Ancient Art

Decorative Bust of a Silenus
Early 1st century A. D.
6 1/4 x 4 3/16 x 2 3/4 in. (15.9 x 10.6 x 7 cm)
R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund, Oberlin Friends of Art Fund, and Mrs. F. F. Prentiss Fund, 1988

This realistically modeled ornamental bust of a silenus originally adorned the headboard of a sumptuous Roman dining couch.

From the third century B.C. through the first century A.D., wealthy inhabitants of the Hellenistic Mediterranean world and their Roman successors reclined for banquets on elaborately decorated couches. 1 These couches usually had a curved headboard (or fulcrum) at one end, where the occupant could rest his or her left arm. 2 Figural attachments, usually cast in bronze but sometimes carved in bone or ivory, protected the ends of the fulcra. At the upper end, these attachments often took the form of an animal's head, most often a horse or mule, while the lower end featured a bust of a male or female figure. 3 The Oberlin bust of a silenus once fitted onto the lower end of a fulcrum.

Because the consumption of wine played a prominent, if not central, role in these banquets, animals and personages connected with Dionysus were appropriate attributes for the adornments of the couches. Silver coins struck as early as the fifth century B.C. in the wine-producing city of Mende in Macedonia represent Dionysus reclining, two-handled wine cup in hand, on the back of a mule as if he were using it as a couch. (Other figures equally fitting for the couches are maenads, the raving women who rush after Dionysus in mountain revels, and satyrs, his part-animal male attendants.) On late Hellenistic and early Imperial Roman couches, the wise old sileni, fully aware of the dangers posed by drunkenness, might be seen as convivial companions to the banqueters reclining on the couches. 4

The Oberlin silenus bust is modeled almost completely in the round, with only the back of the torso flattened for attachment to the fulcrum. His dome-shaped, bald head and massive neck rise from a substantial, but not obese, torso. The age of the silenus is graphically indicated by his full, sagging right breast with prominent pointed nipple and incised chest hair. A fawn or goat skin is tied over his left shoulder in a "Herakles Knot," with leg and hoof hanging below.

The silenus's beard and mustache are formed of a complex arrangement of large and small grooved corkscrew curls. His broad forehead is contoured in shallow, parallel grooves, comparable to the undulations on his cheeks. Glancing fiercely from under protruding, shelf-like brows are eyes inlaid in silver, with indented cavities for pupils (probably intended to create shadows and not to be inlaid). His parted lips (inlaid in copper) 5 animate his face, as if the silenus were breathing heavily or were about to speak. 6

The silenus wears an intricately rendered wreath of ivy vines, a favorite plant of Dionysus. The modeling and arrangement of the triangular leaves and clusters of round berries (or corymboi) are a technical tour de force of openwork, lost-wax bronze casting. Over the silenus's forehead, the vine is wrapped several times around itself, ending in two dangling bunches of corymboi. The tips of his ears are hidden by free-standing leaves.

The virtuoso casting of this bust, as well as the superb quality of this individualistic, highly sympathetic and expressive portrayal of a silenus make this a masterpiece of decorative figural Roman metalwork. The unusually large size of the bust is similar to examples from Pompeii, in the Museo Nazionale, Naples, which also have complex detailing of hair and beard. 7 As these can be dated no later than the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79, the Oberlin silenus bust may also date to the first century, perhaps even towards the middle. The production of fulcrum attachments with figural components appears to have died out during the early years of the second century.

D. G. Mitten


Collection of Martine, Comtesse de Béhague (d. 1939)

Bequeathed to her nephew Hubert de Ganay

Sale Marquis de Ganay (son of above), Monaco (Sotheby's), 5 December 1987, lot 123

With Robert Haber, New York, from whom purchased in 1988


Barr-Sharrar, Beryl. "Silenus!" Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 44, no. 2 (1991), pp. 2-11.

Technical Data
The bust was cast in one piece by the lost-wax process. There is a hollow cavity in the back side, which extends completely into the interior of the head. Traces of drips on the interior surface suggest the use of the lost wax technique; three small projections on the interior may be traces of sprues, left after the casting was completed. The opening of the cavity in the back has a ledge or lip projecting inward toward the center of the opening around its entire circumference. There is a small hole between the rearmost and second corkscrew curls on the left side of the beard. One leaf stem on the vine on the left side of the head is missing. It appears to have been broken off, although the difficulty of casting these stems, which are completely in relief, makes it possible that this stem did not fill out during casting.

The surface of the bust, a shiny dark brown, is slightly uneven in spots, perhaps from corrosion during its centuries of burial. Many areas of red copper corrosion (cuprite, or copper carbonate) also occur. The use of silver for the eyes and copper for the lips, standard contrasting enhancements for early Roman figural bronzes of high quality, is extremely effective in this bust. According to Barr-Sharrar, the nipple of the right breast and the tips of some of the ivy berries are also inlaid in copper, although they have not been tested. 8 The possibility that the surface of the bust, particularly the skin areas of the silenus, may have been deliberately treated to induce a darker patina than is usual in Roman figural bronzes also remains to be tested.

1. Such banquets developed, at least in part, from the symposia, or men's drinking parties, that played a central role in men's social lives in Greek cities from the sixth through the fourth centuries B.C. On the Greek symposium, see under AMAM inv. 67.61a-b.

2. On fulcra, see S. Faust, Fulcra. Figürlicher und Ornamentaler Schmuck an antiken Betten (30. Ergänzungsheft des Römische Mitteilungen) (Mainz, 1989).

3. On these roundel busts, see Beryl Barr-Sharrar, The Hellenistic and Early Imperial Decorative Bust (Mainz, 1987).

4. For the silver coinage of Mende, see Sydney Philip Noe, The Mende (Kaliandra) Hoard (Numismatic Notes and Monographs 27) (New York, 1926). For maenads, cf. A. Henrichs, "Myth Visualized: Dionysus and his Circle in Sixth Century Vase-Painting," in Papers on the Amasis Painter and his World (Malibu, 1987), pp. 92-124, and R. Schlesier, in Thomas H. Carpenter and Christopher A. Faracone, eds., Masks of Dionysus (Ithaca and London, 1993), pp. 89-114. For examples of other sileni on fulcra, see Beryl Barr-Sharrar, "Silenus!," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 44, no. 2 (1991), pp. 3-11.

5. Originally the metal's darker hue would have stood out against the lighter orange bronze color of the silenus's face.

6. The broad nose and fleshy lips suggest the artist may have wanted to portray a being of at least partly African extraction.

7. For the comparable silenus busts from Pompeii, see Beryl Barr-Sharrar, The Hellenistic and Early Imperial Decorative Bust (Mainz, 1987), p. 35, C 9; p. 36, C 13; p. 37, C 15 -16; p. 41, C 34; p. 43, C 40.

8. Beryl Barr-Sharrar, "Silenus!," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 44, no. 2 (1991), p. 3.