Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Riddle of the Roman Vase

The next time you are in central London, you should visit the Portland Vase in Room 70 of the British Museum.

The ‘Portland Vase’ is the modern name for one of the most famous pieces of Roman art in the world. It is a beautiful blue and white glass amphora made in the extremely difficult ‘cameo technique’. In this method of manufacture, opaque white glass covers darker glass (watch a demo HERE) and is then painstakingly carved away to show a scene in relief (i.e. ‘bumpy'). We know from chemical analysis that this beautiful vase was made in Roman times. We know from the glass technique used that it was probably produced around the time of Rome’s first emperor, Octavian Augustus (between about 30 BC and AD 20). We know that the vase used to have a pointy bottom, like all amphoras, but that this was broken during its many adventures (check out Wikipedia or the excellent Mystery of the Portland Vase) and a new flat bottom was fitted.

Everybody agrees that the Portland Vase is a masterpiece, but not everybody agrees about what it was used for or who commissioned it. (A vase this finely-crafted and expensive must have been ordered by a very rich person.) And the biggest mystery is: who are the seven figures on the vase?

Only one of the figures is easy to identify. It is found on the side which scholars call the ‘A-side’. It is the flying baby with the torch and bow: the Roman god of love, Cupid. His presence means that the couple below him are about to fall in love.

But who are the two lovers? Who is the lady with wet or dishevelled hair and a snake in her lap? Who is the young man she is holding on to? And who is that pensive bearded guy over to the right?

On the other side – the ‘B-side’ - are some more mysterious seated figures: a naked youth, a woman with a hairdo datable to around 30 BC, and a woman holding a downturned torch and tearing her hair. Who could they be? And what are they all sitting on?

We can identify Cupid on the A-side by his wings and bow, but none of the others are obvious. This may be because they are real people, rather than Greek heroes or Roman gods. Another interesting aspect is that women are the central figures on both sides. But that still doesn’t help us.

Who are they? Scholars have put forward more than 50 different theories.

Susan Walker, Keeper of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum, presents an exciting theory in her book The Portland Vase (Objects in Focus). She believes the woman with the snake is Cleopatra and that Octavia is on the other side. Those of you who have read The Beggar of Volubilis know that Octavia (sister of the emperor Augustus) lost her husband Antonius to Cleopatra, but after their deaths she nobly raised their surviving children as her own. Susan Walker's theory is quite persuasive, but it was an asp that killed Cleopatra, not a sea-snake, and her identification of the bearded man as Mark Anthony's father is also unconvincing.

Other scholars believe the woman with the snake is Thetis, the beautiful sea-nymph and mother of Achilles. It was prophesied that her son would be more powerful than his father. All the gods of Olympus desired her, but Jupiter knew it would be fatal if one of them sired her child: that child would be more powerful than any of them. So he told a mortal, Peleus, the secret of winning Thetis. ‘She can change into any creature,’ warned Jupiter, ‘but if you hang on tight then she will be yours.’ Is the handsome young hero Peleus? And is the man watching Jupiter?

The only problem with that theory is that she’s holding onto the handsome man, not the other way round. And Jupiter does not have any of his trademark identifying symbols. No thunderbolt, staff or crown. And who would have commissioned a fabulously expensive amphora showing the origins of a Greek hero? The Romans believed they were descended from the Trojans, mortal enemies of the Greeks.

Stephen Pollock-Hill is a modern glassmaker. He owns one of the few glass factories in Britain where glass is still blown in the ancient way. His firm – Nazeing Glass – has produced specialty items such as railway signal lenses, glass wall-blocks and laboratory beakers and tubes. (right: Stephen with engraver Lesley Pyke © Lesley Pyke)

One of Stephen’s passions is the Portland Vase. Over the next year, Nazeing Glass is going to produce ten interpretations of the vase. Skilled glass-makers will blow cobalt blue glass and then coat it with opaque white glass at just the right temperature so that the coating sticks and doesn’t make the glass underneath crack. Then ten engravers from all over the world will each carve their version of the figures on the Portland Vase. (You can watch a fascinating clip of one of them, Lesley Pyke, on her website This project will cost over £100,000!

One beautiful spring evening, on Tuesday 22 April 2009, I went to the Art Workers Guild near Great Ormond Street in London to hear Stephen give a talk about the vase. Speaking in a beautiful lecture hall full of portraits of famous craftsmen and artists, Stephen presented his theory about the identity of the seven figures on the vase. Members of The Glass Circle were there, and also Dr Paul Roberts, the Curator of Greek & Roman Antiquities at the British Museum and an expert on Roman cameo glass.

Stephen Pollock-Hill believes the woman with the snake is Atia, mother of Octavian and Octavia. She claimed to have been visited by a snake at the sanctuary of Apollo nine months before the birth of Octavian. (In Roman times a snake was good luck, not bad luck, and Apollo is often associated with a snake.) The man she is clutching is Gaius Octavian, her husband and the man with the beard could be the Trojan hero Aeneas – ancestor of Romulus and Remus. What about the B-side? Stephen believes the woman in the centre is Octavian Augustus’s second wife Scribonia, who was rejected in favour of Livia. The downturned torch could show her failure. The handsome man on the left is Octavian himself, the future emperor, gazing into the eyes of Livia, who would become his empress and mother of Rome’s second emperor, Tiberius.

Who do YOU think the figures are? Can you find other examples of a woman with a snake or a woman with a downturned torch? (Is it a torch of 'love' or a torch of 'life'?) The two handsome men and the bearded man don’t have any special attributes, so they might well be real people. Any ideas about what the woman with the torch is sitting on? Could it be a funeral pyre? Or something else? You should also think about who would commission such a fabulous piece of art. 

I can’t wait to hear your theories.

In the meantime, Stephen and his glassmakers will soon be firing up the furnaces to make modern versions of this mysterious and beautiful Roman masterpiece, the Portland Vase.

P.S. Since I wrote this blog, another magnificent cameo-glass vase has appeared: the Bonham Vase or Newby Vase as it's also called. Read about it HERE.

[The 17 books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. You can watch season one of a BBC adaptation of the Roman Mysteries on iTunes.]


  1. This is a great puzzle..AND it's great that a modern glassmaker is taking an interest in this amazing 'vase'. mb

  2. No post about the new poll so leaving the comment here... USED to say who the new series was about but they change the summary. But I THINK I know who it's about unless it changed since then! (I think it's a really great idea by the way!)

  3. Salve, Rebecca! Yes, you are on to me! Actually it's pretty obvious who will make the best subject for a spin-off series. A story told by Plautus in the 3rd century BC, than adapted by Shakespeare, then made into a Broadway musical. If it's good enough for them...

  4. Yes it's certainly a classic plot! It will be interesting to see how you write it.

    I read the new series is darker and for older readers than the original series, does that mean it will be written more for teens than preteens? (of course, I'm older than both those groups!)

  5. Yes, I am thinking of it as 'Roman Mysteries meets Twilight'... so suitable for romantics of all ages.

  6. Ohh, I love that combo--"Roman Mysteries meets Twilight." I would've been ALL over that as a teen.

    Re: the vase--so interesting. I vote for Livia and everything that went with it. Lots of unanswered questions, but it makes sense to me that Augustus' promo/propaganda machine would've been heating up during this period (which, of course, ended with his deification decades later), so it makes sense that the process would begin with mythical representations of the princeps and the "first" woman of Rome...

  7. May I advise that it seemed best that a modern replica of the Portland Vase was made in Stourbridge . In 1870, a wealthy glassmaker called Samual Richardson offered a massive cash prize of £10,000 ( about £100k in todays money) to anyone who could make a modern replica. In 1873 A Stourridge glass maker Peter Pargeter , together with cameo engraver John Northwood made a modern replica, now in the Corning Museum in Corning, new York State
    In 2012 Richard Golding a master glassmaker made a replica vase and expert engraver Terri Colledge engraved. all in Stourbridge and it is in the local museum for all to see.
    instead we at Nazeing Glass have developed and patented a non toxic crystal glass