The Muse Casket
Rome, mid-4th century
Silver, 25.4 x 33.2 cm
The casket, which can be suspended from three chains attached to a large ring, contains five small vessels for perfumes and unguents fitted into openings in a horizontal bronze plate. The domed cover of the casket is joined to the body with a hinge and is closed and secured by means of a tapering hasp and staple. Representations in mosaics and wall paintings have shown objects that closely resemble the muse casket in the context of the Roman bath.
The surfaces of both body and dome have been divided into sixteen panels, alternating flat and concave surfaces. The flat surfaces are decorated with vases, vine motifs, and birds; the eight fluted panels of the dome are undecorated ; and those of the body contain female figures under arches. At the top of the dome is a medallion that contains another female figure seated in a landscape setting. The eight figures of the body can be identified as eight of the nine muses. While it is tempting to identify the ninth figure as the ninth muse, this seated figure — associated with a bird, a basket of fruits, and a tree decked with garlands — seems drawn from another sphere. She does not display an attribute as do the rest ; and she does not wear the feather headdress, which unites the band of eight and alludes to the victory of the muses over the Sirens. Whoever she may be, the ninth figure is meant to be associated with the muses, as the portrait figure of a deceased woman may take the place of a ninth muse on sarcophagi reliefs.
To the right of the hasp, reading counterclock-wise, the muses are: Urania, muse of astronomy, with a globe; Melpomene, muse of tragedy, with a Heraclean club and a tragic mask; Clio, muse of history, with a book and a capsa with scrolls; Polyhymnia, muse of mime, with a small, ''silent" mask; Terpsichore, muse of lyric poetry and dance, with a lyre and a dancing posture; Euterpe, muse of flutes, with her instrument, the double flute; Thalia, muse of comedy, with a Dionysiac pedum and comic mask ; and Calliope, muse of epic poetry, with a scroll.
Although distinguished from one another by costume and attribute, the muses are represented as variations of a single, rather stocky type. The treatment of their draperies, facial features, and postures is very similar to the execution of figures on the Projecta Casket, with which the Muse Casket was found in 1793, as part of the Esquiline Treasure. The identification and sequence of the muses on the casket can be compared with the late fourth-century ewer with nine muses from the Kremlin Armory. That the muses would be considered appropriate decorative motifs on objects — however precious — intended for domestic use only testifies to the popularity of the theme in the classical and Late Antique world.