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Marble funerary altar
1st half of 1st century CE
Gift of Lewis, Elaine, Jacob, Rachel, Ezra, and Joseph Dubroff, in celebration of the Museum’s 150th Anniversary, 2018
Episode 8 / 2020
First Look

. . . an exemplar of the enduring power of monuments."

In 2020, a time of unprecedented loss and mourning globally, this Roman funerary altar is an exemplar of the enduring power of monuments. Commemorating the loss of a child, it presents a boy and his dog, accompanied by a touching inscription in Latin, which can be translated, "To the departed spirit of Anthus. [Set up by] his father L[ucius] Iulius Gamus, to [his] sweetest son."

In the early Imperial period, funerary monuments typically lined roads leading to city gates. They were overt displays of a family's status and identity in Roman society and sites for private dedication and family funerary rites. Annual rituals included banquets with offerings of wine, cakes, fruit, and flowers to provide pleasure and sustenance to the deceased in the afterlife. Libations may have been symbolically poured on the top and base of the altar during funerary meals.

The altar was originally placed in a family funerary plot or in front of a monumental tomb, which likely included seating and a garden. It would have stood alongside other family memorials with images and epitaphs, collectively connecting the Gamus family with their departed relatives and consolidating their unity for future generations.

The altar is a recent gift of the Dubroff family, and Lewis Dubroff has said that upon first sight, the image of the boy "grabbed my heart." Carved in high relief in a fine-grained white marble, Anthus stands facing the viewer, with his dog looking eagerly up to him. His pronounced ears and chubby neck and cheeks emphasize his youth, but he wears a formal toga, which was typically reserved for adult male citizens. Roman funerary portraits frequently elevate subjects through posture, costume, and accoutrements. He lifts the heavy cloth with one hand and in the other holds a scroll, an allusion to the model citizen and scholar he never became.

Laurel trees were symbols of victory and Imperial power, and carved on both sides of the altar, they offer protection for the deceased. Within their thick leaves, birds dive for berries and hunt and peck at the base of each tree. On the left side, herons, with their distinctive plumage and long bills, wrangle a snake, and on the right, ducks with broad bills and striated feathers beat their wings.

Over time, the top and back of the altar were reworked, probably for use as a statue base, and the marble split and was repaired with lead fills, as was common practice in ancient and early modern restorations. In the early 18th century, when the altar was in the collections of the Villa Peretti Montalto-Negroni in Rome, an artist was inspired to copy Anthus and his dog in a drawing that is now held in the Richard Topham collection at Eton College, England.

This altar, with its impressive scale and striking rendering of a child lost too soon, complements and enriches The Met collection of ancient funerary monuments.

Sarah E. Lepinski
Associate Curator
Greek and Roman Art
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