Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Sevso Treasure

We are about to start the Time of Wandering in my Celts to Vikings class, the era in the fifth and sixth centuries when barbarian tribes entered the Roman empire and ended up turning the western half into a bunch of independents kingdoms. The Franks took over Gaul, the Visigoths ruled Spain, the Ostrogoths and then the Lombards dominated Italy. One sign that this was a period of great chaos is the number of extravagant buried treasures that have been found from this time. Wealthy families, unsure what to make of the warlords who had taken over their districts, buried hoards of gold and silver. Some of those families were then wiped out by the warlords, or fled to distant cities and never returned.

One of the most spectacular late Roman hoards is the Sevso Treasure. This was deposited within a few decades of the year 400, but nobody knows where. The name comes from the largest dish, which is inscribed:
Hec Sevso tibi durent per saecula multa
Posteris ut prosint vascula digna tuis
May these, O Sevso, yours for many ages be
Small vessels fit to serve your offspring worthily.
When it first surfaced it was accompanied by documents that said it had been in Lebanon for many years, but these documents turned out to be fake. At that point the Getty Museum backed out of a deal to buy the treasure for $10 million. Claims were then made for the treasure by the governments of Lebanon, Hungary, and Croatia, but the courts in New York held that there was not enough evidence to take the treasure from its owner, a consortium headed by the Marquess of Northampton. The most intriguing theory holds that the treasure was found near Lake Balaton in Hungary by a laborer named Jozsef Sumegh, who was murdered in 1980. His killing was never solved, and a connection to this spectacular treasure would certainly supply a motive.

Whoever turns out to own the treasure, it is certainly a spectacular sign of the wealth of the late Roman elite, and their devotion to the classical artistic tradition.

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