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If I tell you its size, you can almost certainly guess what this object is. Carved from marble, it is just under 2m (6.5ft) long, 0.9m (2.95ft) tall and 0.8m (2.65ft) wide.

Got it?

Yes, it's a sarcophagus, in other words a receptacle for human burial(s). As you can see, it bears carved decoration and inscriptions, so it was not meant to be buried underground like a coffin, but to be placed in such a way that the carvings were visible. This particular example, on display in the Archaeological Museum of Antalya, Turkey, is complete, except for its lid, which would also have been of marble (but more about that later).

A view of the (restored) bouleuterion or council chamber at Patara, as seen from the theatre, with the findspot of the sarcophagus marked in red.

It comes from Patara, an ancient city on the southern coast of Lycia in the southwest of the Anatolian Peninsula (Asia Minor). We have written about Patara before on this blog - it is a beautiful, fascinating and very large archaeological site, much of it extensively preserved due to having been buried in fine sand blown in from the nearby beach. The sarcophagus was discovered in 2000 as some of that sand was being removed, just to the south of the bouleuterion, the building that housed the quasi-parliament of the Lycian League, an ancient confederation of city-states.

Even though we can't be sure that this was its original place, the location, slap-bang in the heart of the city, is interesting. Normally, ancient necropoleis or cemeteries were placed outside the confines of the city, and Patara is no exception. In Asia Minor, however, there was a habit of granting especially honoured citizens the privilege of a burial within the city proper. So whose was this privileged sarcophagus? The inscription tells us.

The beginning of the inscription. Written in Greek letters, it reads "Loukiou Septimiou Theronidou Paradoxou".

The lettering is of a type common around AD 200, during the Roman Empire's 'Severan' era. Greek was, of course, the common written (and spoken) language in the eastern provinces of Rome. These words translate as "of Lucius Septimius Theronides, the incredible". Thus, we're looking at the sarcophagus of a man who died not long after AD 200, a time when the region was peaceful and Patara was thriving, whose name had Roman (Lucius Septimius) and Greek (Theronides) components, and who was evidently an honoured citizen of Patara. Why? Because he was 'incredible' or 'extraordinary' ("paradoxos", literally 'contrary to expectation'). What made him so?

Let's have another look at his sarcophagus.

A frontal view of the Theronides sarcophagus.

There are seven similar images carved into the sarcophagus, five on the front (seen here) and one each on the left and right narrow sides. Each bears an inscription at the centre. From left to right, they read "Olympia", "Pythia", "Kapitolia", "Aktia", "Koina Asias", plus (not visible in our image), "Adrianeia" on the left and "en Kaisaria Kappadokon" on the right. All Greek to you? Fair enough, but for those familiar with the era's iconography, the combination of motifs and text actually explains what was so special about Theronides.

Prize Crowns on the Eros and Pan mosaic from the Casale Villa. Image by Gerd Eichmann

A detail from a mosaic at the Roman villa of Casale at Piazza Armerina on Sicily. It shows four 'prize crowns' and two bags of coins, on display during a wrestling match between the gods Eros and Pan. (Image from Wikimedia, by Gerd Eichmann / CC BY-SA [])

Iconography is the study of images. Essentially, it is based on identifying and comparing motifs in different works of art, ideally helping scholars to work out in what contexts they occur, what meanings they are meant to suggest, and - hopefully - what they actually depict.

The shapes shown on Theronides's sarcophagus are fairly common in the second and third centuries AD, especially on sarcophagi, also on coins, and much more rarely in other media (such as our image, from one of the Casale mosaics - which are a highlight on our Exploring Sicily tour). They always show up in the context of athletic contests, are often decorated with palm fronds (a symbol of victory) and sometimes with other motifs, such as wreaths.

The 'prize crown' naming the Pythian Games.

For a long time, scholars called these shapes 'prize crowns' for lack of a better word, but recent research suggests that they depict vessels, probably made of basketry, which served the storage and display of material prizes awarded at athletic events. Inscriptions of this era often refer to a victorious athlete receiving two things, 'stefanos' and 'brabeion'. Stefanos means a wreath, a familiar victory prize since many centuries before. Brabeion is usually translated simply as 'prize at the games', but it is not clear what exactly that means. Since we know that material and cash prizes had become common by the Roman era, it can be suggested that these cylindrical objects are such brabeia. By the way, the ones depicted on this sarcophagus appear very plain, even formulaic. That was not originally the case: when the object was discovered, it still bore traces of paint, so we have to imagine them painted in bright colours (like most ancient sculpture).

So, Theronides was a champion, a victorious athlete, following the long tradition of athletic contests that had been introduced to Lycia from Greece in the fourth and third centuries BC and that continued during the Roman era. At what athletic festivals did he win?

An imaginary version of what the sarcophagus may have looked like in colour (the evidence is not sufficiently clear to properly reconstruct the colour scheme, except for the central inscribed bands having been red).

Conveniently, his prizes name the events at which they were awarded. They refer to the Olympic Games, held at Olympia in the Peloponnese since 776 BC, the Pythian Games, held at Delphi in Central Greece since the sixth century BC, the Capitoline Games, held in Rome since 387 BC, the Actian Games, held in Epirus (western Greece) since 27 BC, the Asian Games, established in Asia Minor during the late first century BC, the Hadrianic Games, probably also an Asian tradition dating to the 130s AD, and an unnamed contest "in Caesarea in Cappadocia". Additionally, a broken sarcophagus lid, found in the same area and of a size that fits the Theronides sarcophagus, mentions five rather more obscure contests, the Didymian Games, another set of Asian Games, the Commodian Games, the Bithynian Games, and an unnamed contest held in Side.

Also on our "Cruising the Lycian Shore" itinerary (although actually located in Pamphylia): the superb ancient stadium of Perge.

Seven victories, or even twelve - if the lid also belongs to Theronides. That's an impressive achievement, and it also indicates that Theronides travelled a good bit. One cautionary note: it is unlikely that he attended the Olympic, Pythian and Actian Games in Greece, or the Capitolia in Rome. Those contests had become so popular and famous that regional versions of them were held elsewhere in the Empire - especially in Asia Minor, so that's probably what is being referred to.

Unfortunately, we cannot tell in what discipline or disciplines Theronides performed - it is not specified. Essentially, the Roman-era athletic contents comprised the same sports that had been established by the Greeks more than five hundred years earlier. The term 'paradoxos' is known elsewhere to describe athletes successful in several of them: boxing, wrestling, running and equestrian events. Your guess is as good as mine.

Athletics mosaic in patras Museun

A large mosaic in the Archaeological Museum of Patras (Greece), of similar date to the Theronides Sarcophagus, depicts the main disciplines of ancient Greek athletics, interspersed with victorious athletes (indicated by wearing a wreath and holding a palm frond). From left to right: a relay runner with torch, a victor, a runner starting a race, a victor, a judge, a discus thrower, four jumpers (one having just landed), a victor, a pair of wrestlers, a victor, two more wrestlers. another victor, a pair of boxers, a victor and finally a hoplitodromos (race with weaponry) runner.

Incidentally, the inscription continues beyond Theronides's name. It says that Theronides had stated in his will that no-one else was to be placed in his grave, until the time had come for his children, and that anyone in breach of this would owe a fine of a thousand denarii to the gerousia (the city council). Alas, the single skeleton found inside was probably not his: it appears to be from a reuse some centuries later.

You can admire this monument to Theronides's athletic prowess on our Cruising the Lycian Shore itinerary, which also includes the stunning ruins of Patara itself and the superb stadium at Perge. Otherwise, you come across various types of evidence for ancient athletics on virtually all of our Mediterranean tours and cruises, e.g. on Exploring the Peloponnese, visiting the ancient stadiums of Nemea, Messene and Olympia itself, or on Exploring Sicily, featuring the fantastic Casale mosaics.

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