This page cannot be viewed in frames

Go to page

If you have found a spelling error, please, notify us by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

Sarcophagus – where did name come from?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman sarcophagi in Worms (Germany)
Roman sarcophagi in Worms (Germany).

The sarcophagi were created in order to be able to hide the bodies in stone coffins that could stand on the surface of the earth. In this way, it was possible to save space on valuable land in rocky surroundings – there was no need to “waste” them on cemeteries because stone sarcophagi could be placed on unprofitable, from the agricultural point of view, rocks.

The word “sarcophagus” in Greek literally means “body eater”; and it follows that the Greek historian Herodotus mistakenly believed that the quality of “eating meat” depends, inter alia, on the type of stone the sarcophagus is made of – some types of limestone are said to have had such an effect.

The Latinized name – sarcophagus – was popularized by Pliny the Elder and derives from the method of burial of the dead that is still used today in some parts of Greece and Asia Minor. It consists in temporarily placing the bodies in a stone coffin (sarcophagus) for about seven years. After this time, when the corpse is usually completely cleaned of soft tissues, it is customary to remove the remaining bones from the sarcophagus, which are ceremonially buried again, e.g. embedded in the wall in an urn. The sarcophagus itself can be used by the next deceased.

Sarcophagi were commonly used in ancient Rome from the 3rd to 1st centuries BCE. From the 2nd century CE (more precisely, the reign of Trajan), coffins made of marble decorated on the sides with mythological reliefs became popular. In the 3rd century CE historical themes dominated, and the centuries were decorated with a gable roof or a portrait of the deceased. Most Roman stone coffins were designed to stand against the wall – i.e. only three sides of the sarcophagus were decorated.

In the 3rd-4th centuries CE, the practice of erecting sarcophagi was taken over by early Christians.

  • Mont Allen, Sarcophagus, [w:] The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, 2010
  • Witold Szolginia, Architektura, Warszawa 1992

IMPERIUM ROMANUM needs your support!

If you like the content that I collect on the website and that I share on social media channels I will be grateful for the support. Even the smallest amounts will allow me to pay for further corrections, improvements on the site and pay the server.



Find out more!

Check your curiosity and learn something new about the ancient world of the Romans. By clicking on the link below, you will be redirected to a random entry.

Random curiosity

Random curiosity

Discover secrets of ancient Rome!

If you want to be up to date with newest articles on website and discoveries from the world of ancient Rome, subscribe to the newsletter, which is sent each Saturday.

Subscribe to newsletter!

Subscribe to newsletter

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: