Skeletons on a cup in Heraclea Sintica

Dancing skeletons are depicted on a fragment of an unpublished cup from the first half of the I century AD found in 2019 during excavations in the antique city of Heraclea Sintica near the village of Rupite, Petrich municipality, SW corner of Bulgaria. Probably the cup was deliberately made of a very light gray clay to resemble silver. Around the new era, Roman rich people were feasting with silver vessels decorated with cheerful skeletons. Thus, they demonstrated luxury by following the maxim of “We are all mortal and let us remember this as we indulge in the delight!” Such skeletons can be seen on two silver cups of the famous Boscoreale treasure, which is kept in the Louvre and was shown in an exhibition in the National Archaeological Museum in Sofia in 2015. On one of them are read inscriptions such as: “Enjoy while you live, tomorrow is uncertain!”, “Life is theater!” and on the other ‒ “Be cheerful while you are alive!” and the ironic” Honor holy rubbish!” The treasure is called thus after the name of the place where it was found – near the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

Not only the owners of this set were fascinated by fashion to justify their extravagance with a reminder of the brevity of earthly pleasures. Roman authors such as Pliny the Elder condemned the ostentation and the empty splendor. The epigraphist Nicolay Sharankov (Sofia University) finds the following sentences in Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, published two years before the powerful eruption of Vesuvius: “…My God, Pompeius Paullinus, the son of a member of the equestrian class from Arelate (present-day Arles), whose paternal ancestors dressed with animal skins, carried with him in the army 12 000 lb of silver (ca. 3960 kg), moreover during the campaigns against the most bloodthirsty tribes… ” Nicolay Sharankov recalled that in BC 161 Roman Senate ordered more prominent citizens to limit their costs for feasts, not to serve imported wine, and the total weight of the silver vessels they used would not exceed 100 lb (33 kg). In this sense is a significant scene in Petronius’ “Satyrikon”: “… As we drank and diligently praised the luxury, a slave brought a silver skeleton, assembled so that his joints and bones were freely rotated in all directions. After throwing it once or twice on the table and its tied elements formed different figures, Trimalchio exclaimed: “How miserable we are! Woe to us, man is so insignificant! We will all be like this when the Underworld God takes us. So, as long as we are okay, let us go into life!” This philosophy and the justification with its fashion to be spent on ever more expensive and exquisite silverware found easy followers among the richest. For those with modest means, they rushed to emulate them, leaving less expensive imitations. Probably this is the case with the fragment of the light gray clay cup, found at the forum of Heraclea Sintica, considers the head of the excavations Assoc. Prof. Dr. Lyudmil Vagalinski.

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