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Gallery Text

Who would win a fight between an elephant and a pack of lions? Or an elephant and a bull? Organized animal fights in amphitheaters across the Roman Empire meant that such tricky questions could actually be put to the test. Arena animal shows probably inspired this sarcophagus relief, in which a woolly humped bull, perhaps a zebu, encounters an elephant. Judging by the tree in the background, however, the face-off here takes place in the wild; the elephant, his wrinkled skin indicated by cross-hatching, has just seen off a pair of lions and now confronts a new opponent. The drilled, wavy mass of hair to the left of the animal scene is part of another image altogether, belonging to one of the tousle-haired masks that were commonly used to ornament and enliven sarcophagus lids.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
Fragment of a Sarcophagus Lid: Animal Fight
Work Type
3rd century CE
Creation Place: Ancient & Byzantine World
Roman Imperial period, Late
Persistent Link
Level 3, Room 3710, North Arcade
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Physical Descriptions
Proconnesian marble
41 cm h x 91.5 cm w x 6 cm d (16 1/8 x 36 x 2 3/8 in.)
weight 88 lb.
Joseph Brummer collection, New York, NY, (by 1947). Hagop Kevorkian collection, New York, NY (by 1975), gift; to Fogg Art Museum, 1975.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of The Hagop Kevorkian Foundation in memory of Hagop Kevorkian
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art
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Published Catalogue Text: Stone Sculptures: The Greek, Roman and Etruscan Collections of the Harvard University Art Museums , written 1990

Part of the Front of the Lid of a Large Sarcophagus

The fragment is the section from the inscription plate (tabula) to and including a bit of the head on the left corner. A section of the left molding of the tabula survives at the right, and part of the molding at the bottom also remains. The fragment was broken and clamped together in modern times.

The scene is that of an elephant facing left, in a struggle with lions and a woolly bull, the bull being gored by a tusk, one lion fleeing, and one lion lying dead at the lower left. The carving and parallels suggest a date in the last quarter of the third century A.D. This lid ought to have been part of a large strigilar sarcophagus with trainers encouraging lions to devour other beasts on the rectangular ends of the slightly curved front sections near the left and right ends. Such sarcophagi were partly symbolic in theme (and therefore suitable for any Late Antique pagan thinker) and partly a reflection of the many Romans involved in the Late Antique commerce in animals for urban show and pleasure hunts and combats.

The source for this composition can be found in Graeco-Roman decorative reliefs, such as the example in the Sala degli Animali of the Vatican showing an elephant goring a panther while a bull assists and three other panthers crouch in the landscape or attack the elephant from behind. The lid of the sarcophagus takes its composition from the lower register of a first or second century relief of this type (Reinach, 1909-1912, III, p. 414, no. 3).

A humped bull or ox confronts a lion in an animal paradise, in a mosaic from Antioch-on-the-Orontes (Toynbee, 1973, p. 286, pl. 143). The wild bull being captured in the "Great Hunt" mosaic at Piazza Armerina has similar tufts of fur on the back and legs (Toynbee, 1973, p. 150, pl. 74). And the elephant with the personification of Africa and a tigress in the apse of the same hunt has the same crisscross lines for the crinkles of the hide (Toynbee, 1973, pp. 29, 34, pl. I).

Cornelius Vermeule and Amy Brauer

Publication History

Joseph Brummer Collection, Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc. (New York, NY, 1949), part I, p. 64, lot 265

Cornelius C. Vermeule III and Amy Brauer, Stone Sculptures: The Greek, Roman and Etruscan Collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 1990), p. 140, no. 130

[Reproduction Only], Persephone, ed. Courtney Dungan, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2000, p. 58.

Exhibition History

Roman Gallery Installation (long-term), Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 09/16/1999 - 01/20/2008

32Q: 3710 North Arcade, Harvard Art Museums, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Subjects and Contexts

Google Art Project

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at am_asianmediterranean@harvard.edu