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The Roman silversmith: drinking cups of the elite

As their empire expanded in the last centuries B.C., the ancient Romans amassed great wealth and developed a taste for luxurious objects fashioned from precious materials. Domestic opulence and personal adornment were markers of status, leisure, and refinement. Elite individuals dined from finely wrought silver vessels, many of which were decorated in the Greek style with mythological scenes, adding cultural cachet to their monetary value. These treasures not only demonstrate the skills of Roman craftsmen but also provide valuable information about social relations at the height of the Empire. Ancient literature and archaeological finds attest to the use of objects not just in daily (though not necessarily everyday) life but also as grave gifts, and as dedications to the gods. A single object might in the course of its life fulfill more than one function.
Silver drinking cups with relief decoration were very popular in the 1st centuries B.C. and A.D. Cups were sometimes made in pairs to encourage conversation about the scenes on the vessels. Cupids, scenes of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine (Greek Dionysos), and mythological narratives—appropriate for the pleasant gatherings at which they would be seen and discussed—decorated most Roman tableware. Philosophical and political themes also appeared on silver vessels, as did pastoral and hunting scenes. Such imagery signaled the culture of their owner and stimulated intellectual conversation during and after dining. When not in use, the vessels were sometimes prominently displayed.
Skyphos, 50–25 B.C., unknown, Roman, eastern Mediterranean. Silver; 4 7/8 inches high x 7 5/8 inches wide x 4 7/16 inches in diameter (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, 75.AM.54). Use our zoom feature to take a closer look.
The skyphos shown above, one of a pair of matching cups, depicts four flying cupids supporting a large continuous garland. The two cups are not identical, for the cupids on each differ slightly in their posture and placement. Wound with ribbons, the garland is rich with fruits, including pomegranates, grapes, olives, and pinecones. Birds perch on and hover over the garland, while musical instruments associated with the cult of the god Bacchus hang from it. Cupids carrying garlands and engaging in a wide range of other activities were a popular motif in Roman art of all media in the late 1st century B.C. and early 1st century A.D.
On a similar silver cup, shown below, the Greek hero Odysseus stands holding a sword with which he has just sacrificed a ram. The scene appears to depict an episode from Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus traveled to Hades, the land of the dead, to consult the ghost of the blind seer Teiresias, who told him when he would finally return home to Ithaka. The blood of the sacrificed ram has summoned the dead, and Teiresias and another ghost are shown sitting on nearby rocks. The other side of this two-handled drinking cup shows five conversing male figures, probably philosophers.
Two-handled Cup with Relief Decoration, 1st century A.D., unknown, Roman, Roman Empire. Silver; 4 15/16 inches high x 6 7/16 inches wide x 4 1/2 inches in diameter (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, 96.AM.57). Use our zoom feature to take a closer look.
Even more elaborate cups decorated with exquisite high-relief scenes survive, although more rarely. Luxury goods like these were not just the possessions of emperors and senators, but were also available to the wealthy. Wearing an inscribed gemstone or drinking from silver cups with one’s dinner guests was not only an act of conspicuous consumption, but was also a sign of adherence to a larger, widespread culture. Despite the disapproval of Roman moralists and early Christian writers who attacked Roman decadence, the luxury arts were clearly highly valued, and many of the artisans who produced them—whether slave or free—were masters of their craft.

Grave relief of a silversmith

This Roman grave relief of a freed slave, shown below, identifies him as a silversmith. The inscription reads, “Publius Curtilius Agatus, freedman of Publius, silversmith.” Portraits such as this one were placed in the facades of family tombs lining the roads out of Rome, thus advertising the social and professional status of the deceased to all who passed by.
Grave Relief of a Silversmith, first quarter of 1st century, unknown, Roman, Roman Empire. Marble; 31 7/16 inches high x 23 1/16 inches wide x 12 1/2 inches deep (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, 96.AA.40). Use our zoom feature to take a closer look.
Wearing a voluminous toga and ring that indicate his status as a Roman citizen, the former slave is shown practicing his craft. In this image, Publius holds a hammer (its top now broken) in his right hand; in his left, he grasps a chasing tool (such as a chisel), with which he refines the decoration on the outside of a small cup depicting a dancing satyr in low relief. He has placed a wooden plug inside the vessel to keep it from being disfigured by the pressure applied from the exterior.

Crafting a silver cup

Ancient silversmiths employed a variety of sophisticated techniques to fashion the multiple parts of a drinking cup. The cups were formed from two main components: a smooth inner liner—hammered into shape and annealed (heated and cooled) as needed to keep the silver pliable—and a similar outer shell. The craftsman executed the figural decoration on the exterior of the outer shell, first by working from inside, raising and shaping the general forms of the figures with a rounded tool. This process is called repoussé—French for “pushed out.” To define the figures more clearly, the silversmith then worked from the outside, delineating edges and adding details with a variety of fine tools. This is what the silversmith Publius is doing in his grave relief, shown above. The inner liner of the cup was inserted into the outer shell once the shell’s exterior relief was finished. The feet and handles were made (cast) separately and soldered on to the completed, joined cup and liner.
The video The Making of a Roman Silver Cup describes the fashioning of a spectacular drinking cup, Cup with Centaur, decorated in raised relief with appliqué and gilding, now in the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Department of Coins, Medals, and Antiques. It was one of a pair dedicated by a Roman man, Quintus Domitius Tutus, to Mercury at a sanctuary to the god in Gaul. This and other silver vessels dedicated by Quintus depict Bacchic themes and mythological episodes not associated with Mercury, such as the Trojan War. The vessels, possibly heirlooms, do not seem likely to have been made with Mercury in mind, and they were probably used by Tutus as drinking or display wares before he offered them to the god.

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