The small dimensions of this piece reveal that it was intended for a child. Given the high rates of infant and juvenile mortality in the ancient world (as in most pre-industrial societies), it is perhaps no surprise that many Roman sarcophagi were carved for children. The sheer number of such pieces is, nonetheless, poignant.
The portrait was clearly reworked in antiquity itself: originally intended to depict a young woman or girl, it was recarved to portray a (rather strikingly ugly) boy.
That's not especially unusual: as we've already seen, recutting of portraits for reuse by other inhabitants was a common practice, and could even involve sex-changes along the way, as here. What is unusual here is our diminutive subject's off-the-shoulder drapery. It's so suggestive that one might wonder whether the original figure was meant to show Venus, or rather a woman in the guise of Venus. But while the occasional Roman matron was indeed portrayed in the costume and pose of the goddess — a form of mythological portraiture — such mythological portraiture, as far as I know, is never found inside the frame of a tondo/medallion (the Romans called it a clipeus, their word for 'shield', because of its round shape). When Romans equip themselves with the attributes of gods or heroes on sarcophagi, it's always as a full-body figure within a narrative frieze, not a bust isolated within a clipeus. But without the excuse of mythological trappings, what respectable Roman female would choose commemoration in such sexy garb? That it features on a child's sarcophagus makes things even more puzzling.
On a different note... the motif of two fowl pecking the ground under the clipeus was clearly a stock vignette, as this piece shows.
Comments warmly invited.
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