Monday, May 18, 2015


Kenneth Lapatin (ed.), The Berthouville Silver Treasure and Roman Luxury. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2014. Pp. vii, 190. ISBN 9781606064207. $50.00 (hb).

Reviewed by David Gill, University Campus Suffolk (

Version at BMCR home site


The Berthouville silver treasure, some 90 items weighing c. 25 kg, was discovered as a result of ploughing in March 1830 at the hamlet of Le Villeret in Normandy France. The treasure was reported and acquired by the Cabinet des Médailles et Antiques of the Bibliothèque Royale in Paris for 15,000 francs. Subsequent excavations and a geophysical investigation revealed that the hoard had been deposited in a sanctuary. During the temporary closure of the Cabinet, the treasure was placed on loan with the J. Paul Getty Museum, leading to a travelling exhibition, Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville, at the Getty Villa (November 19, 2014 to August 17, 2015); San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum (September 19, 2015 to January 10, 2016); Boston, Museum of Fine Arts (February 14 to May 22, 2016); Kansas City, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (June 25 to October 2, 2016). A "full scientific catalogue" of the treasure is also promised to mark the return to Paris. This will replace the 1916 catalogue by Ernest Babelon.1

The volume under review consists of six essays exploring different aspects of the Treasure. Mathilde Avisseau-Broustet, Cécile Colonna, and Kenneth Lapatin provide the context for the find in "The Berthouville Treasure: a discovery 'As marvellous as it was expected'". Léon Le Métayer-Masselin uncovered part of the sanctuary in 1861. The cella was found to have contained the base of a statue. Le Métayer-Masselin linked it to the inscribed statue base of a statue of Mercury "with its own shrine" (cum sua aede), dedicated to the imperial numen, that had been reused in the church of Saint-Germain-la-Campagne some 10 km away (pp. 11-12, fig. 3). Twelve Roman coins recovered during the excavations dated from 44 BC to the early fourth century (Constantine II). Father Camille de la Croix re-excavated the site in 1896 and revealed remains of the two temples. He also located the "stone-built cavity" where the treasure had been placed within the peribolos of the sanctuary (14). The excavation additionally found the site of a theatre, capable of seating 5000 people, about 65 metres from the sanctuary. In 2005 a geophysical survey conducted by Thierry Lepert revealed a wide ditch (140 by 150 metres) on a different orientation to the temple (15). This may provide evidence that the site was occupied during the second Iron Age (though not necessarily for religious purposes).

The Treasure appears to have been deposited in the third century although some of the objects are much earlier (17). For example, nine of the dedications (total weight 8.7 kg.), probably dating to the first century AD, were inscribed with the name of Quintus Domitius Tutus (35-45, fig. 19), although variations in the inscriptions suggest that they were not all donated at the same time. They included three paired items: relief jugs decorated with scenes from the Trojan War (52-57, figs. 28-29), Centaur cups (35, 46-51, figs. 18, 26-27), and canthari with masks (41-43, figs. 22-24). In addition there is a phiale decorated with Omphale (64-67, fig. 34), a beaker (58-63, fig. 32) and a ladle (38, fig. 20). One of the jugs includes the striking image of the body of Hector placed on weigh-scales and balanced against an amphora that will form part of the ransom. One of the more intriguing pieces is the silver beaker commemorating a victory in the Nemean Games. The sanctuary at Isthmia is represented by a seated Poseidon, and a winged Pegasus is shown drinking at the fountain of Peirene under the towering representation of Acrocorinth surmounted by the temple of Venus. The victorious athlete, holding a palm frond, is wearing "a crown made of pine sprigs". Lapatin suggests that this beaker was perhaps part of a set of four: the "missing" beakers would have shown the other Panhellenic sanctuaries of Delphi, Nemea and Olympia, perhaps to mark Nero's announcement of freedom to Greece (61). The beaker itself was dedicated to "Augustan Mercury", in fulfilment of a vow.

Tutus was not the only personal name recorded on the plate. The names of five other citizens are inscribed (Marcus Latinius Astius, 29, fig. 13; Gaius Propertius Secundus, 30, fig. 14; Quintus Lucianus Blaesus, 31, fig. 15; Quintus Statilius Carus; and Q.B.S.), as well as those of two free women (Lucilia Lupula: bowl with Mercury, 24, fig. 8; Iulia Sybilla: bowl with rustic sanctuary, 80-83, fig. 43). There is also a libertus, Publius Aelius Eutychus, freed by Publius Aelius Numitor, recorded on a bowl with relief medallion showing Mercury and either Maia or Roserta (27, fig. 10). Several names appear to be Gallic in origin (32). One of the most intriguing is the dedication of two items—a long- handled bowl decorated with Cybele (28, fig. 12), and a silver plate decorated with a bird (34, fig. 17)— by Germanissa daughter of Viscarius who may have a Frankish origin (32). The two objects together weigh 1.6 kg (894 g and 747 g, respectively). Several of the inscriptions on items from the treasure reveal that they were dedications to Mercury Canetonensus. One of the stunning pieces is a silver and gold statuette of Mercury (18-21, fig. 6). It stands at 56.3 cm, and weighs 2.772 kg. It is estimated that it may have weighed as much as 3 kg, and thus the equivalent of 9 Roman pounds (20).

Isabelle Fauduet provides important background with "Gaul at the time of the Berthouville sanctuary". She explains the architectural form for the temple and sanctuary placing it within a wider fanum layout common in Gaul, the southern part of Britannia, and in parts of Germania. It is stressed that "The dimensions of the Berthouville sanctuary and the facilities surrounding it testify to its considerable importance" (74).

Ruth Leader-Newby, well known from her study of Late Roman plate,2 explores "Heroes, lions and vandals: four Late Roman Missoria". These major pieces of plate, dating from the fourth to the sixth centuries, form part of the Cabinet but were not found at Berthouville. They include the Achilles plate ("The Shield of Scipio") recovered from the Rhône in 1656 (90-95, fig. 48), the plate with a Lion ("The Shield of Hannibal") found at Le Passage in the Isère valley (97, fig. 51), the plate with Hercules and the Nemean Lion found in the province of Massa-Carrara in Italy (100-01, fig. 54), and the missorium of Geilamir found at Artèn in Italy (98, fig. 52). The weights are impressive: 10.26 kg, 10.15 kg, 3.03 kg, and 3.15 kg, respectively. The missorium of Geilamir, dating to 530-533, was found with a plate adorned with Venus and Adonis (99, fig. 53). It bears a Latin inscription identifying the donor as the rex of the Vandals and Alani, perhaps indicating that the gift was an example of largitio (101-02). Leader-Newby compares the missoria with the major Late Roman hoards such as those from Mildenhall, Kaiseraugst, and Sevso (89). She suggests that the Achilles plate and the plate with Hercules and the Nemean lion were designed for "display for the visual enjoyment of the dinner guests (complementing other forms of decoration on the walls and floors), while at the same time advertising their owners' prosperity" (101). In contrast the plate with a Lion has only a small decorated tondo, perhaps allowing the rest of the surface to be used for serving food (101). Leader-Newby speculates that the iconography of the Achilles plate makes specific reference to Homer's Iliad Books 1 and 9, and thus "signalled that the host was a man of paideia, and simultaneously allowed his guests the opportunity to display their own education in paideia through their response to the scenes depicted" (104). The plate with Hercules and the Nemean Lion, in contrast, "could be seen allegorically as the victory of good over evil" (104).

The scientific analysis and conservation of the plate at the Getty Villa is explored by Eduardo Sánchez and Susan Lansing Maish, "The hidden lives of ancient objects: conserving the Berthouville Treasure and four Missoria". The study revealed that the clothing on the smaller statue of Mercury had originally been gilded (116-17, fig. 64), and the gilding on the plate with lion has been digitally reconstructed to give an impression of how it would have originally appeared . (109, fig. 57). Among the other findings it was noted that some of the relief medallions may not have been placed in the correct bowls after the discovery of the hoard (123). Shadows on the X-radiographs of the Centaur cups indicated punched inscriptions recording the weight of the inner cup liners that were not visible from the outside (116-17, fig. 65). One of the inscriptions read 2 pounds, 1 uncia, and 2 scripulae, i.e., 684.46 g. The complete cup weighed 1.653 kg.

Kenneth Lapatin provides an overview of "Roman luxury from home to tomb and sanctuary". He reminds us that gold and silver plate "effectively functioned as large bank notes" (130) citing evidence from the Greek world. He reviews some of the evidence for luxury jewellery and places British pearls in a wider context (133). He also considers the evidence from cups made from fluospar and links them to murrhine ware. He draws attention to the argentarius Publius Curtilius Agatus whose funerary relief surfaced through the Merrin Gallery in New York and after passing through the collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman is now in the J. Paul Getty Museum.3

The final chapter by Mathilde Avisseau-Broustet and Cécile Colonna explores "The Cabinet des Médailles: its history and archaeological collections". The Cabinet du roi was initiated by Charles V (r. 1364-80). The study contains a number of insights into the formation and development of this elite collection. In 1661 Louis XIV received a bequest from his uncle including the cameos that had formed part of the collection of George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham. The Cabinet was moved to the rue Vivienne, its present home, in 1666, although in 1684 it was transferred to Versailles (returning in 1740). In 1791 material from the royal abbey of Saint-Denis was deposited in the cabinet including the agate "Cup of the Ptolemies" (140, fig. 87, 158). Ernest Babelon was head of the Cabinet from 1892 to 1924 (169) and prepared the first catalogue of the Berthouville treasure in 1916.

This volume is an important contribution to our understanding of Roman luxury, and specifically silver plate and statuary, through the careful study of a treasure from a rural sanctuary in Gaul alongside Late Roman missoria.


1.   Ernest Babelon, Le trésor d'argenterie de Berthouville, près Bernay (Eure) conservé au Département des médailles et antiques de la Bibliothèque nationale. Paris: La Libraririe centrale des beaux-arts.
2.   Ruth E. Leader-Newby, Silver and Society in Late Antiquity. Functions and Meanings of Silver Plate in the Fourth to the Seventh Centuries. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004. Reviewed in BMCR 2004.07.48.
3.   Malibu inv. 96.AA.40. The Merrin Gallery, The Majesty of Ancient Egypt and the Classical World. New York, 1986; p. 27. Exhibition catalogue. A Passion for Antiquities: Ancient Art from the Collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman. Malibu, Calif.: J. Paul Getty Museum in association with the Cleveland Museum of Art, 1994, 336-38, no. 178. The catalogue entry, by Maxwell Anderson, noted that the relief "was very likely set into a large architectural funerary monument".

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