A cup of the Boscoreale treasure

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Epicurus was an Athenian philosopher who lived from 341 to 270 BC.

After his death some of his followers traveled to Rome, found champions of Epicureanism there, and set up Epicurean societies. Epicurean philosophy became very popular among the highly educated and intellectually oriented Romans.

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Epicurus

A prominent Epicurean School was established in Naples, initially directed by Siro.  It was there that a community of Epicureans flourished.

When it comes to the world of ideas and how they apply to everyday life, one needs to ask whether philosophical discourse is contained and restricted in the discussions of the school, the community, a group of friends. Of course we would not expect all people to be engaged in the discussion, but it is interesting to establish the degree to which these discussions have an impact on everyday life.

Today’s post is about one artifact that provide an indication that the presence of the Epicureans in the area of Naples was known to wider circles and was on occasion a topic of satire and humor.  

 

In 1895, excavations at a Roman villa at Boscoreale on the slopes of Vesuvius unearthed a remarkable hoard of silver treasure, including 109 items of tableware, which the owner had stashed in a wine tank prior to the eruption that buried the region of Naples in AD 79. This prestigious collection, dating from between the late 1st century BC and the early 1st century AD, testifies to one of the finest periods in Roman silverware and reflects the taste of wealthy Campanians for drinking cups with relief decoration.(1)

Among the cups, sixteen in number, two are especially noteworthy. They are four inches high, and form a pair; they are ornamented with skeletons in high relief, so grouped that each cup presents four scenes satirizing human life and its interpretation in poetry and philosophy. (2)

These two silver cups, famous for their strange decoration, are embellished with gold. They formed a pair of modioli (from the Latin, meaning “small measures”), so called because their shape is reminiscent of the modius, a container used to measure wheat. A Latin inscription on the base of one of the cups gives their weight and the name of their owner, Gavia. (1)

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The scenes from one of the two cups of poetry and philosophy

One of the two cups depicts two prominent Hellenistic philosophers, Epicurus and Zeno. 

On the left side of the picture above we have two skeletons engaged in a mute dialogue. The skeletons are the two philosophers, who were known for their deep differences.

At the left the Stoic Zeno appears, standing stiffly with his philosopher’s staff in his left hand, his wallet hanging from his neck; with right hand extended he points the index finger in indignation and scorn at Epicurus, who, paying no heed to him, is taking a piece of a huge cake lying on the top of a small round table. Beside Epicurus an eager pig with snout and left foreleg uplifted is demanding a share. Over the cake is the inscription: τὸ τέλος ἡδονή, ‘the goal of life is pleasure.’ The letters of the inscription, as of the names of the philosophers, are too small to be shown distinctly in our illustration.(2)

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Zeno of Citius was a Greek philosopher (334-262 BC) who stood opposite to Epicurus. He founded the Stoic school of philosophy, which he taught in Athens from around 300 BC. Zeno believed that pleasure is a vice. Stoicism became the foremost popular philosophy among the educated elite in the Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire.

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Bronze piglet from a villa in Hercolanum

A few words about the piglet are in order.

Epicureans were likened to pigs by many of opposing views, in order to denigrate the principal Epicurean view that the goal of life is pleasure. This has been documented by the Roman poet Horace.  

In an epistle addressed to his melancholy friend and fellow poet, Albius Tibullus, Horace wrote: (3) 

Treat every day that dawns for you as the last.
The hour that’s unhoped for will be welcome when it comes.
When you want to smile then visit me: sleek, and fat
I’m a hog, well cared-for, one of Epicurus’ herd.

The bronze piglet we see above is in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, and was found in the Villa of Papyri in Herculaneum, where it supposedly partnered Epicurus’ bust. 

In my view the presence of the piglet on the cup is fully justified by the association of Epicureans with pigs. It is quite interesting to note the humorous aspect of the depiction.  

The two cups have similar and complementary repoussé decoration depicting the skeletons of tragic and comic poets and famous Greek philosophers, beneath a garland of roses. Greek inscriptions engraved in dots form captions, and are accompanied by Epicurean maxims such as: “Enjoy life while you can, for tomorrow is uncertain.” (1)

Drinking cups like these were used at the verbal sparring matches held at Roman banquets. As at Trimalchio’s feast (described by Petronius in the Satyricon), the guests sought to outdo each other in erudition, using Greek philosophical and literary references to promote sensual and intellectual pleasures. The choice of a ring of skeletons to decorate these modioli is neither macabre nor particularly surprising, but is on the contrary a hymn to life—an incitement to enjoy the present. This same theme is often represented—admittedly with less panache—on everyday items such as earthenware goblets, lamps, mosaics, or funerary monuments. Trimalchio himself had articulated silver skeletons placed on the table for his guests (Satyricon, 34, 8-10), reminding them that humans should be humble, as even the most enlightened poet or philosopher cannot avoid death.(1)

Both cups had evidently long been in use; there are still some traces of gilding, which, however, seems not to have been applied to the skeletons. While the explanatory inscriptions are in Greek, a Latin name, Gavia, is inscribed on the under side of the second cup, in the same kind of letters as the record of weight. The Gavii were a family of some prominence at Pompeii; we are perhaps warranted in concluding that the cups were made by a Greek for this Pompeian lady, and that afterward they came into the possession of another lady, Maxima, who formed the collection.(2)

After looking at the cup with the two philosophers we can clearly assume that the philosophical dialogue between Stoics and Epicureans was conducted out in the open and was an item of discussion and satire among the wealthy.

References

(1) Boscoreale Treasure, Louvre Museum, Paris, France

(2) Pompeii, Its Life and Art, by August Mau

(3) Epicurean Happiness: A Pig’s Life?  David Konstan. Journal of Ancient Philosophy Vol. VI 2012 Issue 1

 

1 COMMENT

  1. Epicurus wasn´t hedonist in the modern sense – i.e. obsessively seeking pleasure – but defined hedonism as a counterbalance to pain, not as a goal in itself. Balancing well being and pain, accepting things as they are without supposing a primary cause or a fall from a timeless good and without fear of gods, gained him little sympathy in the future world of eschatology. For him the void was not nothing but the precondition allowing atoms to move freely, the horizon of their appearance. Hence being pervades his world leaving nihilism to modern hedonists and moralists.

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