The Oculist Sarcophagus

2nd / 3rd century
Outside the Basilica of San Vitale

This page is here in the Christian Iconography site because of the similarity between the harpist shown below and images of King David with his harp.

Center of the front of the sarcophagus, the dedicatory inscription:

Have Eugami dulcissima infa(n)s // CyriaChaere Iuliane / Sosiae Iulianae filiae dulcis / simae quae vixit annis (IX) (novem)(?) m(ensibus) IV (quattuor) d(iebus) XXVII (septem et viginta) / et Tetratiae Isiodi co(n)iugi / castissimae matri eius / C(aius) Sosius Iulianus vivus p(osuit)

Approximately: "Farewell sweet young girl Eugamia, sweetest daughter who lived nine years, four months, and twenty-seven days. To Juliana Cyriaca Sosia, and to Tetrazia Isaide her most chaste mother. The living Caius Sosius Julianus placed her here."

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The panel to the left of the dedicatory inscription

A figure sitting on a throne and playing a harp with his fingers.

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The panel to the right of the dedicatory inscription

A figure seated on a throne and holding a scroll. Below the throne is a figure of Hermes with a caduceus.

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The left end of the sarcophagus

A seated woman faces a man who is touching her eye. The touch and the presence of Hermes on the front of the sarcophagus suggest that this man is operating on the woman's eye, perhaps doing cataract removal, a technique well known in the ancient world and described in 29 A.D. by Aulus Cornelius Celsus in his De Medicina.1

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The right end of the sarcophagus

A woman in pensive pose seated on a throne.

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Part of the explanatory placard provided by the museum.

In English: "The sarcophagus, found in the portico of San Vittore in 1907, was placed in San Vitale during the Second World War and restored in 1965. The inscription refers to a young girl and her mother, to whom the sarcophagus was dedicated by her husband and father Sosius Julianus. Inscribed on the sides of the dedicatory inscription is a fragmentary poem in Greek whose meaning is mysterious. It may refer to the cult of Isis. Below it are two figures in mantles. The one on the left plays a cithara; the one on the right holds a scroll. They sit on thrones placed on high predellas decorated, respectively, with an axe and a Hermes with a caduceus. Columns with foliated capitals divide the scene on the front from the side panels. These have figures of, on the right, a veiled and pensive lady sitting on a throne; and, on the left, between two bell-shaped containers, a lady seated before a man (perhaps an oculist) who is touching her eye with his right hand and with his left holding a chest, on which the lady places her hand."

See the entire placard

Photographed at the site by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

1 "Cataract Surgery: History," Wikipedia (retrieved 2013-10-06)