Remembering the Righteous: Sarcophagus Sculpture and Jewish Patrons in the Roman World

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Burrus, Sean Patrick


Boatwright, Mary T

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Sarcophagi belonging to Jewish patrons are an important source of evidence for reconstructing the variety of ways that ancient Jews interacted with visual culture in Late Antiquity. During this period, from the 2nd to 5th centuries C.E., the sarcophagus was the height of burial fashion across the Roman Mediterranean. Wealthy individuals across the late ancient world adopted sarcophagus burial not only to protect their bodily remains, but to visibly display and reinforce their social status, to demonstrate their cultural sophistication, and to memorialize and narrate their senses of self. In this regard, elite members of Jewish communities in Late Antiquity were no different (Chapter 2).

The following considers nearly 200 sarcophagi from the late ancient necropoleis of Jewish communities at Beth She'arim and Rome. This corpus captures the wide range of the possibilities open to Jewish patrons as they went about acquiring or commissioning a sarcophagus and sculptural program. The variety reflects not only the different geographic and cultural realities of diaspora and home, but also the immense diversity characteristic of the myriad visual and cultural resources of the Roman world. In order to make sense of this diversity, I contextualize the styles and motifs favored by Jewish patrons according to the cultural resources they engage, moving from local traditions of stone sculpture in Palestine (Chapter 3) to the influence of Roman portrait sculpture on Jewish patrons (Chapter 7).

I begin with local traditions of stone sculpture in Palestine in order to counter the dominant scholarly narrative that these sarcophagi primarily or even exclusively copy Roman models. I argue instead that many make extensive use of visual resources with a long history of use in Jewish contexts (Chapter 4). Moreover, the corpus of sarcophagi from Beth She'arim suggests that the preferences of sarcophagus patrons there were shaped by the provincial context of Roman Syria (Chapter 5). On the other hand, certain sarcophagi from both Beth She'arim and Rome reflect sarcophagus styles with pan-Mediterranean appeal (Chapter 6), and a small group of Jewish patrons in Rome even participated in the ‘portrait boom’ that began in the 3rd century by acquiring sarcophagi with portrait sculpture (Chapter 7).

The corpus of sarcophagi belonging to late ancient Jewish patrons demonstrates a significant degree of mastery of and willingness to engage the visual koine of the Roman world, as well as significant agency with respect to the adoption and appropriation of cultural resources. I argue that the majority of Jewish patrons at both Beth She'arim and Rome were familiar with ‘Roman’ visual culture first and foremost as it existed in their local environments and were comfortable with its usage. At the same time, I consider how different settings—diaspora and Roman provincial—could influence the choices made by sarcophagus patrons. I conclude that the use of sarcophagus burial by Jewish patrons was a highly variable mode of cultural interaction, representing an ongoing negotiation of Jewishness by different individuals from different communities in the context of enduring cultural (ex)change.






Burrus, Sean Patrick (2017). Remembering the Righteous: Sarcophagus Sculpture and Jewish Patrons in the Roman World. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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