Silver Cups from Cyrene: Between Royal Gifts and Numismatic Implications

Citation with persistent identifier: Rosamilia, Emilio. “Silver Cups from Cyrene: Between Royal Gifts and Numismatic Implications.” CHS Research Bulletin 8 (2020).

Ancient Greek vessels made out of precious metals are one of the most striking products of ancient craftsmanship. With their lavish decoration and elegant lines, gold and silver vessels have long been considered symbols of the luxuries among which members of ancient elites spent their lives. As such, they have become the highlights of many exhibitions and public collections. In spite of this, apart from museum and exhibition catalogues, just a few studies have dealt with these materials. The only monograph aiming at comprehensiveness dates back from the 1960s (Strong 1966) and is now outdated. More recent publications have focused on the relation between pottery and precious vessels (Vickers 1990; 1992; Vickers and Gill 1995) and an excellent book by Zimi (2011) now sheds light on silverware production in Hellenistic Makedonia. However, the study of gold and silver vessels would greatly benefit from a historical approach. This will be the topic of my next book project. In particular, economic relations between minted coins and precious plate can shed much light both on the lifespan of these vessels and on their patterns of circulation, as shown by the following pages.

Before the introduction of coinage, metal objects were commonly used as a unit of value in exchanges. Aside from the spits (obeloi) that allegedly gave their name to the later obols (Kroll 2001; 2012:34–36), Greek laws from archaic Crete stipulate that some fines have to be paid in bronze cauldrons (lebêtes), double-edged axes, and tripods (Gagarin and Perlman 2016:107–110). These proto-monetary uses of bronze and iron items were generally outpaced by the introduction of silver coinage. The same is not true of vessels made of precious metals. Since ancient Greek coins were literally small ingots worth their weight in gold or silver, precious vessels could easily be considered a form of bullion and played a relevant role in the economic transactions of the Greeks (Lewis 1986; Vickers 1990).

For example, two silver phialai mentioned in Apollodoros’ Against Timotheos were traded multiple times between the people involved in the trial. Before going abroad, Timosthenes left them with the banker Pasion for safekeeping. The Athenian statesman Timotheos later borrowed the same two phialai from Pasion in order to use them during a banquet. Timotheos never gave them back, according to Apollodoros ([Demosthenes] Against Timotheos 32):

when Timosthenes reached home […], Timotheos being still abroad in the king’s service, my father (i.e. Pasion) persuaded him to accept the value (τιμή) of the bowls, as much as they were worth by weight (ὅσον ἦγον αἱ φιάλαι), namely two hundred and thirty-seven drachmae.

While Timotheos was mainly interested in these phialai as status symbols, Pasion and Timosthenes both agreed that the weight of a silver object and its value in coins were the same thing. This is also proved by the fact that the banker lent these phialai to Timotheos without a second thought: he was likely well aware that Timosthenes would not object to a reimbursement in coined silver.

Unsurprisingly, this equivalence between weight and value of precious vessels during the classical period leads to an impulse toward standardization. In order to facilitate evaluations and transactions, silver vessels tended to conform to a standard weight that could be expressed in round figures according to the local monetary standard. For phialai and other drinking cups, the ideal weight was generally around 100 drachmas (Lewis 1986:73), but multiples and fractions are attested as well. However, not all vessels were standardized this way.

As first noticed by Lewis (1986:77), at least a few non-standard cases were easily explained by their conformity to a different monetary standard. For instance, the two phialai mentioned in Apollodoros  Against Timotheos are a little overweight: around 118.5 Attic drachmas each. The fact that they are described in the speech as Lukiourgeis (i.e. of Lycian workmanship) attests that these phialai came from Asia Minor. Whether they were worth 90 Persian sigloi (Vickers 1992:58) or 100 heavy Lycian drachmas can still be debated, but a non-Attic coin standard is at work. Of course, these non-standard weights can prove our best sources for the study of the history, the provenance, and the dating of vessels.

As part of my ongoing project on precious vessels in the Greek world, during my stay at the CHS I focused mostly on the relations between silver vessels and coinage in the frame of Hellenistic courts. If the importance of gold and silver vessels in the economy of Greek poleis has already been studied in some detail (cf. e.g. Ampolo 1989–1990), the same is not true for the Hellenistic kingdoms. The conquest of the Achaemenid empire by Alexander the Great put back into circulation huge amounts of precious metals accumulated by the Persian kings over the centuries. No small fraction of these resources consisted of bullion and – of course – precious plate. If a part of these vessels was likely melted down and minted, hoarding of non-monetized silver and gold was a constant for Hellenistic kingdoms (cf. Le Rider and Callataÿ 2006:169–192). As Zimi (2011:141–146) aptly pointed out, Hellenistic kings made silver and golden plate one of the symbols of their luxurious way of life. As a consequence, they tried to own as many vessels as possible in order to display them for state occasions and festivities.

However, how should one approach the study of silverwares from Hellenistic courts? No surviving gold or silver vessel can be surely connected with a Hellenistic monarch, and just a few examples of Hellenistic silverware survive. While studies such as the one by Zimi (2011) are definitely praiseworthy, they rest on a small number of items and shed more light on the production and styles of silversmithing in the Graeco-Roman world than on the role of gold and silver vessels in the economy of any Hellenistic state. On the other hand, some epigraphic sources have proven extremely useful in shedding some light on the evolution of precious plate collections owned by Hellenistic kings. This is particularly true for temple inventories.

Hellenistic kings were famously openhanded with their silverwares. They frequently offered single phialai or sets of precious vessels to the gods, either as a show of piety or in order to provide cult paraphernalia. Already in 330/29 BCE, queen Olympias, Alexander’s mother, offered a phiale to the statue of Hygieia in Athens (Hypereides In Defence of Euxenippos 19; cf. Bringmann and Steuben 1995: no. 1). The gifts of later kings could be far more lavish. For instance, in 288/7 BCE Seleukos I donated more than a dozen gold and silver vessels to the temple of Apollo at Didyma (IDidyma 424; Welles, RC no. 5; cf. Bringmann and Steuben 1995: no. 280).

Although these vessels have long been melted down, their description and weight survive in official accounts of the temples that received them. Unfortunately, the two best studied dossiers of temple inventories offer little help. Temple inventories ceased to be inscribed in Athens sometime after 304/3 BCE and definitely before 295/4 BCE, when Lachares took away many votives from the Acropolis (Lewis 1988; Harris 1995:37–39). As a consequence, almost no attestation of gifts of precious vessels from Hellenistic kings is preserved in Attic epigraphy. On the other hand, even though many offerings from Hellenistic rulers are attested in Delos, notations of vessel weights are rather uncommon in Delian accounts (cf. Hamilton 2000:67–68).

If temple accounts from Athens and Delos prove only partially useful for the present analysis, other dossiers preserve more interesting information. The most extensive one comes from the sanctuary of Didyma, near Miletos. However, this is a rather peculiar dossier. Unlike their Delian counterparts, Didymean accounts list the votives that have been offered during the administrative year. For this reason, no item is mentioned twice and accounts differ greatly from one another. In addition to the gift from Seleukos in 288/7 BCE, the sanctuary received offerings from many other kings. From the point of view of this analysis, a set of votives is particularly interesting. Between 107 and 90/89 BCE, Ptolemy IX Soter II offered four phialai to Apollo, which weighed 328 drachmas of Alexander altogether (I.Didyma 475 lines 33-35; cf. Bringmann and Steuben 1995: no. 280). Unsurprisingly, 328 drachmas of Alexander correspond precisely to 400 drachmas according to the Ptolemaic standard. Therefore, these cups had been crafted somewhere within the Ptolemaic Empire during the third or second century BCE.

Even more interesting is the small dossier from the sanctuary of Oropos in Boiotia. The longest and best preserved inventory – dating from around 200 BCE – mentions (IOropos 325 lines 59–60; cf. Bringmann and Steuben 1995: no. 79):

βασιλέως Πτολεμαίου φιάλη πτολεμαϊ|κοῦ ἄγουσα ρ’

a phiale, (an offering) of king Ptolemy, weighing 100 drachms of the Ptolemaic standard

Since this is the only vessel weighed according to the Ptolemaic standard instead of the local one, it is very likely that the magistrates just transcribed what they read on the vessel (cf. for instance the weight inscription on the golden phiale from Caltavuturo, ca. 300 BCE: SEG 39 1034; Guzzo et al. 2010). In addition, the fact that this phiale weighs 100 Ptolemaic drachmas attests that it was crafted in the Ptolemaic empire sometime after the coinage reform of 294 BCE (Lorber 2005).

However, which Ptolemy offered this phiale to Amphiaraos? Oropos and the Ptolemies seem to have had only a few contacts during the third century BCE. Between 221 and 204 BCE, the city of Oropos honored a philos of Ptolemy IV who spoke with the kings on the city’s behalf (IOropos 175). If Ptolemy IV is a possible candidate (Petrakos ad IOropos 325; Bringmann and Steuben 1995: ad no. 79), Ptolemy II (282–246 BCE) is at least as likely because of his interest in the area in the years immediately preceding the Chremonidean War. If the offering dates back to the 260s BCE, it means that this phiale was no more than 30 years old when it was consecrated. This would attest to the vitality of Alexandrian metalworking during the III century BCE and the relatively short lifespan of silverwares at the Ptolemaic court.

This might be confirmed by a particularly interesting document that has been the focus of most of my research at the CHS and will be the topic of a separate paper. A late-second-century-BCE white marble stele from Cyrene partially preserves a set of regulations about sacred vessels that is followed by a vessel list or inventory (SEG 9 73; LSCG suppl. 117; IGCyr 016800). This document was long thought to emanate from the local polis (cf. e.g. Laronde 1987:424). However, Catherine Dobias-Lalou (BE 2005: no. 620) first noticed that the text was written in koinê instead of the local Dorian dialect. As a consequence, this inscription is an official Ptolemaic document.

Interestingly, the vessel list is organized in a way that is quite uncommon among Greek inventories. Thanks to a revision of the published text, it is now apparent that cups are divided according to their capacity. Since the dimensions of a cup cannot but influence its weight, it shall come as no surprise that similar vessels have almost identical weights:

Group A. Average weight: 139.50 drachmas, i.e. 150 drachmas minus 7.00%;

Group B. Average weight: 91.67 drachmas, i.e. 100 drachmas minus 8.33%.

If we accept the hypothesis – that I will discuss in detail in a separate paper – that we are dealing with a set of Ptolemaic gifts, then these weights are likely given in Ptolemaic drachmas and these vessels are definitely a little underweight. A possible explanation comes from taking into account the so-called apousia or apokausis, that is the loss of material connected with the recasting of silver (cf. Woodward 1951; Picard 1988). While the loss could indeed vary, in the case of our best source – an Athenian decree concerning the melting down and recasting of silver dedications belonging to the cult of Hêrôs Iatros (IG II3 i 1154; 220/19 BCE) – the apousia corresponds to 6.14% of the reworked silver. That is, slightly less than the percentages attested by this Cyrenean inscription.

Thus, we are likely dealing with a set of vessels that had been reworked once after having first been crafted according to a round figure in Ptolemaic drachmas. Therefore, these vessels had been first created sometime after 294 BCE and by 100 BCE had been reworked at least once. This shows that it was not uncommon for Hellenistic rulers to have their silverwares melted down and recast in more fashionable forms and decorations. In conclusion – thanks to my research at the CHS – this Cyrenean document can now be recognized as a fundamental clue on the vitality of silverware production in the Hellenistic world and the short lifespan of precious vessels in Hellenistic courts, as well as a solid proof of the many lives of silver plate throughout antiquity.

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