As I mentioned in the last post, I am back in Berkeley at a conference on Roman sarcophagi -- the aptly titled "Flesh Eaters" (which is what sarcophagi actually means).
The truth is that I had never before been hugely interested in the elaborately decorated sarcophagi (largely dated to the second and third centuries AD) that were the focus of the conference. When I was an undergraduate I did an essay on them, and I still remember ploughing through some pretty impenetrable stuff (and some of it in pretty impenetrable German), which saw the decoration in terms of complicated eschatology, Dionysiac religion, apotheosis and weird views of the afterlife.
Since then, that's all changed. There's been a load of much more interesting recent work, and a now classic 'new look' at how to understand sarcophagi with mythological scenes by Paul Zanker and Björn Christian Ewald (both of whom were are the conference) called Mit Mythen leben -- "Living with Myths" (Roman sarcophagus studies remains something of a German niche market). Its a big and wide ranging book, but one of its central points is that we should see these scenes of myth not in eschatological terms, but as aids for the living. Re-presenting death in terms of the classic mythic stories offered a means of consolation: the bereaved wife could see herself, in the sarcophagus, as the lovely Selene mourning Endymion; the deceased was given the heroic form of (say Meleager). The parallels were sometimes hammered home even more forcefully by giving the mythological heroes the portrait heads of the dead.
That was about as far as I had got, until I was asked to be a 'respondent' at this conference (I didn't have to give a paper, just listen hard and do some summing up at the end). It seemed a good chance to find out a bit more about what was going on in the sarcophagus world.
It turned out to be fascinating, and to raise all kinds of puzzled I had not anticipated. Take the mythological scenes for example. There are some that fit the consolatory model very nicely, but does the scene of the massacre of Niobe's children (at the top of this post) work like that? Niobe, you'll remember, had boasted that she had had more children than Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis -- so the Apollo and Artemis came by and slaughtered all fourteen of Niobe's brood. Where do you find consolation in that?
There was some great discussion of this issue, and how the mythological scenes worked in general. How "difficult" were they for the average Roman to read? (They are pretty hard for us now to decode, but were the ancient more visually literate in this respect?) Was the message actually consolatory in the sense of "look -- awful things happen to the gods too? I began to think that many of these scenes were not trying to draw the viewer sympathetically in, but to keep him or her OUT. Their difficulty, their redundant figures and sometimes sheer nastiness were actually trying to erect a form barrier between the dead person inside and the living outside. The job of the sarcophagus was, in a sense, turning the recently living into the definitely DEAD.
I also got intrigued about exactly who the occupants were - or rather how rich and/or elite they were. The general view of the experts was that these were not made for/bought by the upper echelons of the Roman or provincial elite. The words "middle class" were used (alarmingly often for my taste), and the general line seemed to be that the clientèle mainly consisted of those people in the Roman world of relatively modest social status, but considerable disposable income, rich freedmen etc (there were also more references to that fictional creation, Trimalchio, than I felt quite comfortable with).
I wasn't sure about this at all. For a start, it seemed to me that many of these sarcophagi must have been just too expensive for that to be plausible. Estimates of time taken to make the things varied, but "two men for three months" seemed to be at the modest end of the guesstimate spectrum -- this is going to make them very pricey objects. But more to the point, I wasnt sure about the (rather generous) view of Roman imperial social structure that this idea of the "middle class", "the wealthy non-elite" implied. Some historians, after all, would see a much starker gap between on the one hand the senatorial/equestrian elite (plus the decurial class in provincial towns) and, on the other, the poor without much disposable income (not a gap substantially filled -- though there would have been a few exception -- with a comfortably off "middle class").
Anyway it was great to be back in Berkeley and see lots of friends from last year. The conference was wonderfully organised (thanks, especially, to Chris and Mont) -- not too many papers, not a duff one amongst them, and plenty of time for discussion and smooching. And I've got a much better grip on Roman sarcophagi than I've ever had before (though no doubt I'll promptly forget it all . . .).
Berkeley, as a university, is currently in a parlous financial state -- thanks to the near bankruptcy of the State of California -- and is undergoing cuts and redundancies that make what is currently happening in the UK university system seem relatively mild, though no doubt we have worse to come. This conference was in fact the result of inspiring generosity. One senior member of the Art History department had sponsored the occasion with the money he had received from a major prize. The catering (from breakfast in the morning to champagne after the hard day's work) was the gift of local businesses, organised by an ex UCB student, the owner and eminence grise behind Acme Bread. Thanks to them all.