Missorium of Aspar
Silver, Diameter 42 cm
Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Florence
The missorium of Ardabur Aspar, made as a gift to commemorate the western consulship of Flavius Ardabur Aspar in 434 A.D., stands as one of most significant pieces of silver plate from Late Antiquity.
All around the outer edge of the dish there is a band filled with an inscription. The knurl of the letters of the inscription indicates that they were decorated with niello. Starting from a cross at top centre it runs as follows: FL(avius) ARDABUR ASPAR VIR INLUSTRIS COM(es) ET MAG(ister) MILITUM ET CONSUL ORDINARIUS. In addition to the relief, decorative elements are accomplished through finely applied chasing in the metal that creates stippling to suggest folds and patterns on textiles, as well as subtle decorative elements such as bracelets. The central area of decoration shows the consul Ardabur Aspar, seated on a cushioned throne with lion legs, and his young son standing, with the inscription ARDABUR IUNIOR PRETOR. The throne is on an elevated platform that is decorated with a band of waves, below which squares alternate to circles, clearly suggestive of a woven fabric. The upper surface of the platform is decorated with parallel dotted lines. Ardabur Aspar, bearded and wearing a tunic and a toga, holds up in his right hand the mappa, and in his left a sceptre surmounted by two small busts of the two reigning emperors, Theodosius II and Valentinian III. His son also wears a tunic and a toga, also holds a mappa raised in his left hand, and uses his right to salute to the consul. Above them there are two medallions containing the busts of his father Ardabur, consul in 427, and his relative Plintha, consul in 419, with adjoining inscriptions. Between the imagines clipeatae there is a curtain, the presence of which indicates that the two men are already dead. Both deceased consuls also carry scepters with the busts of the then reigning emperors on top.
Aspar and his son are flanked by two city goddesses, both of whom hold the fasces. In this sense, the city goddesses serve as the consuls’ lictors. On the left of the missorium a figure clearly identifiable as Roma wears a short chiton, which leaves her right breast bared, a paludamentum, a sword-belt, and an Attic helmet with three crests. On her feet are high-laced military boots, the soles of which are clearly indicated, with bare toes. The goddess holds with the left hand a globe and the fasces with her right. A wreath decorates the standard. She wears a bracelet on her right wrist and a second one on her upper arm, while a single string of pearls hangs around her neck. On the right of the dish is another city, often identified Constantinople, who wears a long tunic and a mantle. On her feet are sandals, the sole and thongs of which are fully rendered in fine detail. The goddess, who also wears two strings of pearls and a crown of roses and leaves, holds with her left hand a flower and stalk of grain, and the fasces in her right. The standard shows a square inside which is a circular element, maybe a wreath, and a ribbon sways from the stick.
The scene that the missorium depicts raises a number of important historical issues. How could an eastern general of barbarian origins, already advanced along with his family members in the imperial hierarchy, come to enjoy a western consulship? While the fact of Aspar’s consulship was never in dispute, the missorium draws attention to the relationship between the partes imperii under the Theodosian empire. The degree to which Aspar, an Alan and an Arian Christian, could be assimilated to Roman norms, at least iconographically as much as in the case of the better known ivory consular dyptich of Stilicho, is remarkable. The dish stands as monument to the degree to which the West was beholden to the richer and more stable East, and its long-serving emperor Theodosius II. The role of Aspar and his family would illustrate Eastern dominance even more dramatically when they selected the emperor Marcian without consultation with Valentinian III, and then again with Marcian’s successor Leo. The missorium is an early symbol of precisely this power and the dynastic aspirations of this eastern military family, the sorts of aspirations that are usually associated with the Western empire in the fifth century.