BMCR 2004.07.48

Silver and Society in Late Antiquity. Functions and Meanings of Silver Plate in the Fourth to the Seventh Centuries

, Silver and society in late antiquity : functions and meanings of silver plate in the fourth to seventh centuries. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003. xii, 240 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm. ISBN 0754607283 $89.95.

All that Glitters:
Silver for Bishops, Barbarians and Brides

Long before barbarian chieftains displayed an uncommon lust for all that glitters, a Jewish couple attempted to ward off robbers beyond the grave. Their epitaph informed the literate would-be looter that “Here you will find neither gold nor silver. Only bones … Cursed be he who will dare to open this [grave].” (N. Avigad, Eretz Israel, 3 (1954), 66-74). The efficacy of this curse can be measured by the relatively small number of ornate silver dishes from antiquity that have come to light since the 16th century. Leader-Newby’s (hereafter L-N) study, originally a dissertation, deals with the cultural context of silver items, plates especially, and how their use informs us of their role in the fashioning of a Christian society with new social and artistic values.

Divided into four chapters, each aiming at illuminating different key functions of silverware categories between 300-650 CE (p. 5), the book sets out to explore specific silver items within imperial, ecclesiastical and domestic domains. The first chapter (“The Emperor’s Gifts: The Missorium of Theodosius and Imperial Largitio”) treats the use of luxury art, gold, silver and ivory, in a political context. The missorium celebrates an imperial decennalia as well as, it seems, the investiture of an unknown imperial official seen standing in front of the three seated emperors. For L-N the missorium stands at a crossroads between classical imperial iconography (its lower register incorporates traditional classical imagery) and late ancient frontal style (the main register displays three seated emperors gazing unmoved and immobile at the beholder). What is notably absent from the missorium, L-N observes, is a clear Christian context. In other words, here are three emperors known for their piety in a non-committal, classical, even ‘pagan’ background. L-N further asks to what extent did emperors have a monopoly over artistic imagery that included their images? For her, pieces like the missorium did not perforce emerge from an imperial workshop but could have been produced for private consumption in deliberate imitation of imperial or public artistic language. These are important points which further invite the question of how one defines imperial or public and aristocratic or private art in late antiquity, since these are often intertwined.

A long scar disfigures the missorium, a visible reminder of the vicissitudes that visited such costly pieces and their owners. Perhaps it was looted during the Visigothic sack of Rome in 410; perhaps it changed hands when the senators of Rome had, against their will, to pay a huge ransom to Alaric. Once in the Visigothic entourage, the missorium formed, in all likelihood, the centerpiece of the memorable wedding of the princess Galla Placidia, daughter and sister of the emperors featured on the missorium, and king Ataulf, Alaric’s heir, in 412. The occasion was graced not only with the traditional epithalamium, masterfully delivered by a Roman nobleman, but also with a public display of the spectacular gifts, which the bridegroom presented to his bride, undoubtedly the best of the Gothic loot from Italy. It is somewhat ironic, yet rather fitting, that the plate was interred in Spain, the original home of Galla’s family, the province where her infant son was buried (in a silver casket), and the scene of Ataulf’s assassination.

The second chapter (“Sacred silver: from patera to paten”) focuses on liturgical vessels and reliquary caskets, both components of “a network of images and rituals which articulated the space of the late antique church” (p. 6). In this chapter L-N examines items such as silver spoons, strainers and patens (plates for the communion of bread), exploring how Christianity transformed the use of domestic tableware from a form of votive dedication in a sacred pagan context to a prime offering to God in a space where rituals of eating and drinking were central. The absence of narrative episodes from these pieces suggests to L-N that these liturgical vessels were conceived as “components of the exegetical scheme of the church decoration as a whole, rather than independent bearers of meaning” (p. 94). The profusion of figural presentations on silver reliquary caskets, by contrast, suggests to L-N that they stand within “a larger network of rituals, worship and theology which constituted and defined the cult of saints” (p. 101). Overall, the “sacred status of such objects was articulated both by their material and by their decoration”(p. 109).

The third and fourth chapters turn to the domestic sphere, focusing on the ideas and ideology of paideia narratives through ‘pagan’ imagery (ch. 3: “Representing myth in late antique silver: the role of paideia”) and through biblical imagery (ch. 4: “The persistence of paideia: the David plates and the transformation of the secular in early Byzantium”). At the core of the third chapter are objects like the Achilles plates of the Kaiseraugusta and Sevso treasures, which L-N reads not as tokens of pagan revivals expressing their owners’ religious affiliation but rather as illustrations of aristocratic cultural values. Ornate silver items, like late Latin secular literature, need to be understood as reflections of cultural precocity requiring mastery of a vast repertory of literary and artistic associations. L-N makes an important point about the use of pagan imagery as a paideia material, regardless, it seems, of the religious affiliation of the users. She does not discuss the larger connotations and context of this important assumption.

That ‘pagan’ imagery could indeed be stripped of polytheistic connotations and adapted to a new use within a different context is strikingly illustrated within Jewish sacred realm where synagogue mosaics routinely display zodiacs and chariots of the sun. In Galilean Sepphoris the central synagogue mosaic (5th century) contains a profusion of Jewish symbols, biblical scenes and a blazing Helios atop a chariot encircled by the twelve zodiac signs, each figuring a young man! Wealthy Jews in Sepphoris and Scythopolis had a marked fondness for mythological scenes, as illustrated on domestic mosaics which feature Dionysiac and Nilotic imageries. Provincial nabobs, then, readily imitated the nobles of the great cities of the empire, not without an original twist and interesting adaptations.

Nowhere is the interchange between public and private, domestic and communal, more sharply delineated than in the translation of the Bible into art. L-N devotes her fourth and last chapter to the David plates from Cyprus, which she sees as components of a Christian discourse that increasingly came to dominate all areas of life, including the domestic sphere. The nine plates of the David Cyprus treasure are unique. They form a narrative cycle, with each episode depicted on a separate plate, uneven in size and perhaps in importance. The narrative focuses solely on David’s early career, which spans three biblical chapters, 1 Samuel 16-18. The iconography and style of the central and largest plate are remarkably different from those of the eight other plates. Nor is there consensus about the precise subject of each plate. L-N entitles one that shows two figures as “David approached by messenger while playing the harp” (p. 189). In fact, David does not play but rather holds the instrument with one arm, while his right arm is extended towards the approaching figure. A plate featuring two men, one armed, the other unarmed, facing each other is entitled “David in conversation with soldier” (L-N 190). More likely, it represents the touching scene between David and Jonathan (I Sam 18:1-4) in which Jonathan expresses his love for David by giving him his armor and his clothes, a fitting conclusion for the entire cycle, which shows David’s anointing, the killing of a lion and a bear, his arming for the duel with Goliath, the duel, and his reward (i.e., marriage with the royal princess and friendship to death with the royal prince).

L-N criticizes previous interpretations of the David plates, preferring to dissociate them from an imperial context and from the emperor Heraclius, whose stamp dates them to the early seventh century. Instead, she emphasizes their educational-secular context, an aspect that highlights the use of the Old Testament within the private domain. For L-N, David’s youthful adventures are presented as “an alternative to the exploits of the heroes of classical myth traditionally depicted on domestic silverware” (p. 204). This is a biblical figure metamorphosed into an educational tool with a message that stands at considerable variance with the one projected, for example, in the David medallion of the monastery church at Saint Catherine (Sinai).1

The moral message of the plates should indeed not be lost. David of 1 Sam 16-18 is the embodiment of a twofold promise, the promise to provide a suitable heir to the Israelite throne after the failure of the first monarchic attempt and the promise which Yahweh made to save Israel from its greatest enemy, the Philistines. Did David, then, enter noble houses on silver plates to inspire the youth with exemplary behavior, as L-N seems to suggest? One hopes that the impressionable young gentleman or lady did not continue their reading beyond 1 Sam 18.

It would appear that the plates project multiple messages. They convey a message of courage and its rewards, one which suited an imperial ideology, like that of Heraclius, that sought desperately to deflect attention from failures on the battlefield to victories in store for believers who trusted in God. The plates also incorporate a more universal or global message, one that sought to ‘translate’ narratives of the Hebrew Bible into a Christian context. And they also fashion an aristocratic model, to be emulated by the noble Christian youth, of a young and talented boy, full of the spirit of God and ready to defy Israel’s enemies. Above all, with their evocation of an enchanting biblical narrative, the David cycle appears ideally suited to a catechumenal stage. It is easy enough to imagine the silver plates in a church where sermons repeatedly referred to David’s (early) virtues.

The book contains many black and white illustrations. There is no map that shows the localities where the items were found, and measurements are not always given. Nonetheless, it is a pleasure to read a fresh analysis of familiar pieces so ably brought together by L-N, and it is indeed time to reconsider the production, distribution, style and purpose of these unique pieces within a larger social, economic, political and cultural context, as L-N does.

To illustrate the taming power of piety when coupled with sanctified silver Orosius inserted a singular episode into his description of the three memorable days during which Alaric’s Visigoths sacked Rome in 410. In the course of a search for booty a Visigothic commander entered a church where he was confronted with a single elderly nun. He demanded silver. She promptly fetched the church liturgical silver. The matter was reported to Alaric. The king ordered full restoration, a command that both Romans and barbarians promptly celebrated with an ad hoc procession, together carrying the silver back to the church through the streets of Rome (Oros. 7.39). Orosius knew the value of the anecdote. For barbarian kings Roman silver was crucial in order to ensure their standing among their followers. For the Roman government it was often cheaper to buy barbarians with gold and silver rather than to fight them. Heraclius forgot this basic tenet of diplomacy. As Theophanes reports (s.a. 6123), the withdrawal of imperial largesse from Arab chieftains in the early seventh century brought calamity and lost an empire. Silver would have been cheaper.


1. The Saint Catherine’s David bears an uncanny resemblance to the emperor Justinian of the San Vitale mosaic, not surprisingly, one may add, in view of common patronage. More astonishing is the resemblance to the same emperor borne by the David of the synagogue at Gaza, dated to 508! and clearly identified with an inscription in Hebrew letters! In the Gaza synagogue David plays the harp or lyre, with both hands and not with one, as he does on the silver plate from Cyprus. In Jewish art of late antiquity the figure of the playing David was readily assimilated to that of Orpheus — both men creating harmony between humans and animals — in order to convey a multi-leveled message to the beholder. Thus the David-Orpheus of the Gaza synagogue is both a ruler chosen by God and the composer of the divine Psalms that glorify God’s creation, all motifs in tune with synagogal liturgy. Scenes illustrating David’s early adventures are rare. At Dura-Europos, in the spectacular synagogue, one panel shows the anointing of the young David. All participants in this abbreviated scene raise their right arm in precisely the same gesture used on the David Cyprus plates! A rare ceramic oil lamp (Jewish?) from Egypt (Alexandria?), perhaps contemporaneous with the Dura-Europos David (mid third century), perhaps later, features David and Goliath facing each other.