14 January 2015

Lifting the Curse on the Sevso Treasure – Part 2.


One could ask how such extraordinarily large family treasures could emerge here during the Late Antiquity.
 
The western part of Hungary belonged to Pannonia province during Roman times, with the Danube forming its borders in the north and the east. Rivers are excellent borderlines, since they are visible for all, mostly impenetrable and quite easy to defend. At the same time they offer a natural highway for the military as well as merchants.
 
Pannonia, lacking mines with precious metals or significant commercial centres, had little economic value for the Romans, but strategically it was tremendously important. During the past two millennia military strategists knew that anyone who controlled the Rhine–Danube line, controlled Europe too. Mainland routes from Italy to the eastern provinces led through the valleys of the Drave and the Save in southern Pannonia. All these routes had to be safeguarded, so Augustus, the first emperor decided to annex this land to the empire. From that time the southern bank of the Danube like that of the Rhine were dotted with fortresses stationed with several thousand troops. The army guaranteed the peace of the empire, while the soldiers had their privilege, the right to elect the emperor.
 
Pannonia was however exposed to frequent attacks by various Germanic and Iranian tribes living beyond the Danube. Occasionally even the emperor had to come here in person to command manoeuvres, as did Marcus Aurelius, who finished his famous Meditations during a campaign on the territory north of the Danube. An army that successfully kept barbarians at bay gained greatly in importance as well as self-confidence. Twelve years after the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius that army was strong enough to make their commander Septimius Severus, residing in the north-east Pannonian fortress Carnuntum, emperor. A few decades later, a new era began that would last half a century, an era when “soldier emperors” (or “barracks emperors”) ruled.
 
Defeated Germanic tribes or groups fleeing from their neighbours began settling in Pannonia as early as the first century AD, and continued to do so in following centuries. These immigrants largely abandoned their old ways and became Romanised, sometimes so successfully that they were able to enter the highest offices. A certain Maximinus (we shall meet him and his son later), for example, who was born in the city of Sopianae (today Pécs in southern Hungary), and who descended from the Carpi (a tribe that lived at the Lower Danube and fought in alliance with Goths or Vandals against Rome), settled down in Pannonia at the end of the 3rd century AD. We could also mention Stilicho the Vandal, born in a “royal” family along the Danube where his father served as a cavalry commander: he ascended to the highest ranks and served as master of soldiers, to become finally consul in the year 400 AD.
 
The Pannonian high society of the 4th century was rich and influential: they typically had estates at the centre of which there was usually a luxurious villa – remnants of which were excavated throughout the province, mainly around Lake Balaton and in southern Hungary. As a result of the strong influence of the Pannonian elite, this province produced several emperors, the courts of whom were filled with relatives, companions, cronies and countrymen. By the middle of the 4th century AD the fate of the Roman Empire was in the hands of Pannonians.
 
Besides emperors, we know other famous Pannonians too, like Saint Martin of Tours, born in the western Pannonian town Savaria, where his father served as an officer in the Imperial Horse Guard; or Saint Jerome the scholar, who became a monk in Trier during the reign of Valentinian, and later translated the Bible into Latin.
 
The archaeological heritage of this period bears testimony to the richness of this province: a silver treasure fits nicely into the picture, as it is perfectly illustrated by an outstanding collection of silverware found two years ago southeast of Pécs in Vinkovci (in modern-day Croatia), the ancient city of Cibalae, the hometown of emperor Valentinian I. The collection contains more than 50 items with a total weight exceeding 30 kilograms, and resembles in some of its characteristics the Sevso Treasure.
 
 
***
 

The most important objects among the published part of the treasure are the
Sevso plate and the copper cauldron.
 
The gilt and niello-inlaid plate has a beaded rim, inside we can discern a building, on both sides of which hunting scenes are depicted. Scholars suppose that the villa of the owner of this plate is represented schematically here.
 
We find the owner’s name in a short verse, written in Latin around a central medallion, reading: H(A)EC SEVSO TIBI DVRENT PER SAECVLA MVLTA POSTERIS VT PROSINT VASCVLA DIGNA TVIS. This can be translated as “Let these small vessels remain duly yours Sevso, and let your offspring make use of them for centuries”.
 
The plate is exceptionally large and heavy, weighing 8,873 grams. Pieces of comparable weight are known from another treasure from the 4th century AD, which was found in 1628 in Trier. This was as monumental as the Sevso Treasure, weighing 114.5 kilograms. Unfortunately only a description of the treasure survives since the Jesuits are known to have melted it down soon after its discovery.
 
The Trier Treasure contained round plates weighing 9,350, 10,760 and 11,230 grams. The next heaviest piece belongs again to the Sevso Treasure: the Achilles plate, not yet acquired, weighs 11,786 grams. The heaviest plate found so far, the missorium, a ceremonial dish made on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the reign of Emperor Theodosius I in 388 AD which is now in Madrid, weighs 15,350 grams. A list of silver objects arranged according to their weight shows that pieces made earlier in the 4th century are smaller and lighter. Based on a comparison with other pieces these observations suggest a date of manufacturing for the most characteristic pieces of the Sevso Treasure somewhere between the middle and the end of the 4th century AD.
 
A striking characteristic of the Sevso plate is its individualisation: the gift is donated to a certain person, and the hunters depicted on it can be seen approaching a particular house in a central position. Inside the medallion there are other distinctive features: a horse pictured on the left side is named IN(n)OCENTIVS, while the water surface in front of the banquet is that of Lake PELSO, the Roman name for Lake Balaton.
 
The workmanship is also exceptionally elaborate: scientists agree that a vessel of this quality must have been made in a leading workshop of the Roman Empire. The plate is not a serial piece, its pictures are not mere genres, but depict events that really happened or were expected to happen. To sum up, this unique plate was made by the best craftsmen with knowledge of the state of the art in a central workshop for a certain occasion for a certain person whose house and whose favourite occupation – hunting for boars and stags on his favourite horse – are depicted on its surface. In the case of such rare pieces, we can usually ascertain the circumstances in which they were commissioned. Can we do so in the case of the Sevso plate?
 
At a round table conference on the Sevso Treasure held in 1990 in the city of Augst in Switzerland, Dr Endre Tóth, archaeologist of the Hungarian National Museum, suggested that the scene in the central medallion of this plate is of the marriage of Sevso and his bride while a short verse expresses good wishes on their betrothal or marriage. Dr Dorothy Pikhaus from Brussels University has drawn attention to the likelihood that the poet who wrote the distich or rhyming couplet had Virgil’s Georgics in mind: “… Fourth-century aristocratic families were very familiar with Virgil’s works and they were certainly able to see the reference.”1 Such an interpretation is supported by the fact that the method used by the poet of the distich is related to the art of allusion, i.e. to the cento, (a poetical work wholly composed of verses or passages taken from other authors), which was well known in late Roman times. Moreover, the three round objects lying on the ground around and in front of the table can be identified as marriage wreaths.
 
There are other allusions to Virgil: the banquet taking place under the awning is that given by Dido, the story and the pictorial representation of which were wellknown in late Antiquity.
 
A work by Decimus Magnus Ausonius, a poet who was ordered in 365 AD to travel to the court of Valentinian I, where he became the teacher of Gratina, the emperor’s son born from his wife Severa, helps explain the link between the middle register of the central medallion and Virgil.
 
Ausonius himself, in the preface of cento nuptialis (A nuptial cento”) describes the circumstances of its origin.2  During one of the campaigns against the Alamanni (at the earliest in 368 AD), the emperor, wanting to know which one of them was the better poet, challenged Ausonius to compete with him. No doubt, Ausonius was the better poet but, as he writes, “I did not wish to leave him nowhere, nor yet to be left behind myself; since my foolish flattery was bound to be patent to the eyes of other critics as well, if I gave way, or my presumption, if I rivalled and surpassed him. I undertook the task, therefore with an air of reluctance…”
 
The poetic contest took place within prescribed limits with only a few friends of the emperor permitted to be present. Ausonius could not write a completely new cento, because he was bound by the length, the events and the characters in the cento of the emperor, so the substantial contents of the latter must have been mirrored, though dimly, in the cento of Ausonius.
 
Composed purely of citations from the works of Virgil, the poem describes a marriage banquet held in the open air. Moreover, Ausonius uses the adjective dignus to describe the wedding, the same adjective that can be found in the distich of the Sevso plate. In the poem, guests recline on couches (lecti) while servants bring goat-flesh (the medallion depicts a goat with bound feet as servants disembowel boar and fallow-deer) and fish (the medallion depicts a servant holding a plate which might very well carry fish). The plate also shows a young servant angling at Lake Pelso and depicts a stag hunt while the poem makes reference to the flesh of fallow-deer and stag.
 
The main difference between the scenes depicted on the medallion and in the first part of Ausonius’s cento is that in the latter, bride and bridegroom are not present at the open air banquet. Still there are other similarities between the medallion and the cento nuptialis. The moment of the dextrarum iunctio, or betrothal is represented on the medallion, while the silver plate mentioned among the wedding presents could be a similar gift, like the Sevso plate itself.
 
If we compare the poem of Ausonius and the objects in the Sevso Treasure, we find other similarities: the diadem of gems and gold in the poem can be compared with the diadem-shaped handles; the four youths with golden torques on their breasts in the poem to the four attendants shaped as young men wearing torques (heavy neck ornaments) on the buckets of the Hippolytus set (another item of the Sevso Treasure which has not yet been acquired). During the 4th century, the torque was a characteristic feature of the dress of the imperial bodyguards, as it can be observed on the missorium of Theodosius I.
 
The good wishes for a long life and offspring expressed in Ausonius’s poem can be compared to those of the distich on the Sevso plate. This bears some resemblance to the poet’s occasional epigrams. It is notable that its author endeavours to form rhymes at the ends of all half-lines but the result is scarcely a masterpiece; indeed its poor quality strongly suggests that the author was not Ausonius. But who then is the author? Could it have been Valentinian? We cannot prove this, but nor can we rule it out. The verse shows some influence of Ausonius, who wrote most of his epigrams during his sojourn to the imperial court. If we accept the hypothesis that there is a link between the poem and the plate, we may date the plate’s making to the three years from 365 to 368 AD.
 
Do we have any reason for thinking that Valentinian who was considered a severe, sometimes cruel soldier by his contemporaries, was interested in poetry and the arts? The answer is yes, since his biographers make specific mention of his interest in literature, and record the fact that he designed military buildings, could paint and form statues of wax or clay. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus, a contemporary of Valentinian and a former member of the imperial household guards notes that: “He loved neatness, and enjoyed banquets that were choice but not extravagant.”
 
The paragraphs above are intended to portray the intellectual and cultural context of the age in which the scenes on the plate were conceived. From this it is apparent that both the donor and the receiver lived in the same milieu and were keenly aware of the literary and artistic traditions of their times. It is also evident that both the commissioner and the recipient knew the importance of Pelso, Innocentius and the chosen language of the dedication and imagery. Another thing seems clear: both men had benefited from Roman schooling, and were familiar with Pannonia.

It is significant that the name of the horse In(n)ocentius is inscribed in a label; similarly we find a bronze roundel in Trier, which shows a horse name also inscribed in a label. It seems that this technique was used in the workshops of that region. The name In(n)ocentiusmeaning “innocent” and given to the horse probably because it was a fierce one, provides an insight into the name- giving customs of the 4th century. Ammianus, a contemporary source, refers to the fact that Valentinian I had two man-eating she-bears at his palace, one of which he called Innocentia (the feminine form of the name Innocentius).
 
Historical sources make no reference to the name “Sevso”. Perhaps it is not a formal name, but an informal one used by relatives or friends. It may belong to a class of well-known Germanic personal names – so-called erweiterte Kurzformen – in which the original name is abbreviated to one syllable, in this case SEV, augmented with the diminutive suffix -SO. Similar names are known from the second half of the 4th century AD, e.g. that of Gabso, a bodyguard, serving in the imperial court in Trier. To find a German in the imperial court should not come as a surprise: during the course of the 4th century, from the time of the reign of the sons of Constantine the Great on imperial bodyguards were recruited regularly from among Germans.
 
In case of Gabso we may reconstruct the longer form of the name as Gabadus (in Vandalian language meaning “comrade”), but there are no Germanic names beginning with the syllable SEV. However, SEVSO could well have been the nickname of a Roman with Germanic roots or a German in Roman service. During the second half of the 4th century AD soldiers with foreign roots could attain the highest offices, and could even become emperor, like Magnentius, a former commander of the imperial guard in 350 AD, who according to tradition was the son of a Briton father and a Frank mother. Most of these “masters of soldiers” commanding troops subordinated directly to the imperial palace were of Germanic origin. This is one reason for believing that Valentinian, who was tall, blonde and blue-eyed, could have been of Germanic descent. Before he was elected emperor, he was the commander of the second elite cavalry unit of the first), the members of which were recruited form Germanic tribes although many Romans served with them.
 
When Valentinian was elected, according to Germanic custom, soldiers took him on a raised shield to the city. We have no absolute proof of Valentinian’s Germanic descent, but just after he became emperor, a senator whose native language was Greek, but who also knew Latin, stated publicly that he was not familiar with the language used at court. It is therefore evident that a third language was used by Valentinian’s inner circle.
 
It is also clear that the couple who owned the Sevso Treasure was Christian: this is apparent from the monogram of Christ placed centrally at the beginning of the verse around the medallion. This helps us to date the object: it may have been used after 28 October 312, when Constantine the Great defeated Maxentius, but most probably it was manufactured after the the reign of Julian the Apostate (361–363 AD).
 
So who was Sevso? Judging from the magnitude of the treasure which is almost two times heavier than the whole Kaiseraugst Treasure, whose owner could have been a magister militum (master of soldiers) in or around 351 AD, we must think of a man at least of similar rank. Certainly, the Sevso Treasure can be compared to the Esquiline Treasure made during the middle of the 4th century AD whose owners – the Turcii – produced a consul and two prefects of the city of Rome.
 
How is it that Sevso was even at liberty to use a piece of imperial insignia – the diadem – although not in its original function, on his head? The handles of the two silver buckets are shaped like imperial diadems, and they are exactly like those worn by Valentinian I, as can be seen on a statue head in Copenhagen portraying the emperor, when he was between 40 and 50 years of age. The use, even a symbolic one, of a piece of imperial insignia without the knowledge and assent of the ruling emperor would have been unthinkable. In this connection it should be remembered that when Iustus, the father of Valentinian’s second wife Iustina, a governor, told friends of a dream in which he wore the imperial purple, Emperor Constantine ordered his assassination. At the moment, the truth of the matter is that we do not know exactly who Sevso was, although, as we have shown, we may suppose that he belonged to the upper élite of the Roman society during the second half of the 4th century.
 
At that time there was someone in the court who almost succeeded Valentinian on the throne, and whom the emperor may have let use the symbols in the way described above. His name was Severus, who held the office of the master of the palace infantry troops (magister peditum) between 367 and 372 AD. Historical sources mention Severus a few times, and from these we learn of his relationship with Valentinian I. The historian Ammianus, reporting on the events of the winter 366–367 AD informs us that the emperor fell seriously ill in Reims. Ammianus states that “Meanwhile, when Valentinian was attacked by a severe illness and was at the point of death, the Gauls who were at court in the emperor’s service, at a secret conference demanded that Rusticus Julianus, then master of the rolls, should be made emperor...”, but “against these Gauls some with higher aims strove in the cause of Severus, then commander of the infantry, as a man fitted for attaining that rank; and, although he was strict and feared, yet he was more endurable and in every way preferred to the aforementioned aspirant”. Our sources tell us that empress Severa, her mother and the strong Pannonian party in the court decided who should be taken into account as successor.
 
Shortly after the day of the acclamation of Gratian, his eldest son, Valentinian left for Trier, and was alarmed that “ ... the Picts, Attacotti and Scots... were devastating Britain without resistance...” “...the emperor sent Severus, who at that time was still commander of the household troops, to set right disasters”... “but was recalled a little later...”.
 
At about this time Severus was replaced as commander. A few months later he took part in the Alamannic campaign of Valentinian I, as one of the two masters of soldiers. Ammianus briefly describes a military action led by Severus as a master of infantry in 370 AD in Gaul against the Saxons. Two articles in the Codex Theodosianus dated 23 December 371 AD, and 24 April 372 AD mention Severus as a master of soldiers. We hear of Severus for the last time during a military action of Valentinian I, which was to fulfil the emperor’s “first and principal aim”, the live capture of Macrianus, king of the Germanic Alamanni. It was Severus’s troops who crossed the Rhine and who almost took the king prisoner, but he managed to escape. “Valentinian was robbed of this glory, not by his own fault or that of his generals...” and, returning to Trier he foamed with rage like a lion. The emperor who was prone to make rash decisions could have forced the retirement of Severus. The silence on this issue of Ammianus who was clearly an admirer, suggests that Severus ceased to play an important role in political life. In the circumstances, it may be safe to conclude that he retired from public life and returned to his estate. Nor do sources tell us much about his roots. Severus, who appears very early as an extraordinarily influential man in Valentinian’s circle, belonged to the Pannonian faction, which helped Valentinian to imperial power and like the emperor, was possibly born in Pannonia. We know that at the time of Valentinian’s election three political factions with different interests were present in the court. One of these factions consisted of the followers of the late Constantine II led by the Alamann Agilo, the second consisted of the followers of the late emperor Julian led by the Germanic Dagalaifus, Victor the Sarmatian and Flavius Iovinus, while the third was that of the Pannonians Valentinian, and Leo, the keeper of accounts at the office of Dagalaifus. All these Pannonians later held important offices. Masters of soldiers before and after Severus held the office of consulship, but for some reason, Severus was not allowed to do so. Valentinian’s first wife Severa, the mother of Gratian also disappears from our sight after the emperor divorced her around 370 AD and married Iustina, the young widow of Magnentius. This marriage was a reaffirmation of the relationship of Valentinian to the former coalition against Constans, one of the key players of which was Gaiso, a high-ranked officerbearingaGermanicname,but it was important for him too, because Iustina was a descendant of Constantine the Great and he hoped that by this marriage their offspring will maintain the line of descent of Constantine.
 
As we have seen, high-ranking officials of Germanic origin appear many times during the 4th century in the close company of the emperor. We also know that various Germanic peoples such as the Vandals settled in Pannonia under the reign of Constantine the Great around 335 AD, after they were catastrophically defeated by their ancient enemy, the Goths at river Marisia (today Maros on the Great Hungarian Plain).
 
But let us relate all of this to the treasure. The chiselled geometric motifs, the niello technique and the mythological scenes have some similarities to pieces dated to the 4th century AD from Scotland to Moldova. But the griffin protomae and the unique busts placed against a heavy row of pearls of the buckets display a closer resemblance to a silver quadripod found in Polgárdi, Hungary. Its find site is located just a few kilometres afar form a huge building complex thought to be the residence of Sevso.
 
The feet of the quadripod are similar in shape and decoration to the handle of the Hippolytus jug, another item from the Treasure which is yet to be added to those now in Hungary. The handle of this jug is without parallel. The items stand out because of their unique features and unusual size: both the jug and the quadripod are exceptionally large (the latter is 113 cm tall), and the Polgárdi quadripod is the only one made of silver known from Antiquity (these types of folding stands were regarded as ensigns for high-ranked, senatorial officials, such as the head-steward of the imperial palace). The quadripod and the Sevso Treasure consequently complement one another perfectly.
 
The eighth piece acquired now by the Government is a large copper cauldron, in which a part of the treasure had been concealed in Antiquity, presumably because of a sudden danger. The inner side of the cauldron is covered with mineral deposits, in which imprints of the plates are visible. It is even possible to reconstruct the order in which the dishes were placed: the Meleager plate was at the bottom, then the plate with geometric motifs and the Achilles plates above it, and the Sevso plate atop. This indicates that the plates and the cauldron belong together and were buried at the same time. The shape of the cauldron is characteristic: its rim is bent outwards, the neck is cylindrical with a slightly protruding shoulder and a body slightly widening towards the bulging bottom. Similar forms in various sizes occur only in the archaeological record for the territories near the limes (the Roman frontier) in the Rhinish–Danubian provinces, and north of that in Free Germany. A similar discovery was made at Igar, Fejér county in Hungary, where a large cauldron containing hidden treasure was found.
 
The cauldron of the Sevso Treasure was manufactured with a special technique: the upper part was made of two sheets, the shorter ends of which were bent over each other, and fastened with a vertical row of rivets. The convex bottom part was hammered out of a third sheet, and was fastened to the upper part by means of a crenulated seam. This technique was used during the first five centuries AD only in Pannonia, while two pieces – probably imports – are known from a site in Noricum near the Pannonian border. About thirty such pieces have been excavated in Pannonia mainly around Lake Balaton and on the Danubian limes. The horizontal crenulated seam combined with a vertical riveted seam appears exclusively in finds around Lake Balaton, dating from the 4th century AD.
 
We know that the treasure was amassed during three decades in the middle of the 4th century AD and that it contained some earlier pieces decorated with geometric motifs. The later, richly decorated pieces were not used for a long time, perhaps for some years. They are unique and were made in the best workshop of the time for a couple belonging to the uppermost stratum of the Roman society. The artefacts also show traces of Germanic tradition, e.g. the name Sevso and the use of Germanic- type buckets and large cauldrons. We also know that the owners had an estate in Pannonia at Lake Pelso, where the treasure was concealed in a large cauldron due to a sudden danger and was never retrieved until its recent discovery.
 
The concealment could have taken place in a period beginning at the end of June 374 AD when the Germanic Quadi living on the northern bank of the Danube and the Sarmatians, a people of Iranian origin, invaded Pannonia. The hostilities were triggered by the launching of a grand defence programme during which the Romans built bridgeheads disguised as trading posts designed personally by Valentinian along the Rhine and Danube rivers.
 
The direct cause of the invasion was the excesses committed by Marcellianus Celestius, the military commander of the troops in the province of Valeria in the north-eastern part of greater Pannonia. Marcellianus was the son of a certain Maximinus, a prominent, powerful and active member of the Pannonian faction, born in Sopianae (now Pécs in Hungary) that had helped Valentinian to ascend the throne. But such was the degree of devastation caused during the conflict that Valentinian was forced to direct the military operations personally. Valentinian died the following year at the camp of Brigetio, after which his old companion Equitius helped persuade the troops to accept Valentinian’s younger son’s accession to the throne. According to archaeological finds, the building that is thought to have been the home of Sevso, was burned down during this period and the quadripod was buried nearby.
 
At the moment, however, there are still more questions than firm answers. It is known that there are still seven pieces that have not yet been acquired, and according to some reports the collection may have included other items. We are consequently able to put together some of the pieces of this intricate and fascinating puzzle, but we cannot see the whole picture or lift the “curse” on the Sevso Treasure while key pieces of the puzzle are held back.

 
 
 
1 Dorothy Pikhaus, Letter to the Editor. Minerva 1:7, 1990, p. 2.
2 Ausonius. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn White. Cambridge – London, 1951, pp. 370–393.



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