Fragment of a cinerary urn

1st–2nd c. CEmarble14 in. × 15 3/4 in. × 8 in. (35.5 cm × 40.01 cm × 20.32 cm)

Gift of Edward Perry Warren, Esq., Honorary Degree 1926


Cremation was the dominant burial practice across social classes in Roman Italy for nearly half a millennium, until the mid-second century CE. Beginning in the first century CE, cinerary urns carved of marble became the most fashionable way of protecting and preserving cremated remains. The Bowdoin example dates from the late first century CE or later, when mythological scenes begin to appear on marble urns. Here, the myth of Jason and Medea is featured, a tale best known from the fifth century Greek tragedy by Euripides. On the left, riding a chariot pulled by dragons, is Medea, bearing the bodies of her two children, whom she killed to punish Jason for his infidelity. At the right is Jason, taming the fire-breathing bulls, one of three heroic feats required to win the Golden Fleece, a prize secured through Medea’s actions. The significance of such imagery in the Roman funerary context remains a debated subject. Is it a meditation on the vigor of life and the pain of loss? Or the capriciousness of life and the fate that befalls all, even heroes? 

Tacitus, the first-century CE Roman historian, referred to cremation as the Romanus mos, or the “Roman way,” so dominant and longstanding was the custom by the early Roman empire. Cremation was more costly than a simple inhumation, and indeed, inhumation continued to exist for the very poorest in Roman Italy alongside cremation. But for all who could afford it, including many Roman freedman and even slaves, cremation was preferred. The cinerary remains could be interred in communal structures called columbaria, in simple wood, ceramic, and even glass vessels. For those with more means, marble cinerary urns became popular in the first century CE. 

At first deriving their shape and motifs from Roman altars and temples, by the late first century CE marble cinerary urns began to be sculpted with more elaborate scenes of Greek and Roman mythology, rich with symbolism in the funerary contexts. In this way, later Roman cinerary urns like the Bowdoin example anticipate trends that would come to characterize the much larger marble sarcophagi of the middle and late Roman Empire, when inhumation became the predominant mode of burial. The Bowdoin example is the only known depiction of Medea on a cinerary urn, though the subject is well known on later sarcophagi.

—James Higginbotham & Sean P. Burrus

Edward Perry Warren

A testament to his impact as an influential twentieth-century American antiquities collector, Edward Perry Warren’s (1860–1928, H ’26) name is linked to hundreds of ancient objects housed in institutions across the United States, including more than five hundred works at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art alone.

Region: Italy See all 18
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