A Dish fit for a Queen: The Cleopatra Selene Cup from Boscoreale

Recently I was looking for representations of elephants in ancient art, and I was reminded of a fabulous silver dish, uncovered at a Roman villa in 1895 in Boscoreale, featuring an emblema of a woman wearing an elephant skin on her head:



Located a couple of kilometers northwest of Pompeii, Boscoreale was buried following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. Different villas have been discovered and excavated at various points since the late 19th century, providing an unrivaled glimpse into aristocratic life in the countryside of Campania in the early 1st century CE. One of these villas—Villa della Pisanella—has provided us with a collection of 109 pieces of silver tableware that had been stashed in a chest and buried in a well. Most of the Boscoreale Treasure, as it is called, is currently on display in the Louvre.


Since its discovery, scholars have debated the identity of the woman. Suggestions have ranged from a personification of either Africa, Alexandria, or Egypt, to the legendary Cleopatra VII, the final ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt. Many scholars today have settled on Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony, as the best fit for its eclectic iconography.



What is the image of the daughter of Antony and Cleopatra doing on expensive Roman tableware? Well, in 31 BCE, Octavian (the future Augustus) defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII at Actium. Pursued by Octavian, Antony and Cleopatra retreated to Egypt and committed suicide the following year. Cleopatra Selene and her twin brother Alexander Helios (~ 10 years old at this time) were taken back to Rome, where they were given into the care of Octavia, Octavian's sister and the ex-wife of Mark Antony, who raised them in her household. In the mid 20s BCE, Augustus married off Cleopatra Selene to Juba II, his long-time friend and a Numidian prince. In 25 BCE, Augustus gave Juba the territory of Mauritania to rule over as king (ancient Mauritania was roughly equivalent to modern day northern Morocco and western Algeria).


Images of a woman wearing an elephant scalp was the standard way of personifying Africa in Roman art (although the elephant scalp first shows up on the head of Alexander the Great, in the coinage of Ptolemy I). A woman wearing an elephant scalp shows up on the coins of Juba II, and is presumed to be Africa:


This is why the woman on the Boscoreale dish has traditionally been identified as 'Africa' (e.g., on the Louvre website). The argument for reading the Boscoreale dish as Cleopatra Selene, however, is that the portrait seems slightly more individualised in the representation of her features and not as idealised as one would expect for a goddess or personification (e.g., she has a very thick neck, which was a characteristic of Ptolemaic royal family portraits). The image could very well have been intended to evoke both, and the dish could have been commissioned to commemorate the marriage of Cleopatra Selene to Juba II and her subsequent elevation to Queen Cleopatra of Mauretania.

The cup is rich with symbolic imagery, as befits someone from the Ptolemaic royal house (their imagery is known for an abundance of visual attributes). The marvelous 1895 heliotype photograph above was taken soon after the purchase of the treasure by the Baron de Rothschild, who had the assemblage cleaned and restored before donating it to the Louvre. The detail in this photograph is phenomenal, and a little easier to 'read' than the photograph from the Louvre website, which is a bit low-res.


Beginning with the woman herself, she is crowned with the afore-mentioned elephant scalp; when viewed from the front, only the trunk (which looks a lot like a serpent, such as one might find on an Egyptian crown), tusks, and ears are visible. The ears are splayed out such that they frame her face, almost like an extension of her hair or jewelry. Continuing clockwise, in her left hand she holds a cornucopia signaling abundance (typical of portraits of Ptolemaic kings and queens), on the top of which is a moon; in low relief on the cornucopia is the sun god Helios, and below that an eagle, likely indicative of Zeus (another popular symbol of the Ptolemies). To the right of the cornucopia is a lyre, perhaps associated with Apollo or Dionysos. Panthers are often also associated with Dionysos, and there is one to the left of the cornucopia; it is facing a cobra, held in the woman's right hand. Scholars have argued that these represent Cleopatra Selene's parents: the snake evokes Cleopatra (which is sometimes associated with Isis) and the the panther Antony, who styled himself as a new Dionysos in his efforts to conquer the East.



Below the two animals are fruits as well as a peacock, a popular motif in Hellenistic and Roman art signaling wealth and the exotic (the peacock is also, of course, associated with Hera). On the woman's right shoulder is a lion, and behind the lion is a club (presumably indicative of Herakles) as well as a bow and quiver (this is easier to see in the 3/4 view further above). Some say the bow and quiver evoke Artemis, but as pointed out by Jane Draycott, they are also associated with Herakles. On the far left is a sistrum, a musical instrument used in rituals devoted to Isis; it neatly balances the lyre on the other side, which, in parallel with the cobra and the panther again suggests the pairing of Isis and Dionysos. It's difficult to make out what is going on in the bottom from this photograph, but from left to right, there is a dolphin frolicking in the water (right below the cobra she is holding; this is a symbol sometimes used by Octavian to reference his victory at Actium), and then tongs (associated with the god of forging, Hephaistos) and a staff with a snake wrapped around it (associated with Asklepios).


Scholars debate the meaning altogether of these different elements, but Jane Draycott has argued that there is a deliberate association here not just with Antony and Cleopatra and their respective patron gods, but also with the mythological cycle of Herakles (which conveniently involves a lot of the gods represented by the included symbols). Antony, Cleopatra VII, and Juba II all associated themselves with the Greek hero (as did Alexander the Great and many other ambitious individuals in antiquity). Draycott argues that beyond this, the symbols are meant to evoke the mythological story of Herakles' choice between Virtue and Vice: while Herakles chose Virtue, Antony and Cleopatra by contrast chose vice; Cleopatra Selene of course, has chosen virtue, under the influence of her new patrons and guardians, Octavian/Augustus and Octavia.


The dish-with-emblema is not uncommon, but this example stands out for its exuberance of symbols and detail. Whatever the intended message, the vessel no doubt provided an excellent stimulus for conversation at what we must assume were many dinner parties at the Villa della Pisenella during the Augustan period until its unfortunate burial by the explosion of Vesuvius in AD 79.


Further reading:


Draycott, J. 2012. "Dynastic politics, defeat, decadence and dining: Cleopatra Selene on the so-called 'Africa' dish from the Villa della Pisanella at Boscoreale." Papers of the British school at Rome 80: 45-64.


Marie-Bénédicte, A. "The Boscoreale Treasure". Musée du Louvre website. https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/boscoreale-treasure


Roller, D. 2018. Cleopatra's Daughter and Other Royal Women of the Augustan Era. Oxford University Press.


- JN