Death, in the harbour

A struggle for life is depicted in a dramatic relief on a Roman sarcophagus. As a young man drowns in the turbulent waters of the harbour at Ostia, rescuers rush to the scene and attempt to grasp his flailing arms 

(The relief of the drowning man not only records his moment of death, but reflects the desire of his family to ensure the survival of his soul in the afterworld)

It was a day like any other, when a tragic accident took place in the waters of the crowded harbour at Ostia, the Roman Empire's most important port. A young man fell overboard and thrashed about in the choppy water. He could not swim and although several other boats tried desperately to rescue him, it was ultimately to no avail. His strength faded rapidly and a small boat was lowered in a last attempt to save him. But before the boat could reach the young man he had drowned.


No writer described the fate of the young man, no historian deemed it worthy of mention and no poet made it the subject of a lament. Only a relief on a sarcophagus in Ostia's necropolis, or cemetery, bears silent witness to the tragedy. The young man's lavishly decorated coffin suggests that he came from a wealthy family. Their prime concern would have been to create an enduring memorial, whatever its cost, to their son's life. In doing so they might also have hoped to admonish the gods who had allowed such a disaster to take place.

The carved sarcophagus recalls the incident with great precision. The buildings on the fringes of the relief clearly indicate that ancient Ostia was the site of the accident. The alarm on the faces of the crews of the other ships is clear, as is the desperation of their abortive rescue attempt. It is a snapshot of a tragic moment, but also a lasting reminder of the incident, which must have taken place at some point in the 3rd century AD. No more details are known, nor is anything likely to come to light in future. How the young man fell unnoticed into the water or whether someone else was to blame for his death are questions which will never be answered.


The elaborate design and execution of the reliefs on the Ostia sarcophagus is not unique. Many other stone artefacts from classical antiquity record life-threatening dramas, accidental deaths, last-minute reprieves. In Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany a Roman inscription recounted an accident and a miraculous escape. Following a shipwreck on the River Neckar, the crew managed to make it safely to the far bank just in time. In gratitude they dedicated a votive altar to the gods at the site.

It was a widespread practice among the Romans to write the gravestone inscription as a form of imprecation from the dead person to passers-by, in which he grabs their attention and tells them directly about the fate that befell him. A simple gravestone with a Latin inscription bears witness to another dramatic incident that took place in Roman times, this time on Germany's River Main. According to the testimony of the deceased, he was undeservedly cut down in his prime, when at the age of 30 he was murdered by one of his slaves. Yet the wrongdoer received his just deserts almost immediately; while making his escape he fell headlong into the river and drowned. There is no record of whether the murderer was also ultimately buried. But we can be sure that he was not supplied with his own carved sarcophagus.

The sarcophagus

The 'flesh eater' The Greek word sarkophagos literally means "flesh eate." They were originally made from a type of limestone containing chemicals that hastened decomposition.

Sarcophagi in ancient Greece 

Sarcophagi were in common use in Greece after the 6th century AD. Though most were made of wood, surviving examples are of stone and terracotta. Many are in the shape of a couch; 'on which the deceased reclined.

Sarcophagi-in the Roman Empire 

As burial became more common than cremation in the Roman Empire, sarcophagi decorated with relief carvings were found throughout the areas they had lived. The scenes portrayed were intended to commemorate the virtues of the deceased person, while at the same time depicting the afterlife. Mythological scenes were frequently used as allusions to the life.of the deceased.