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Homeric Scenes in Bactria and India: Two Silver Plates with Bactrian and Middle Persian Inscriptions

Abstract : Two decorative plates with Bactrian and Middle Persian inscriptions offer new evidence about the cultural transfers from the Mediterranean to Bactria and India in Roman times. The so-called “Aulis” plate was probably made in Italy, by the middle of the 1st century BC and, as such, it could be the earliest object of this type preserved to our days. Based on Homer’s and Euripides’ accounts of the Achaean assembly in front of Artemis’ sanctuary in Aulis, before the crossing of the Aegean towards Troy, the plate shows the debates preceding the sacrifice of Iphigenia. The artist captures Agamemnon’s hesitation, Menelaus’ engagement, Achilles’ wrath, Calchas’ and Ulysses’ ruses, in an atmosphere marked by the respect for the goddess and for the collective duty. This image could be an allegory of the aristocratic circle around the Licinii Luculli, assimilated to the Atreides brothers after their war against Mithradates VI Eupator. This may explain why the attitudes of the main characters are not simple copies of their models – known to us from Hellenistic cast-bowls showing Euripidean scenes and from the Tabulae Iliacae – but careful reelaborations, influenced by the debates on passions and emotions in the Peripatetic, Academic and Stoic schools of the time. The plate could have been offered to one of the members of the Licinii’s client networks in the East and preserved in a sanctuary of Cappadocia or Syria up to Shāpur’s I plundering expeditions in AD 253 and 260. Shortly after, in AD 265/266, a “satrap” (þαοραβο) with a Bactrian name, Sen-gul, the son of Friy-gul, offered it to the god Mana – a reflection of the Zoroastrian deity Vohu Manah “Good Thought”, known from Kushan coins. Two pointillé inscriptions on the back record the name of the owner, and the plate’s weight following Bactrian and Sogdian standards, recording the value of the “satrap’s” donation to Mana’s sanctuary. The “Graces” plate is the only illustration known today of the wedding of Pasithea, one of the Charites / Graces, with Hypnos, the Sleep, following Hera’s promise in Homer’s Iliad (14.231–291). It is also the only preserved image of Hypnos as an active god, although other ancient representations are mentioned in Greek and Latin texts. The figures and the manufacture are half-way between Alexandrian models and Sassanian silverwares. Although the image is organized in two registers, one on top of the other – corresponding to the two major moments of a maiden’s wedding, the daytime veiling and the night unveiling and intercourse – as on other Roman plates, the artist took also into consideration the ring composition, specific to Eastern vessels. Moreover, even if the three Charites correspond to Hellenistic and early Roman iconographic types of divine beauties – in particular Aphrodite-Isis-Cleopatra and Eros –, some elements point to the artist’s effort to adapt them to an Indo-Bactrian taste. Details of the women’s bodies and the decency of the poses must have fitted the expectations of Brahma-dad (an Indian merchant?) and of his wife to whom he offered this plate, which weighs 150 silver staters, as recorded by the Bactrian inscription on the back (a slightly different weight is given in a second early Sassanian inscription, indicating 153 staters in Middle Persian numbers). The scripts of the inscriptions and some technical features – like the reliefs, cast and hammered separately, or the “naturalistic drapery style” specific to the early Sassanian toreutic schools – indicate a 3rd-4th century AD date, somewhere between Bactria, Kapisa and Gandhara, as well as the long lasting connections between the Mediterranean and Kushanshar.
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Submitted on : Friday, January 10, 2020 - 7:00:56 PM
Last modification on : Thursday, January 7, 2021 - 4:04:02 PM


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Anca Dan, Frantz Grenet, Nicholas Sims-Williams. Homeric Scenes in Bactria and India: Two Silver Plates with Bactrian and Middle Persian Inscriptions. Bulletin of the Asia institute / Asia institute (Detroit, Mich.), 2018, 2014, 28, pp.195-296. ⟨halshs-02435487⟩



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