreno, whose interpretation of this figure as a telamon supports his understanding of the imagery as indicating a different battle, at Telamon in Etruria, he also sees the quadriga and lictors as elements of a triumphal procession, in particular the one conducted by L. Aemilius Papus in 225 BCE.

With only fragmentary evidence, assigning these paintings to a specific triumph with any certainty is not possible, but we can recognize the quadriga accompanied by attendants as a fundamental element of the basic formula of later triumphal symbolism. Interpreting the scenes as triumphal, and even working with the premise that the scenes commemorate specific triumphs, makes sense in the context of Polybius’s observation that the triumphs achieved by prominent Romans or their ancestors were signified by special togas worn by the actors in funeral processions (Hist. 6, 53, 7). During the late republic, triumphal honors in a funerary context commemorated the specific achievement of the deceased or one of his ancestors. A triumph achieved during life increased the honors received in death.

We can see the iconographical development of the processional elements found in the Arieti tomb through a group of urns in Volterra from the second century BCE, featuring processions with a prominent figure riding a chariot pulled by four horses, preceded by attendants [8]. It has been disputed whether these processions should be taken as evidence for an Etruscan prototype for the triumph, or whether they indicate a different kind of procession originating in Etruria that adapted triumphal qualities as the region came under Roman control. As is the case with the imagery from the Arieti tomb, overlapping qualities in the nature of different processions also leads to variation in the interpretation of what kind of procession is represented on these urns. They have been read as funeral processions, the last voyage of magistrates on their way to the underworld, or commemorations of the installation ceremonies of public officials.

Though the interpretation remains ambiguous, the compositional resemblance between the processions on the Volterran urns and the visual pattern of the triumph that becomes familiar in later triumphal imagery is unmistakable. The triumphal quadriga on a relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome, dated 81-90 CE, moves from right to left rather than from left to right, but the stance of the horses and the position of the toga-wearing general in his chariot mirror the figures from the urns [9]. Though triumphal arches do serve as a type of public memorial to individual emperors, the triumphal imagery returns to an explicitly funerary use on the sarcophagi. The earliest from the surviving group of sarcophagi depicting the triumph of Dionysos, dated 170-180 CE, adapts the triumphal imagery, with two tigers rather than four horses pulling the chariot; with reveling maenads and satyrs as attendants; and Dionysos as the triumphing “general,” but its similarity to the pattern established on the Volterran urns is apparent [10]. However we might interpret it, there is clearly a visual tradition of processions with triumphal characteristics in the funerary context.

Now that we have observed the development of the visual pattern that the triumphal imagery on sarcophagi builds on, the next step in considering the imagery’s social context is recognizing lasting changes in the visual vocabulary that result when Augustus redefines the tradition. After his triple triumph in 29 BCE, Augustus restricts the celebration of the triumph, both in terms of who can receive the honors and, through a precedent that he and Agrippa set of declining the honors they do receive, in terms of the frequency of the celebration of the ritual. In effect, no one other than the emperor or members of his family is allowed to celebrate an actual triumphal procession (as opposed to simply receiving ornamenta triumphalia). By the period during which these sarcophagi are produced in the second and third centuries, the direct association of triumphal attributes with the specific achievements of an individual that has been applied to the fragments from the Arieti tomb has not been within the realm of possible interpretations for a long time, and the celebration of the triumphal procession occurs infrequently. The significance of triumphal imagery in this period must be seen in more abstract terms.

Recent studies by Itgenshorst and Beard have brought attention to the significant differences between triumphal honors as they were awarded by the senate and carried out by politically aspiring generals during the republic, and the perception of that practice that develops after Augustus transforms the institution. Itgenshorst points out the idealized character that the republican ritual takes on in descriptions by imperial authors, while Beard emphasizes the triumph’s social functions beyond the public recognition of military accomplishment, including the display of wealth and power during the late republic, and the representation of the more abstract ideals of Roman military prowess that become associated with the tradition.

This tendency toward an emphasis on the symbolism as opposed to the reality of the triumph can be observed in the way that Augustus places himself into the triumphal formula on the Gemma Augustea. Enthroned beside Roma, Augustus is surrounded by the imagery of victory. The lower register is filled with bound captives with soldiers erecting a tropaion, and in the upper register, Victoria accompanies Tiberius in his chariot, as Augustus, with the eagle of Jupiter beneath him, is crowned by a female personification. Both Roma and Augustus place their feet on a shield representing the conquered enemy. Through this imagery, Augustus identifies himself and his successor with the power and victory of Rome.

It should be noted that Augustus’ own funeral builds on the similarities between the triumphal procession and the funeral procession. After his death, the senate decides that his funeral procession should pass through the Porta Triumphalis. Versnel finds that this convergence of the two kinds of processions builds on both the increasing pomp involved with both ceremonies under the influence of Hellenistic processions, and hints of the triumphing general’s temporary identification with Jupiter, to ultimately serve the ideology of the apotheosis of Augustus. We could not take this convergence of triumphal and funerary honors in the case of Augustus as a model for understanding the same juxtaposition on sarcophagi, however, because the conferring of apotheosis by the senate was essentially an honor for the emperor. Those not entitled to a triumph would have no associations with Jupiter to build on.

To understand how Augustus’s changes affected the postmortem attribution of triumphal characteristics for ordinary mortals, we turn to the case of Drusus. Although as Augustus’ stepson, Drusus was a potential successor to Augustus, he was directly affected by Augustus' restrictions on the celebration of the triumph, especially as Augustus claimed the honors for Drusus and Tiberius’s military achievements. As leader of Augustus’ campaign in Germania, Drusus expanded the boundaries of Roman power. By republican standards, he would have been entitled to a triumphal procession for this. In 11 B.C, the Roman senate recognized the accomplishment by voting him an ovatio, a celebratory procession very close in nature and status to the triumphal procession. There is a suggestion by Dio that there also may have been plans to revive the archaic celebration of the Feriae Latinae on the Alban Mount as an added honor (55.2.5). Drusus died in Germania in 9 B.C. before he could return to Italy to celebrate these honors. Seneca describes Drusus’ translatio as a funeral most like a triumph (funus triumpho simillimum, 3.1-2). The author of the Consolatio ad Liviam appeals to Livia’s dreams of the triumph that Drusus could have had, but which came in the form of a funeral procession instead (25-29).

On the surface, the juxtaposition of triumphal and funerary honors in Drusus’ case is a clear situation of mors immatura: Drusus died too early to experience the public acknowledgement of his accomplishments. Both consolation texts focus on the deep grief that his mother Livia must have felt at the loss of a son of great military prowess who easily could have succeeded Augustus. On further consideration, however, the suspicion lingers that Drusus’ early death was not the only factor limiting the honors he received. When Drusus and Tiberius led victorious campaigns, it was Augustus who received the honor of the triumph, with the reasoning that they had fought as his representatives. When Drusus’ troops in Germania proclaimed him imperator, Augustus refused to grant the title (Dio 5.32.5).

It may be, as Rich has considered, that Drusus, had he lived, would have accumulated higher triumphal honors “in carefully graduated stages” that reflected Augustus’ efforts to project modesty while encouraging further military successes of his potential heirs. On the other hand, it might also be argued that Augustus would have continued to take credit for these honors as long as no clear heir was apparent, and that once Drusus had died, he could actually receive more honors because his glory was not a threat to the political position to any living person, and enhancing his glory actually served to enhance the glory of others, through association with him.

Because their main function is to assuage grief, the two consolation texts have certain advantages in recognizing postmortem the honors that Livia would have reasonably expected for her son. The most obvious goal of both authors is to praise the way Livia handles her grief. With a focus on Livia, the texts can praise Drusus freely in hindsight, because amplifying his accomplishments enhances Livia’s virtue: the greater his virtues, the greater her loss; the greater her loss, the greater her virtue in grieving appropriately.

Up to this point, our discussion of the consolation texts has focused on how they recognize Drusus for his achievements. Taking into account that the texts may be dated as Tiberian or later, we should also note how their synthesis of his achievements reflects how the triumph is perceived after its transformation. The description of Drusus’s valor in war in the Consolatio ad Liviam climaxes in the unknown triumph in new lands that Drusus had won (ignotumque tibi meruit, Romane, triumphum/protulit in terras imperiumque novas, 19- 20). Seneca emphasizes how far into Germania Drusus had pushed his conquest – where it was hardly known that Romans were there (intraverat penitus Germaniam et ibi signa Romana fixerat, ubi vix ullos esse Romanos notum erat, 3,1).

Essentially, Drusus extended Rome’s power, but did so by pushing into previously unknown territories. The idea of the triumph here is synonymous with pushing Roman power to the limits of the inhabited world. We have seen this equation of triumphal success with Roman power on the Gemma Augustea, but we can also see it on the sarcophagi in the figure of Dionysos.

Romans associated the triumphal return of Dionysos from India with the eastern campaigns of Alexander the Great. Prominent Romans such as Julius Caesar, Marius, Marcus Antonius and Pompey associate their own military success with that of Alexander the Great by imitating attributes of Dionysos. As the republican tradition of awarding a triumphal procession to honor a general for impressive military accomplishment merges with the success of Alexander the Great, world domination enters the Roman mythology through Dionysos.

This interpretation stands in contrast to previous interpretations of the Triumph of Dionysos sarcophagus at the Walters Art Museum. We have seen how the basic form of the procession builds on elements from earlier triumphal imagery. The lid includes scenes of of Dionysos' upbringing by his tutor Silenus, and of his "double birth," first after the destruction of his mother, Semele, when Zeus appeared to her as a thunderbolt, and then as he is "delivered" from the thigh of Zeus, where he was carried to term after his mother's demise. Interpretations of this sarcophagus have reflected the different theories on how the imagery on Roman sarcophagi should be read.

In their publication of the group of sarcophagi found in the Licinian tomb, Lehmann- Hartleben and Olsen were influenced both by Cumont and the contemporary trend in studying “Oriental mystery cults,” and consequently found symbolism of the cult of Dionysos Sabazius in every detail. Through participation in this cult, the occupants of the tomb would have been initiated into the promise of a blessed afterlife, and the use of the triumph on a tomb, along with the imagery of rebirth, could be interpreted as a belief in the triumph of life over death. In a review of Cumont’s study of the symbolism on sarcophagi, Nock argued against interpreting the imagery on sarcophagi in terms of individual beliefs in the pluralistic environment of pagan belief, in which a definitive assessment of any one person or group's conception of the afterlife is not supportable. His view that the imagery should be seen as decorative and conventional effectively discouraged the attribution of religious significance to the imagery on sarcophagi.

Zanker and Ewald follow Nock in cautioning against reading too much religious significance into the imagery, as well as against just reading the use of myth as an opportunity to display cultural sophistication. Because the myths were socially pervasive, everyone would have had access to them. They reiterate the possibility that some would have chosen imagery according to taste, simple aesthetic preferences, or even availability. Applying these principles to the Walters sarcophagus, they explain the combination of scenes as an example of a practice of using multiple scenes to give a complete sense of the story. In their overall approach to reading the imagery in the context of family celebrations at the tomb, bacchic imagery in general represents Festesfreude und Lebenslust, serving as a carpe diem exhortation for surviving family members.

Following the more detailed approach of reading the Bildsprache on sarcophagi as depicting the virtues of the deceased, Amedick suggests that the series of scenes from the life of Dionysos represent parallel stages in the life of a Roman magistrate. She uses the audience scenes on two sarcophagi, one from the Belvedere in the Vatican and the other from Salerno, to illustrate this. On the Belvedere sarcophagus, several captives are led before a seated general. The tropaion, the captives, and Victoria are familiar symbols suggesting military success. The Salerno scene is quite similar, but before long, the viewer recognizes that this is not a biographical representation. Instead of a tropaion, a giant crater is carried as part of the spoils. The long hair and bare chest of the “general” indicate that this is no Roman magistrate, but Dionysos. According to Amedick, using a mythological sarcophagus that can be mistaken for a magistrate’s sarcophagus at first sight allows the deceased to portray his status at the highest level possible without posing a threat to those at higher levels of power. In this way, individuals who were not entitled to a triumph in life may have used a mythological triumph to associate themselves with the social status and virtues a triumph could bestow in death.

At this stage in my larger project, it would be premature to rule out the mysterious and powerful qualities associated with the myth of Dionysos in relation to his presence on sarcophagi, though directly associating each symbol with the cult of Dionysos Sabazius is not sustainable. The bacchic associations with revelry are a given, but to settle for this interpretation belies the complexity of the imagery. A political interpretation that can incorporate the social messages associated with the triumph is appealing, even if every Roman who used this pattern was not seeking a non-imperial avenue to triumphal honors.

Through evidence of a tradition of commemorating triumphs in both funeral processions and tombs, we have seen that it is nothing new for Romans to celebrate the triumph in death. In Drusus’ case, what seems to be new is the attribution of triumphal honors to someone who had not actually received them. Drusus dies in the midst of Augustus’ changes, but the consolation texts adapt to these changes, recognizing that his expansion of Roman power is naturally identified with the triumph. In usurping the honors of others, Augustus may actually set an example for using triumphal symbolism to associate oneself with virtues and honors that come with the Roman triumph, even if one has not actually achieved the victory oneself. The tradition of enhancing one’s accomplishments through association with Dionysos makes him a likely vehicle for identifying oneself with the abstract ideals that develop around the Roman triumph, especially as it is celebrated less frequently and by fewer people.

The concepts of Roman identity and power that Beard and Itgenshorst have pointed out in connection with the idealized institution offer a sense of what general attributes might be associated with the mythological image of the triumph on sarcophagi. Understanding the triumph of Dionysos on sarcophagi as a combination of the visual and social traditions connected with the Roman triumph may be a step towards comprehending the “unity of inherited culture” that, according to Nock, gives the imagery on sarcophagi its meaning.

Selected Bibliography

Amedick, R. March 12, 2007
R. Amedick,“Death and Ambition: Sarcophagi and Social Distinction in Roman Culture.” Lecture presented to the International Association for Classical Archaeology, London.

Beard, M. 2007
M. Beard, The Roman Triumph.  Cambridge, Massachusetts; London.

Bellemore, J. 1992
J. Bellmore, The Dating of Seneca’s Ad Marciam De Consolatione. CQ 42: 219-234

Coarelli, F. 1976
F. Coarelli, “Cinque frammenti di una tomba dipinta dall’Esquilino” in Affreschi
romani, Roma. 22-28.

Cumont, F. 1975
F. Cumont, Recherches sur le Symbolisme Funéraire des Romains. New York.

Giatti, C. 2007
C. Giatti, “Il Sepolcro CD. ‘Arieti’ sull’Esquilino: Nuove Proposte di Lettura del Monumento.”  Arch Class 58: 75-107.

Grassinger, D. 1994
D. Grassinger, “The Meaning of Myth on Roman Sarcophagi” in Myth and Allusion: Meanings and Uses of Myth in Ancient Greek and Roman Society. Symposium Boston: Fenway Court. 91-107.

Holliday, P. 2002
P. Holliday, The Origins of Roman Historical Commemoration in the Visual Arts. Cambridge.

Itgenshorst, T. 2005
T. Itgenshorst, Tota Illa Pompa: Der Triumph in Der römischen Republik : Mit Einer CD-ROM, Katalog Der Triumphe Von 340 Bis 19 Vor Christus. Vol. Bd. 161. Göttingen.

Jenkins, T. Forthcoming
T. Jenkins, Livia the Princeps: Gender and Ideology in the Consolatio Ad Liviam.

Koch, G. and H. Sichtermann. 1982
G. Koch and H. Sichtermann, Römische Sarkophage. Munich.

Lehmann-Hartleben, K., and E. Olson. 1942
K. Lehmann-Hartleben and E. Olson, Dionysiac Sarcophagi in Baltimore. New York, Baltimore.

Manning, C.E. 1981
C.E. Manning, On Seneca’s “Ad Marciam.” Mnemosyne Supplement 69. Leiden

Matz, F. 1968-1975
F. Matz, Die Dionysischen Sarkophage. Berlin

Moreno, P. 2003
P. Moreno, “La battaglia di Telamone in un dipinto dall’Esquilino”, in D. Vitali (ed.), L’immagine  tra  mondo  celtico  e  mondo  etrusco-italico.    Aspetti  della  cultura figurativa nell’antichità, Florence.

Nock, A.D. 1946
A.D. Nock, “Sarcophagi and Symbolism.” AJA 50.1: 140-70.

Rich, J.W. 1999
J.W. Rich, “Drusus and the Spolia Opima.” CQ 49: 544-555.

Ryberg, I.S. 1955
I.S. Ryberg, Rites of the State Religion in Roman Art. MAAR 20. Schoonhoven, H. 1992. The Pseudo-Ovidian Ad Liviam De Morte Drusi. Gronigen.

Versnel, H. 1970
H. Versnel, Triumphus. An Inquiry into the Origin, Development and Meaning of the Roman Triumph. Leiden.

Zanker, P. and B. Ewald. 2004
P. Zanker and B. Ewald, Mit Mythen Leben: Die Bilderwelt Der Römischen Sarkophage. Munich.

  1. Images of these fragments that were used for the Spring School presentation may be found in Coarelli 1976.

  2. Coarelli Plate III, fig. 1

  3. Coarelli Plate V, fig. 1

  4. Coarelli plate IV, fig 2

  5. Coarelli, plate III, fig. 2

  6. Coarelli, plate IV, fig. 1

  7. Coarelli, plate A, fig. 2 (in color) and plate V, fig. 2.

  8. For images, see Holliday 1990, 86-7, figs. 12&13.

  9. Images of the Arch of Titus and the Gemma Augustea are easily found through Google Images.

  10. For an image, see www.thewalters.org/works_of_art/itemdetails.aspx