Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.09.29

Kenneth S. Painter, The Insula of the Menander at Pompeii. Vol. IV: The Silver Treasure.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2001.  Pp. xiii, 89, 31 plates.  ISBN 0-19-924236-4.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by John Tamm, University of Manitoba (
Word count: 2332 words

In December of 1930, excavations in the Casa del Menandro in Pompeii unearthed what would prove to be the century's major find of first-century BC/AD Roman silverware. In the cellar, wrapped up in textiles and placed in the bottom of a wooden chest, were 118 pieces of silver plate, of varying ages and styles and with a bullion value of over 35,000 HS. A separate box placed on top of the silverware contained 20 pieces of jewellery made of gold and precious stones, along with some gold wire and 46 coins totalling 1432 HS: mostly Republican or Imperial denarii, but also thirteen aurei of the Neronian or Vespasianic periods. As Painter (hereafter P.) rightly notes (pp. 3, 14-15), the importance of this treasure lies not only in the artefacts, but also in the fact that they were properly excavated, a statement that cannot be made for the other major find from the area, the Boscoreale treasure. Nor indeed can this be said of the other two main finds of Roman silverware of this early period, the Hildesheim and Berthouville treasures.

Just as this treasure has long been of prime importance for the Roman silverware specialist, so too has been Amedeo Maiuri's detailed publication, La Casa del Menandro e il suo tesoro di argenteria (Rome 1933). It will doubtless remain important, especially in light of its thorough art-historical discussions and copious illustrations, but a present-day reader, assuming s/he could even find a copy of the book, would have to treat it with caution. In light of subsequent research and changes in emphasis, various aspects of Maiuri's work need re-evaluation, if not thorough revision. Ultimately, a comprehensive re-publication of the treasure would be beneficial.

The volume at hand, P.'s contribution to the series dealing with the insula, is a brief but thorough, well-written, sensible first step in such a re-evaluation. The reader is made acutely aware of the problems inherent in study of the treasure, of the questions that must be asked of the material, and of the ways in which to begin teasing out answers. As one would expect, P. demonstrates a comprehensive knowledge of the treasure itself and other finds of silverware, and an enviable command of relevant scholarship in related fields. The book is on the whole a very cautious work; the definitive pronouncements of earlier times are avoided in favour of presenting ranges of possibilities. Consequently a reader might, at times, wish for something more concrete, but the approach in general is in tune with contemporary sensibilities, and accurately reflects the few facts one does have to work with. P. successfully fulfils his mandate to "...supplement the study of the Casa del Menandro by Roger Ling ... and to discuss those problems which relate the silver to the house, concentrating on the historical and social aspects of the hoard" (Preface).

The book's five chapters cover: (1) the discovery of the treasure, (2) the jewellery and coins, (3) the composition of the silver plate, (4) the information that can be gleaned about its owner from the plate, and (5) the usage of the plate within the house. A catalogue of the treasure, incorporating corrections to factual mistakes made in previous publications, concludes the book. Given the rarity of Maiuri's work, this is a particularly useful feature. Pertinent comments about art historical issues, outside the scope of the main text, may also be found here.

The presentation is of high quality, as is the production. Typos seem to be very rare; a slight muddle in one of the tables (Table 2.3) is perhaps the most confusing.1 Good black and white photographs illustrate a selection of the pieces. Larger-scale reproductions would have been beneficial for detailed examination, but the existing layout, usually two to a page, suffices for general use. Line drawings of all the plate are also included; even if they have been made from Maiuri's photographs, and so are to be treated, as P. insists, only as "working sketches", they are a helpful addition.

A look at the main conclusions of the book follows, concentrating on how these revise Maiuri's work. First, the jewellery and coins. Maiuri proposed that the jewellery belonged to a woman in Quintus Poppaeus' family, that the same could probably be said of the coins, which made up, in any case, only a modest group (and therefore belonged to a woman), and that there was a close tie between the owner of the box and its contents and the owner of the chest.2 P. convincingly demonstrates otherwise, helped greatly by the studies of d'Ambrosio and De Carolis 3 on precious-metal jewellery from the Vesuvius region, and Breglia 4 and others on coins from Pompeii.

The number of owners is in doubt (p. 8): some pieces are adult-sized, others child-sized, and some rings are heavy enough to be a man's. Therefore, the jewellery may have belonged to i) a woman who kept some childhood pieces as mementos, and rings from a husband or father for similar reasons; ii) a man, who kept the woman's and child's pieces for similar reasons, or iii) more than one person.

The wealth and social standing of the jewellery's owner (or perhaps owners) is similarly obscure (pp. 6-8). The quantity is somewhat more than one finds in those collections that seem to have been put away into storage, and certainly more than usually found on, or associated with, the remains of Vesuvius' victims, who generally wore only a pair of earrings, or a bracelet, or a ring. Furthermore, only some 10% of the skeletons had jewellery. On the other hand, houses whose features suggest owners of differing social levels provided jewellery of roughly comparable quality. This suggests, to P., that if the jewellery had a single owner, a certain, elevated financial status can be proposed, but not necessarily anything exceptional.

Nor does the coin hoard turn out to be exceptional (pp. 8-12), although it was the most valuable and, with one exception, the most numerous, of the hoards found in the house. Of the 84 hoards isolated by Breglia, 60 were between 100-1000 HS in value, fifteen between 1000-4000 HS, and seven between 4000 and 10,000 HS, the upper limit. The coins do not therefore make up a 'modest' hoard, but rather fall onto the high side of what a Pompeian house might be expected to contain. Furthermore, they do not say anything about the gender or status of their owner.

P. concludes this section (p. 13) by pointing out other aspects of the find which must remain uncertain: the date of the insertion of the box of jewellery and coins into the chest, the location of the chest at that time, and the time the chest was moved into the cellar. And so one cannot even be certain that the same individual owned the box and its contents and the chest with its silver plate.

Next, P.'s conclusions with respect to the plate, beginning with the composition of the group. Maiuri divided the items up into various classes: eating, drinking, display, and toilet silver, and noted how related vessels tended to divide into sets of multiples of two. There are, for example, seven pairs of cups and a singleton that probably was also originally part of a pair; the 'heavy' service of eating silver, consisting of twelve plates, but divided by size into three groups of four; the 'light' service, consisting of one large serving plate and sixteen other plates, divided by size into four groups of four, and so on. P.'s aim here is to determine whether all these smaller units of eating and drinking silver, when combined, make up a complete service, and if so, for how many people.

P. proposes that a 'service' should be defined as all those items needed for dining; the broadness of the definition takes into account the observation that the modern idea of a 'service', namely a set of items made roughly contemporaneously, in similar style, and meant to belong together, does not seem to apply to the Roman world. A glance at any substantial assemblage of silverware certainly supports this suggestion. Perhaps more controversial is P.'s proposal (pp. 22-23) that the Menander plate does indeed make up a complete service, for eight. Each diner would get a pair of cups and three plates, sized small, medium, and large, with the serving vessels being shared between two or four diners each. Vessels for sauces would be similarly shared, although one group of eight small stemmed bowls may have supplied each diner with an individual sauce-vessel as well.

The proposal is, in general, attractive, and accounts satisfactorily for many of the items and sets, but some problem areas remain. In order to arrive at the necessary total of 24 plates, the four smallest from the light service are removed from the equation and relegated to service as saucers. But, at 7.5cm in diameter, these plates are not so far off the next smallest, at 8.4cm in diameter, that a more important role should be dismissed so quickly. One also wonders about the need for a second cup for each diner. It is true that pairs of cups are often met in the finds (for instance, graves), but does that mean the pair was used by one individual, or was the pair split between, for example, owner and a guest? In any case one pair of cups is considerably smaller than the rest and made to such a conspicuously different design that it is difficult to see these in use simultaneously with the others. The stages by which the wine moved from the presumed mixing vessel to the drinkers' cups also seem awkward: first into four large containers, a jug and three saucepans, then from these into four small containers, a small amphora and three small jugs, and only then from these vessels into the cups. One of these transfers seems superfluous, unless extra straining or other manipulation was needed. Also, perhaps at least some of the jugs were for provision of water?

Questions of ownership and status, as they relate to the plate, are dealt with next. Maiuri had proposed a member of the gens Poppaea as the owner of both, in other words, someone from a family related to an emperor's wife.5 P.'s suggestion (p. 38) is, again, much less precise, but a better reflection of the uncertain nature of the evidence: the owner was an unknown, rich Campanian, possibly of duumviral level.

As P. points out, while the bullion value of the plate is calculable, the value added by the working of the raw silver into the finished product is not; also, grand houses do not absolutely require equally grand owners. But as P. does earlier cite (p. 11 with n. 42) a graffito (CIL iv.5380) that suggests 6 to 7 HS per day were necessary to maintain a household of three (at least), one should note that on those terms the plate does represent a considerable investment, even simply as bullion. As for naming the owner, there is, again, no solid evidence. Although a few names do appear on the plate, P. rightly argues that a name on a cup is not necessarily that of the last owner of that cup nor of the house in which it was found. In any case, the connection with the gens Poppaea was derived by Maiuri from a bronze seal found elsewhere, not from the silverware nor the house itself. Even the basic assumption that the owner of the house and the owner of the silver were one and the same must be tempered with a degree of doubt. It may be unlikely here, but a first-century AD papyrus inventory from Egypt 6 shows that one individual's plate could be held (for safekeeping? as security?) by others.

The usage of the plate within the house is the last area to be tackled. At this point P. picks up a question that may have been troubling a reader for some time: if the service was for eight, how does that correspond to the traditional triclinium layout for nine? P. speculates that perhaps the silver was for use in a stibadium, for which five to nine diners seems to have been the usual range, and furthermore, that this may have been an outdoor space, and so the site for more informal dining.7 It would indeed be curious to have a service with fewer pieces than necessary, unless vessels in other materials filled in the gaps. One possibility that P. doesn't examine is that the plate may have been in the cellar due to its removal from active service and was waiting there for ultimate disposition, perhaps resale or reworking.

Lastly, the catalogue. A point to quibble over here is the use of ancient vessel names to refer to the pieces, despite earlier acknowledgement of the difficulties this poses (p. 17). For the squat, cylindrical cups with rustic scenes, the term scyphus is used, but the discussion (pp. 53-4) suggests that the term could also have applied to cups with a deep, semiovoid body. Indeed the term is used for the deep, semiovoid cups with scenes of Venus and Mars, although the term calix is also suggested (pp. 56-7). And the term cantharus is used for the deep, semiovoid cups with olive branch decoration (pp. 58-9), and it is suggested that the term encompassed two variants, one with a concave body form, the other with a semiovoid body form, as here. Given all this uncertainty, perhaps the use of neutral English descriptors would have been preferable, in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary.

But quibbles aside, the book overall is an excellent survey of the treasure and the problems associated with its interpretation. P.'s arguments are clear, his conclusions appropriate, and his proposals advanced with a suitable degree of caution. If the book doesn't provide many concrete answers, it nonetheless airs the necessary questions, corrects Maiuri where this is warranted, and points the way for future work.


1.   References to footnotes "c" and "d" are missing from Table 2.3, and the text of these footnotes differs from what one would expect based on the discussion of the table in the text. Also, p. 22, col. 2, line 11, for 'four' read 'three'.
2.   For the first two claims: Maiuri 1933, 383, cited by P. (p. 8, 10). For the third: P. (p. 4) referring to Maiuri.
3.   d'Ambrosio, A. & E. De Carolis 1997 I monili dall'area Vesuviana. Rome.
4.   Breglia, L. 1950 'Circolazione monetale ed aspetti di vita economica a Pompeii,' in A. Maiuri (ed.) Pompeiana: Raccolta di studi per il secundo centenario degli scavi di Pompei. Naples.
5.   Maiuri 1933, 261, cited by P. (p. 27).
6.   BGU Vol. III, no. 781.
7.   Invaluable here to P. have been the researches into Roman dining of Katherine Dunbabin, in particular: Dunbabin, K.M.D. 1991 'Triclinium and stibadium,' in W.J. Slater (ed.), Dining in a Classical Context. Ann Arbor: 121-48, and eadem 1996, 'Convivial spaces: dining and entertainment in the Roman villa.' JRA 9: 66-80.

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