The missorium of Theodosius

Endria Avdimetaj (Université du Luxembourg)

Beware, looks can be deceiving – this object weighs more than 15kg and has a diameter of 74 cm.

But what is it really about?

This object is called a missorium, that is to say a large silverware dish dating from Late Antiquity. This specific tray shows a scene where the tenth anniversary of the reign of Emperor Theodosius I is celebrated, who is also highlighted – by his position, his size and his clothes – in the process of handing a high dignitary a document. On either side of Theodosius I, we find his two co-emperors.

What was the point of putting poetic scenes on a silver platter?

In the 4th century, during imperial celebrations, it was customary for the emperor to offer gifts to the highest dignitaries of the Empire. These luxury items offered also an opportunity to promote imperial messages. These silver trays were therefore not really used to put food or other things on them. The dignitaries who received these imperial gifts used them as decorations. Indeed, the high personages proudly displayed these objects to show the links they had with the emperor.

How to explain this difference between the place of diffusion and the place of discovery of this object?

The decennalia (10 year anniversary) of Theodosius the Great were celebrated in Thessaloniki and according to certain hypotheses, the silver missorium would have been made in Constantinople. This specific object was found in 1837 near Merida, in Spain. This great difference in location is explained by the fact that according to some scholars, the dignitary who received this present was of “Spanish” origin and therefore brought this object home. This hypothesis remains quite plausible when we know that Theodosius the Great was also from this part of the Roman Empire.

Isn’t there a contradiction between the scene presented in the upper part of the missorium and the one presented below?

On the lower part of this missorium, there is a scene with an allegorical character representing the Earth. It is the personification of Gaia/Tellus, symbolizing the unity, prosperity of the empire and its universal scope. However, as we know, Theodosius I is best known for his edict promulgated in 380 which prohibited paganism – that is to say all religions other than Christianity – and imposed a specific version of Christianity as mandatory for Roans. And yet, there are pagan representations on a work celebrating the reign of Theodosius I, Christian emperor. How to explain this paradox? Probably, Theodosius the Great wanted to show some continuity with the past. The objective was to gain the confidence of the people and to do so, it was necessary to avoid any brutal break with what was before. Moreover, this character presented carries above all a symbolism that the contemporaries of the time understood completely: it is about the prosperity of the Empire.

Are there other silver dishes from this era?

This missorium of Theodosius I is considered one of the masterpieces of late Roman silversmithing. However, it is important to point out that other types of silverware of similar prestige have also been found. In total, about twenty dishes from 6 different emperors and also dating from the 4th century have been unearthed. The missorium of Theodosius still stands out among this group because of its size and its decoration which is more elaborate.

The greatest silver “treasure” from the Roman era has been discovered in Trier …

Indeed, on 4th December in 1628, about fifty objects were unearthed in Trier, representing nearly 115 kilos of precious metal. This is the greatest find of silverware from Roman times. Unfortunately, this occurred during the Thiry Years’ War, as Europe and especially the Holy Roman Empire was devastated. At that moment, the silver plate was melted down in its entirety in order to be able to sell the metal. Luckily, several documents containing information about this treasure have been preserved. Without these archives, including a precise inventory accompanied by detailed descriptions of the objects, this information would never have reached us today. Furthermore, these objects not physically present were compared with other similar finds from the same period. This allowed to get a better idea of the shape of these objects in addition to the inventory with the descriptions. The researchers discovered, for example, that some of these objects had Christian decorations. Much more recently, in 1992, an antique silver jug of 50 cm height was found on the very site where the previous treasure had been discovered. This silver carafe, which bears representations of the apostles, is now in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Trier and is probably the only surviving element of the 1628 Trier treasury.

Abb. 1: Missorium of Emperor Theodosius I, copy, 388 AD (© RGZM, Inv. 27810, oder Manuel Parada López de Corselas ARS SUMMUM, Centro para el Estudio y Difusión Libres de la Historia del Arte – Eigenes Werk, Gemeinfrei,

Abb. 2: Kanne mit christlichen Darstellungen, Klinikum Mutterhaus Trier, 5. Jh. n. Chr. (© GDKE, Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier, Inv. 1992,51)

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