How much would you pay for a garden flower trough? £9.60? £96? How about £96,000? That’s the price paid by a bidder at a recent auction in Dorset.
In fact, the flower trough was a Roman marble coffin that the previous owners had inherited. It had been bought by the family 100 years ago at an auction after it had been imported by Sir John Robinson.
The coffin is made of high-quality marble, indicated by its whiteness, and has highly skilled carvings on it. It is probable that it originally housed a rich Roman. Luckily, a local auction-house valuer spotted it in the garden and recognised it for what it was.
Obviously knowledge of the coffin’s worth and purpose had been lost over the years and it ended up obscured by some overgrown bushes. This would have been outrageous to many Romans, who took a great deal of care over how they were buried.
Elaborate tombs did not always indicate a high class Roman. Petronius, the Roman satirist, describes how a fictional rich ex-slave ordered how he wanted his tomb to be made. It is pretty tacky:
‘I’d like you to put some ships there too, sailing under full canvas, and me sitting on a high platform in my robes of office, wearing five gold rings and pouring out a bagful of money for the people…Put up a statue of Fortunata on my right, holding a dove, and having her leading a little dog tied to her belt –‘
In fact, according to Seneca, the Roman philosopher, memorials in writing were more important:
All others, those that are formed by piling up stones and masses of marble, or rearing of high huge mounds of earth, do not secure a long remembrance, for they themselves will also perish; but the fame of genius is immortal.’
Considering we are reading Seneca’s thoughts, which are remembered, in an article about an anonymous coffin which was being used as a flower trough, his point, that words last longer than things, is well made.