“Vae victis” – “Woe to the conquered” – would be a fitting subtitle for the Portonaccio Sarcophagus, a late-2nd-century marble work now in Rome’s Palazzo Massimo, main venue of the National Roman Museum.
The Latin proverb was first recorded by historian Livy, who claimed the Gaul chieftain Brennus pronounced it after invading Rome in 386 BC and forcing the Romans to pay an exorbitant tax.
The bas-reliefs of the Portonaccio Sarcophagus – named after the area in Rome where it was found in 1931 – actually reverse the roles and tell the story of a very different episode: the bloody battle between Roman soldiers and barbarian warriors (likely the Marcomanni, whom the Romans fought between 172 and 175 AD), ending with the latter being vanquished by the legions led by Aulus Iulius Pompilius (who was probably the man buried in the tomb, and represented in the center of the scene on horseback, his face unfinished).
The defeated are depicted on either side of the front, with two pairs of barbarians looking resigned and distressed, as well as on the sides of the tomb, with prisoners and chiefs represented as they submit to Roman soldiers and officers.
The deceased and his wife (whose faces are not sculpted) are portrayed on the frieze of the lid – which features two masks on its corners – in a marriage ceremony (the so-called “dextrarum iunctio”).