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This article reasserts some of the fundamental insights Cameron has brought to our understanding of the nature and use of ivory diptychs in the face of challenges from recent scholarship. First it shows that all ivory diptychs were originally presentation pieces meant to commemorate important occasions, particularly officeholding, and that these became more narrowly restricted to the celebration of the consulship only in the early fifth century. Second, ivory diptychs were never intended for general use as writing tablets nor even as portfolios for codicilli but always remained showpieces, intended as gifts to celebrate family achievements and especially offices held. —NEL.

In Late Antiquity members of the elite of Rome and Constantinople presented friends and connections with elaborately carved ivory diptychs to commemorate the holding of certain offices and other occasions.1 The best documented illustration is consular diptychs. We have almost forty ranging in date from ce 406 to 541, including one or both panels of six diptychs of Anastasius (consul in 517), and no fewer than seven of Areobindus (consul in 506). The three surviving sets of more or less identical diptychs issued by Justinian in 521 all claim to be presents for senators (patribus … meis offero consul ego). Evidently, they were produced in multiple copies for distribution.

There are two categories of evidence for this well-documented practice. There is literary evidence securely datable to the final decades of the fourth century: an imperial law of 384; letters of Symmachus datable to 393 and 401; Libanius's letter thanking Tatianus (consul of 391) for the gift of his diptych; and Claudian's mention of diptychs distributed by Stilicho at his consular games in 400. Then there are the surviving diptychs, most considerably later than this. [End Page 300]

Kinney has recently questioned what she characterizes as "the desire to close the gap between these objects and the written testimonia," arguing that no more than a handful of what she calls "First-Generation" diptychs (meaning a group of ivories of superior quality datable on general stylistic grounds before about 410) "show imagery overtly appropriate to such an official function."2 That is to say, she accepts the long-standard assumption that diptychs made to commemorate public office and distributed in multiple copies would be decorated, like most surviving diptychs explicitly identified as consular by their inscription, with "imagery overtly appropriate to such an official function" (the consul in full regalia or games in the circus or amphitheater). The remainder,

… display figural scenes that range from apparently irrelevant to actively unsuitable: Asclepius/Hygieia, nicomachorvm / symmachorvm, the Car-rand diptych, the Myrophores in Milan, and the Consecratio in London,

and so cannot (she argues) be considered "official" diptychs, intended for presentation.

Reasonable as this might seem, it is pure assumption that (for example) the iconography of the lost diptychs distributed by Symmachus to celebrate his son's quaestorian and praetorian games was limited to official regalia and public games. It is true that consular diptychs that survive in multiple copies all date from the sixth century and carry explicit consular iconography (506, 517, 518, 521, 525). But the cover letter Symmachus sent with his son's quaestorian diptychs in 393 describes them as "customary gifts" (dona sollemnia) that it was "a duty and a pleasure" (religiosum atque votivum) to give them to "eminent people and close friends" (potissimis atque amicissimis). To his friend Nicomachus Flavianus, then praetorian prefect at court, he sent a batch of spares with instructions to distribute them at his discretion to anyone who might have been overlooked.3 An eastern law of 384, Codex Theodosianus 15.9.1, preserved in the section of the Code on "Expenses of the Games," bans officials below the rank of consul from distributing gold and diptychs of ivory at the games they provided, prescribing silver and diptychs of other materials instead. Clearly till then praetors as well as consuls had distributed ivory diptychs, and there were four praetors per year in mid-fourth-century Constantinople. At Rome quaestors and suffect consuls gave games as well as ordinary consuls and praetors. Tatianus, eastern consul in 391, sent one to a professor of rhetoric in far-off Antioch. In the 380s and 390s we surely have [End Page 301] to think in terms of hundreds of presentation diptychs circulating in both eastern and western capitals every year. We cannot simply assume that all were decorated with the insignia of office and scenes from the games.

More important, Kinney's assumption is directly contradicted by V(olbach) 34,4 a fragmentary and badly abraded panel discussed by Shelton more than thirty years ago in an article that has yet to make its full impact.5 On a tabula ansata beneath a pediment at the top runs the inscription: … Q(ue) patr(icius) et secvndo […]. To judge from the inscriptions on the tabulae ansatae of all inscribed consular diptychs, the missing final words can only have been cons(ul) ord(inarius), in which case this must be the right-hand leaf of a consular diptych.6 The tabula on the other leaf would have given the consul's name, rank, and some earlier office held (to explain the -que).7 And yet the scene depicted is a muse holding a scroll, leaning with her left arm on a column, while a putto stands beside her waving a palm leaf.8 Surprisingly enough, this scene must have been thought perfectly acceptable for a consular diptych. Indeed, there is an exact parallel on one of a pair of (now lost) consular spoons dating from the mid-fourth century: a muse holding a scroll in her left hand and leaning with her left arm on a column next to a seated consul in full regalia.9

The muse with a scroll is Calliope, muse of epic poetry and, more broadly, of eloquence. Why a muse on a consular diptych? As Shelton saw, the muse must be a symbol of the literary culture that was so important to the late Roman elite.10 On the analogy of the uninscribed Poet and Muse diptych (V 68), the other leaf perhaps depicted a poet or philosopher—or a different muse. Since the consul of the diptych (almost certainly the future emperor Constantius III, cos. II in 417) was a military man, the implication is probably not that he himself claimed to be a man of letters, but that he was (or affected to be) a patron of letters. We do not need to suppose that this was the only type of diptych he issued. We know from the multiple surviving diptychs of Areobindus (cos. 506) that the same consul might use several different designs. Most of Constantius's diptychs may conventionally enough have shown him in full consular regalia. No doubt he sent muse diptychs to men of letters.11 [End Page 302]

Is it possible, then, that (say) the Liverpool Asclepius and Hygieia (V 57) might after all be a presentation diptych? The now blank tabula ansata at the top and blank plinth on which the personifications stand at the bottom of both leaves were surely intended for inscriptions (see Fig. 1).12 Since it is unlikely that an unfinished diptych would survive, we may reasonably assume an original painted inscription, now long vanished. A tabula for an inscription does not, of course, prove Asclepius and Hygieia a specifically consular diptych, but it does make it likely that it was a presentation diptych of some sort. We shall see that there were several different sorts.

In the case of the Poet and Muse diptych (V 68) the obvious objection might seem to be the lack of identifying inscription or even a blank tabula ansata. Yet surprisingly enough not all presentation diptychs have inscriptions. Both leaves of the uninscribed V 42 in Novara show the bust of a consul inset in a medallion, holding aloft scepter and mappa. The overall design is similar but not identical to two of the less ornate Areobindus diptychs (V 12 and 13). Then there is the figural diptych in Bourges (V 36), a seated consul holding mappa and sceptre (capped with two imperial busts), presiding over a venatio, but lacking both inscription and tabula ansata. Both must be considered presentation diptychs by consuls. Despite the lack of inscription, the original recipients must have known the identity of their benefactor, obviously the consul of the current year. Most consuls will in any case have issued inscribed diptychs as well.

V 59 is one leaf of an uninscribed diptych in Liverpool in which three men sit in a loge in an amphitheater presiding over a venatio. Since none of the three is shown as consul, presumably the presentation diptych is of some lesser official, a quaestor or praetor. The half-open doors with hunters sheltering behind them prove that this is a venatio in the arena, not a hunt in the wild somewhere. Both leaves of the Leningrad Lion Hunt (V 60) are covered with lions and hunters, with neither inscription nor presiding officials. Then there is the uninscribed V 64, the so-called Novara Patrician, not a consul but a man shown in the chlamys of public office holding his scroll of office, evidently a recently appointed high official whose identity was presumably known to contemporary recipients. Most striking of all is V 63, a military man with his wife and child, despite the lack of inscription undoubtedly identifiable to contemporaries as the generalissimo Stilicho, his wife Serena, and son Eucherius.13 [End Page 303]

Fig 1. Asclepius and Hygieia, Liverpool Museum.
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Fig 1.

Asclepius and Hygieia, Liverpool Museum.

There were two ways in which a presentation diptych might actually be presented. First, in person by the consul himself to suitable people present at his inauguration on 1 January, as described by Sidonius, present at the inauguration of Astyrius, consul in 449.14 Second, by mail, as we know from Symmachus's letters about the diptychs he issued for his son's games, accompanied by a personalized cover letter. Either way, recipients can never have been in doubt about the identity of the donor. [End Page 304]

Kinney made no attempt to develop her argument systematically, because her main concern was a single diptych: symmachorvm / nicomachorvm (V 55), which she treated in more detail in a subsequent article.15 In 1994 she had published what remains the fullest and best iconographical analysis of the diptych. In the 2008 paper she observes that her 1994 paper "stopped short of intention and value precisely because there are no external determinants of function and date."16 But there are the family names prominently inscribed on a tabula ansata at the top of each panel, exactly as on undoubted presentation diptychs. In a society where members of the elite were accustomed to receiving ivory diptychs inscribed on just such tabulae ansatae with the name of the presenter, the inscribed names of two leading aristocratic families would inescapably have prompted contemporaries to think in terms of some current or recent occasion involving those families. As for interpretation, the fact that these were two of the most prominent pagan families in what was fast becoming a Christian world would inevitably have conditioned anyone's initial approach to the iconography and purpose of the diptych.

Objecting to the notion that "all carved ivory plaques were made to mark a life event," Kinney suggests that symmachorvm / nicomachorvm "was not made for any particular occasion, not distributed or gifted but owned by the families named on it."17 For all their often very elaborate iconography, in form late antique ivory diptychs are no more than glorified writing tablets. Kinney is attracted by the idea that the primary function of symmachorvm / nicomachorvm was simply to carry letters to and fro. She cites Graeven's argument that:

… the genitive form of the names inscribed on the plaques also occurs on smaller (in his view) more functional diptychs and is appropriate to objects that circulate and must be returned to their owners.18

That is to say, the names were intended to serve as a sort of return address, as on modern stationery.

This might have been true for the smaller piece (a unicum) to which Graeven referred. This object, found in excavations on the Esquiline in 1874,19 is a well-preserved, narrow ivory diptych (19 cm × 6 cm), probably of the third century, undecorated except for a name in the genitive at the top of each leaf [End Page 305] (Fig. 2): gallieni / concessi v. c.20 There are two crucial differences from symmachorvm / nicomachorvm: only one name, Gallienus Concessus vir clarissimus; and the name is in the genitive singular. Though too small for anything but a brief note, if it were used for a letter the recipient would at any rate have known who his correspondent was. But the heading symmachorvm / nicomachorvm would be useless for this purpose, since it does not identify an individual, but any and all members unspecified of two different families.21

The Graeven–Kinney explanation essentially ignores the different family names. But puzzling though it might seem, the phenomenon is by no means unique. Two exact parallels survive. First, the recently rediscovered bassi-orvm / evplvtiorvm diptych, undecorated except for the two family names in the genitive plural, one on each leaf,22 and, more important, [l]ampadiorvm / rvfiorvm (V 54). The surviving leaf, inscribed [l]ampadiorvm, is decorated with a scene of a man wearing the trabea, holding a mappa, and presiding at a chariot race. To judge from the iconography, one leaf of a presentation diptych commemorates games provided by a consul. Obviously, the consular imagery here is "overtly appropriate to such an official function" in a way that the imagery of symmachorvm / nicomachorvm, two priestesses sacrificing at altars, is not.23 Unlike regular consular diptychs, however, the inscription does not give the name of the consul himself (presumably some otherwise unidentifiable Fl. Lampadius vir clarissimus), but of his family, in the genitive plural just like symmachorvm / nicomachorvm. The other difference from regular consular diptychs is that there are three figures in the circus loge looking down on the racing chariots in the arena, presumably all three of them Lampadii. Differences notwithstanding, however, any explanation of the genitive plural family names in symmachorvm / nicomachorvm must take account of the exactly parallel [l]ampadiorvm / rvfiorvm.

Since the first and only Lampadius to hold the ordinary consulship was in 530, far too late for a diptych agreed to be datable on general stylistic grounds no later than the early fifth century,24 the inevitable alternative is a suffect consul, an office at this period held in the honorand's early twenties, [End Page 306]

Fig 2. Gallienus Concessus diptych, Capitoline Museum, Rome. © Roma, Soverintendenz Capitolina ai Beni Culturali.
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Fig 2.

Gallienus Concessus diptych, Capitoline Museum, Rome. © Roma, Soverintendenz Capitolina ai Beni Culturali.

[End Page 307] normally before his first provincial governorship.25 The suffect's only duties were to provide games for the natalis urbis on 21 April, for which function he wore the full regalia of the ordinary consul.26 That is to say, it was an expensive sinecure like the praetorship, an office whose only serious duty was to provide magnificent games, in the praetor's case at the ludi Apollinares. Both were intended to introduce a young man of good family and high prospects to the people of Rome through extravagant games, organized and paid for by his father, who inevitably took much of the credit.27 The central figure in the circus loge on [l]ampadiorvm is shown much larger than the other two, and since he alone wears the consular trabea, it is not unreasonable to identify one of the smaller togate figures as his father, presumably the one on the right also holding a mappa.28 Both the smaller figures are shown older than the consul.

This brings us back to the genitive plurals. In 1986, I pointed out that the genitive plural of family names was commonly used to denote ownership by a family. For example, blocks of seats owned by senatorial families in the Colosseum are marked palladiorvm, aniciorvm, dorobiorvm, abentiorvm and the like.29 ennodiorvm is written in rustic capitals on a blank page in a fine sixth-century uncial manuscript of Jerome's Letters, evidently identifying the book as the property of the Gallo–Roman family of the Ennodii.30 But while a family might own a block of seats in the Colosseum for the use of all its members, we never hear of joint blocks of seats shared by two families. The Romans certainly had the concept of joint ownership,31 but while two individuals might own property jointly, it is difficult to imagine why two families might want to own writing tablets jointly. And what about bassiorvm / evplvtiorvm and [l]ampadiorvm / rvfiorvm? Was it standard practice for aristocratic families to have a partner family with whom they shared stationery?

Above all there is the fact that, despite the family inscription, in all other respects [l]ampadiorvm appears to be a regular presentation diptych. Obviously, it would help if we knew what was depicted on the lost companion leaf rvfiorvm. The natural explanation of the two different family names is commemoration of some occasion shared by the Lampadii and Rufii. The obvious shared occasion between families, of course, is a wedding. Marriages constitute a permanent link between families, but celebration naturally focuses on the wedding that brings them together. Despite the rather unpromising [End Page 308] iconography, symmachorvm / nicomachorvm has traditionally been associated with a wedding between the (closely related) families of the Symmachi and Nicomachi. In 1986, for a variety of reasons (notably the lowered torches of the priestesses and pine cones on symmachorvm)32 I suggested a family funeral instead. Q. Fabius Memmius Symmachus, praetor in 401, set up a balancing pair of statues in memory of his recently deceased father, Symmachus (cos. 391), and his grandfather-in-law the elder Nicomachus Flavianus, dead for more than a decade.

Kinney objected that both interpretations, while plausible enough, are in the end just speculations. I would prefer to style them informed conjectures, based on the conspicuous evidence of the inscribed family names and the fact that two marriages between the Symmachi and Nicomachi are specifically attested (Symmachus's son with the elder Nicomachus Flavianus's granddaughter, and Symmachus's daughter with the younger Flavianus). Contemporaries, aware of these ties, would naturally have called them to mind when seeing precisely these family names linked.

As for [l]ampadiorvm / rvfiorvm, in 1986 I made the more adventurous suggestion of a marriage between the Lampadii and Rufii in the same year that young Lampadius celebrated his suffect consulship, shown on the surviving leaf, postulating that the lost rvfiorvm leaf showed some nuptial themes, the toilette of the bride or Venus and a train of Erotes or Tritons. Christ objected that this would be "moderately hard to imagine as a counterpart to an iconography entirely 'overtly appropriate' to an official diptych."33 Despite the consular iconography, the family names in the genitive plural, paralleled by symmachorvm / nicomachorvm with its sacrificing priestesses, lend no support to the "official" hypothesis.

Even consular diptychs, though naturally employing all the standard consular iconography (trabea, scipio, sella curulis, and so on) for the representation of the consul, were unofficial, private gifts, commissioned and paid for by the consul and presented to personal friends and connections, who were expected to acknowledge the gift in an elegant epistle. Symmachus's letter thanking Syagrius (cos. 381) absurdly claims that, having received what he calls his munus consulare by mail, he has been singled out for more honorific treatment than those who got theirs simply by turning up on 1 January for the inauguration. More interesting, to send the munus late was a major breach of etiquette, as revealed by two letters of Symmachus complaining about the lateness of the barbarian generals Richomer and Bauto, consuls in 384 and 385. Writing to Bauto, Symmachus pretends to believe that some deceitful [End Page 309] intermediary was responsible for the delay, because he cannot believe that Bauto himself would be amicitiae negligens, an ingenious attempt "to allow Symmachus to save face and yet maintain his friendship with Bauto."34

There was in fact no formal category of "consular" diptych with a prescribed number of "appropriate" themes. We have already considered V 34, undoubtedly issued to commemorate the second consulship of Constantius in 417 but decorated with a muse instead of the consul. Then there is V 1, issued in 406 by Anicius Petronius Probus, decorated on both leaves with an image of the emperor Honorius in military dress proclaiming victory. According to Christ, "Probus' consular inscription ensures its imagery is appropriately official. The image of an emperor must be appropriate consular iconography." But the inscription is hardly "official." Instead of the regular full name, rank and offices inscribed continuously across the top of both leaves, we find the anomalous probvs famvlvs v. c. cons. ord. repeated at the bottom of both leaves. Though evidently issued in Probus's consular year, its purpose was to celebrate Honorius's defeat of the Gothic horde of Radagaisus late in the year rather than his own consulship at its beginning. Inside an arch above the emperor's head on both leaves is inscribed d. n. honorio semp(er) avg(usto). The two inscriptions should be read together as a dedication: "Probus his servant, ordinary consul, to our lord Honorius ever Augustus."35 Probus's name and rank are at the bottom in keeping with the "vertical axis" normal in representations of acclamations: those who acclaim are shown on a lower register than the recipient of the acclamations.36 Symmachus tells Flavianus that he has sent the emperor Eugenius a "diptych bordered with gold" (auro circumdatum diptychum),37 probably not just one of his regular diptychs with a gold trim added but, like V 1, a dedication to Eugenius in the name of the younger Symmachus.

"Consular diptych" is a misleading modern categorization. There were just presentation diptychs, with no fixed or "suitable" iconography, adaptable to a variety of occasions and purposes, public and private indifferently. Christ rejects the idea of "private diptychs" as "completely undocumented," but there is no "documentation" for the concept of "official" diptychs either, still less for what she calls "magistrate diptychs."38 Officials charged with providing games (quaestors, praetors, ordinary and suffect consuls) were expected to distribute largesse in the form of diptychs along with other gifts, but they were not required to any more than lions or elephants, however desirable, [End Page 310] were required at their games. The superrich like Symmachus gave them out by the hundred, but poorer senators would not have been able to afford such an additional extravagance.39

The fact that one leaf of [l]ampadiorvm / rvfiorvm commemorates games given by a suffect consul does not make the diptych itself official. The actual codicils of office presented to the future consul or praetor by the emperor in the form of a diptych was official in that it was presented to the honorand by—or at least in the name of—the emperor (more on this below). But diptychs distributed by the consul or praetor himself to commemorate his games, often carrying his own likeness, were just as much personal gifts as diptychs commemorating family events such as weddings or funerals. This explains why a muse could be shown on what is undoubtedly a consular diptych. Most consuls no doubt preferred the pompous formality of having themselves portrayed in full regalia, presiding at the games on which they had spent a fortune.

Since the genitive plurals of lampadiorvm / rvfiorvm mark it out as what I propose to call a "family occasion" diptych, on Christ's definition one leaf would be official and one private. It is frustrating that the rvfiorvm panel, still attached to its fellow as late as the twelfth century, is now lost, but in the light of the muse and column panel, I see no reason why the missing leaf should not have borne some stock nuptial theme. Epithalamia for public occasions—Claudian's for the wedding of the emperor Honorius for example—are full of Venuses and Tritons.

Christ also objects to the assumption that "shared family events" must be private events. Why not "shared public events," she asks? Citing evidence for the crushing cost of putting on games and the presence of three figures in the loge of both lampadiorvm and the Liverpool Venatio panel (V 59), she suggests that families may have "collaborated on sponsoring games." On occasion perhaps, though it is most unlikely that this is what is represented on these two panels. Providing games was in effect a tax on senatorial families.40 There were various ways for less affluent senators to contribute less, and a law of 372 actually allows two or three senators to combine their assets. But they had to get special permission to do this, which involved submitting a full inventory of their assets, so that "it will be possible to determine in a just manner how much expense each must bear, according to the capacity of his resources."41 Those obliged to submit to such a humiliating procedure would [End Page 311] never have advertised the fact on their presentation diptychs. At the other end of the scale the superrich, the Symmachi and their kind, competed with each other in extravagance. Symmachus himself was reported to have spent 2000 pounds of gold on his son's praetorian games alone. Several remarks he made to his various helpers during the four years he devoted to this massive operation are particularly revealing:

I must outdo the fame of my earlier displays, which after the consular magnificence of our house (391) and the quaestorian exhibition of my son (393) portend nothing mediocre from us … we must satisfy the expectation which has increased because of our example … make your preparations so that the second magistracy of my son (401) may surpass the magnificence of his quaestorship. …42

It is true (as Christ objects) that there is no literary or documentary evidence for wedding or funerary diptychs, but then there is no literary or documentary evidence for diptychs being issued by a vicarius of Rome (V 62), a patrician (V 64), a tribune and notary (V 63), or a provincial priest (V 58), yet all are proved to have done so by surviving diptychs. In terms of surviving diptychs, the hitherto unrecognized category of "shared family diptychs" is in fact the second largest after consular diptychs.

In 1986, I identified the Consecratio panel (V 56, Fig. 3) and the recently rediscovered Fauvel panel (Fig. 4) as companions to symmachorvm / nicomachorvm, all three (I suggested) issued by Symmachus's son Memmius Symmachus to commemorate the deaths of his father and the elder Nicomachus Flavianus. This was, of course, no more than a conjecture, and it is possible that it was mistaken. For the sake of argument, let us suppose that it was mistaken and consider alternative possibilities.

Both were undoubtedly presentation diptychs. The Consecratio lacks the full inscribed tabula ansata, but there is a conspicuous monogram at the very top (Fig. 3), as on several consular diptychs (V 6, V 12, V 15, and V 31). To my mind the most convincing decipherment is symmachorvm, with the S and Y at the top left and right-hand sides respectively guiding the eye of the viewer. But let us concede that it spells out some other name, as yet unidentified. The most conspicuous letters at the heart of the monogram are undoubtedly R, O, V and M. Whatever the name, it surely ended in -orum, a genitive plural. Given that the scene illustrated involves apotheosis, the family occasion is more likely to have been a funeral than a wedding.43 [End Page 312]

Fig 3. Consecratio Panel, British Museum, London.
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Fig 3.

Consecratio Panel, British Museum, London.

Fig 4. Fauvel panel.
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Fig 4.

Fauvel panel.

[End Page 313]

In 1719 Montfaucon published an engraving of a now lost ivory diptych panel owned by the Abbé Fauvel, chaplain to Louis XIV (fig. 4). Beneath the pediment at the top is a tabula ansata from which the original (? painted) inscription was removed and a medieval name, Ennobertus, substituted.44 Obviously then a presentation diptych, but of which sort? While the Muse of V 34 can be held to symbolize the literary culture that was so important to the late Roman elite, it is difficult to see how priestesses sacrificing at altars could fulfil the same function. Given that the scene is so close a copy of symmachorvm, I argued that the Fauvel panel was one leaf of another diptych issued by Memmius Symmachus on the same occasion, with the two panels inscribed (again) symmachorvm and nicomachorvm. Given the immense wealth of the Symmachi, it is not implausible that two or more of the many diptychs they issued should survive. Christ suggests instead that sacrificing priestesses may have been "a standard diptych type with currency over some extended period for various patrons." For the sake of argument let us concede this possibility. Yet neither sacrificing priestesses nor the two family names would suit a consular diptych. The Fauvel inscription would surely have been some other family name in the genitive plural, Deciorum or Aniciorum. My specific suggestions may have been wrong, but my general classification of both panels remains the most plausible.

What names originally stood on the now blank Asclepius and Hygieia tabulae ansatae? (Fig. 1). The deities of healing would certainly seem an inappropriate choice for a consular diptych, and hardly more suitable for a wedding or funeral. By the right foot of Asclepius stands his son Telesphorus, shown in traditional guise as a small child wearing a pointed mantle.45 Marinus describes how, when the young Proclus was very sick, Telesphorus appeared to him in a dream and he was immediately cured.46 One possible explanation of his role here might be the recovery of someone dear to both families after a serious illness, a young bride, perhaps, or a sick child.

Whatever the family name or occasion, we have one or both leaves of perhaps four or five "shared family occasion" diptychs. All the more would any member of the late fourth-century elite who chanced to pick up symmachorvm / nicomachorvm assume that it celebrated some big occasion shared by the two families named. No less important, almost all known objects in [End Page 314] this category fall into Kinney's "First Generation" diptychs, "plaques that might have been made before the sack of Rome in 410." The Stilicho diptych must predate Stilicho's death in 408, and I have elsewhere given grounds for dating the lampadiorvm and the Probianus diptych (V 62) to 396. The Novara "Patrician" and Consecratio diptychs have sometimes been dated as late as the 430s on general stylistic grounds, but most of the others discussed in these pages are assigned by Volbach to "around 400." With two exceptions, all known consular diptychs are later than 410. For the West, the dates are: 406, 408, 417, 428, 449, 470, 487, 488, 530, and 541. For the Eastern consular diptychs, the dates are: 413, 506, 513, 515, 517, 518, 521, 525, 539, and 540.

The Theodosian law of July 384 addressed to the senate of Constantinople forbids all but (eastern) ordinary consuls to distribute "diptychs of ivory" (diptycha ex ebore).47 In the past it was often assumed that lesser folk had been usurping a consular privilege, and that those who distributed the numerous surviving non-consular diptychs must have had to obtain a special exemption from this law. But, as we have seen, the evidence of Symmachus proves that, at Rome anyway, praetors and even quaestors were expected to provide ivory diptychs as a "customary gift" at least as late as 401.48 The purpose of the Theodosian law was in fact to reduce the financial pressure on praetors and other providers of non-consular games. It goes on to lay down maxima for their expenditure and specifically states that it is both permissible and even honorable (honestum) to spend less than these maxima.49

The Constantinopolitan law (384) confirms the evidence of Symmachus for Rome (393 and 401) that ostentatious expenditure on presentation diptychs for all sorts of occasions had got out of control in the last couple of decades of the fourth century. Vicars of Rome (V 62) and tribunes and notaries (V 63) did not even provide the games with which diptychs are normally associated. Kinney implies that the practice of distributing presentation diptychs did not become widespread until after 410. The exact reverse would be nearer the truth. It would hardly be surprising if the devastation of Alaric's sack was more effective than imperial legislation in reining in this extravagance. It is perhaps no coincidence that all the literary evidence for the practice dates from the last two decades of the fourth century, and that all surviving diptychs later than the mid-fifth century are consular.

The following letter from Augustine to his patron Romanianus has often been held to prove that people did indeed use ivory diptychs for correspondence: [End Page 315]

Does this letter not show that, if we are short of papyrus (inopiam chartae indicat), we do at least have an abundance of parchment (membranas abundare)? The ivory tablets (tabellas eburneas) I have sent to your uncle with a letter (cum litteris), but you will more readily pardon this scrap of parchment (pelliculae) because what I wrote to him could not be delayed, and I thought it would be impolite not to write to you. But I wish you would return any tablets (tabellas) of mine that you have to meet such needs as this. I have written something, as far as the Lord allows me, on the catholic religion. I want to send it to you before I come, if papyrus does not fail me in the interim (si charta interim non desit), for you will put up with any kind of writing from the workshop (ex officina) of Maiorinus.50

Yet this is anything but a straightforward reference to the routine epistolary use of ivory diptychs. Augustine contrives to work into these few lines papyrus, parchment, ivory diptychs, regular wooden writing tablets,51 and the work of a professional copying house (officina Maiorini). As Kinney herself suspected, there seems to be some sort of joke here. Augustine is apparently apologizing both for not writing sooner and for using parchment rather than papyrus. Parchment was indeed rarely used for letters; out of the hundreds of original letters surviving from Roman Egypt only four were written on parchment.52 And not only in Egypt. Jerome writes to a delinquent correspondent that "by parchment (membranas) you could have made up for lack of papyrus (ut penuria chartae pellibus pensaretur)."53 Augustine himself normally used papyrus.54

Are we really meant to believe that Augustine would have used his ivory diptych if he had not, coincidentally, just sent it off with an urgent missive to Romanianus's uncle?55 In the extraordinarily abundant evidence we have for late antique epistolography,56 there is no other reference to the use of ivory [End Page 316] diptychs. It is true that another letter of Augustine does mention ivory tablets, but it is clear from the context that he is referring to an astrologer's board, described in the Alexander Romance as made of ivory and engraved with zones, decans, and signs of the zodiac.57 Three survive, exactly so engraved, two of them in the form of ivory panels.58 Symmachus's letters mention ivory diptychs five times, always in connection with their role as gifts in commemoration of his son's games. He uses Greek δίπτυχον in Latin dress, diptychum, both neologisms of the late fourth century, of the age (in fact) when large and elaborately carved ivory diptychs first appear. There is just one reference in Libanius, in the form of the cumbersome periphrasis διθύρῳ γραμματείῳ … ἐλέφαντος (according to Pollux, the Attic for diptych), referring to the arrival of the munus consulare of his friend Tatianus in 391.59 To the best of my knowledge there is no other reference in the many thousands of surviving late antique letters.

Yet this letter of Augustine seems to imply that the use of an ivory diptych for a letter would be perfectly normal. One possible explanation that occurs to me, purely as a speculation, is that Romanianus, whose financial support had enabled the young Augustine to pursue his studies in Carthage, once gave his protégé an ivory writing tablet, a valuable but nonetheless practical gift for a student. In response to an earlier letter of Augustine excusing his delay in writing by lack of papyrus, Romanianus had jokingly asked (I suggest) why he did not use his ivory diptych. Augustine humorously worked this reproach into his apology.

An intriguing 1892 painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, to which attention was first drawn by Tony Cutler,60 portrays two young women apparently reading some sheets of parchment or paper inside a hinged copy of what is obviously meant to be symmachorvm / nicomachorvm (though seen obliquely, the priestess, altar, and overarching tree are plainly discernible). While acknowledging that this is simply a modern artist's fancy, Kinney was attracted by the idea that, rather than writing their letters on the blank interior surface of the diptych, people wrote them on a piece of parchment they tucked inside a closed diptych for delivery.61

She cites the (posthumously published) Thesaurus veterum diptychorum consularium et ecclesiasticorum (1759) of the prolific Florentine antiquary [End Page 317] Antonio Gori. Gori had suggested that the laudes (by which he meant panegyrics and poems in their honor) of the Symmachi and Nicomachi were written on sheets of parchment and inserted between the leaves of symmachorvm / nicomachorvm. Yet while in this conception the diptych is indeed functioning as a sort of glorified envelope, Gori was not thinking of private letters but of an honorific dossier presented on some big occasion; since there is no consular representation, perhaps at an earlier stage of their careers.62 He offered no explanation of the linking of the two names, nor why both were in the genitive plural.

A somewhat different and more plausible version of Kinney's assumption was advanced in 1751 by J. J. Reiske in his commentary on the De caerimoniis of Constantine Porphyrogenitus. A number of passages in the Kletorologion of Philotheos (899) describe the presentation of their codicils of office to various officials by the Byzantine emperor in the form of "decorated ivory plaques" (πλάκες ἐλεφάντιναι κεκοσμημέναι) together with "codicils inscribed in the form of the law."63 Since there are references in the De caerimoniis to "plaques with codicils" and "plaques without codicils," the implication is that the codicil was something distinct from the plaque, not just the text of the codicil inscribed on its interior writing surface. Reiske plausibly suggested that the text of the codicil was written on a piece of parchment enclosed between the leaves of the diptych.64

For all we know this practice might have gone back to Late Antiquity. As early as the first century, codicils of office took the form of a personal letter from the emperor. John Chrysostom refers to emperors "offering their prefects gold writing tablets (δέλτους) as a symbol of their authority," and Themistius mentions "a writing tablet … such as ivory-workers and goldsmiths make."65 Among the insignia of office depicted in the miniatures of the early fifth-century Notitia Dignitatum are white rectangular objects set up on a blue cloth-covered table. It is generally assumed that these white objects are ivory tablets, containing the codicils of office displayed by the official in question while conducting business.66

These diptychs might justly be styled official. They were presented by the emperor (or a representative) to the official on the occasion of his promotion. [End Page 318] They presumably existed in a single copy decorated with a portrait of the emperor, not of the promoted official, muse, or mythological scene, and they carried the codicils of the office to which he was being promoted. It is important to be clear that none of these codicil-carrying diptychs survive. They have nothing to do with surviving diptychs carrying representations of imperial officials. In fact, I have suggested elsewhere that presentation diptychs are an imitation or memento of the emperor's codicil-carrying diptychs.67 And while they might be described as letters, they were not sent out for delivery by a letter carrier but presented by hand on a ceremonial occasion.

There are also more practical problems with treating the extant diptychs as a genuine writing tablet or even a glorified envelope. Ivory diptychs with panels on the scale of the diptychs discussed in these pages would not only be too heavy but also inconveniently bulky for such a commonplace function. Regular wooden writing tablets measure anything from about 9 centimeters × 6 centimeters to 14 × 11, weighing from 20 to 50 grams.68 In fact they were so light that all four of the notarii represented on the diptych of the vicarius Rufius Probianus (V 62) are shown holding a block of open tablets69 in their left hand, on the top one of which they write with a stylus held in their right hand (Fig. 5).

Ivory diptychs vary greatly in size, depending on the dimensions of the tusk they were cut from, but many measure 30 centimeters to 35 centimeters in height. The symmachorvm panel, only 29.9 centimeters high, weighs 300 grams, so larger complete diptychs might easily weigh 700 grams.70 The normal posture for writing on a tablet was to hold it in one hand, whence the name, pugillares tabulae, tablets that can be held in the fist (pugnus). The writer would often write standing, like the notarii on the Probianus diptych; if sitting, he would rest the tablet, or the hand that held the tablet, on one knee.71 The size of the average ivory diptych would make the first posture difficult, and the high relief carving on the front surface would make the second uncomfortable. In this connection, it might be observed that there is no reason to believe that Augustine's ivory diptych was on this scale. If he really [End Page 319] used it for a letter, it was probably more like the Gallienus Concessus diptych, unadorned and no more than 19 centimeters × 6 centimeters, simply an ivory version of the regular wooden tablet.

Fig 5. Probianus diptych, Staatsbibliothek, Berlin.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 5.

Probianus diptych, Staatsbibliothek, Berlin.

Cutler has pointed out that in many late antique diptychs the recess on the back is not deep enough for a re-usable bed of wax.72 Kinney claims that the recess on the back of symmachorvm is "viable," though I would add that the recess also needs to be deep enough so that the wax surfaces of the rear of the [End Page 320] two leaves did not touch and blur the writing when the diptych was closed. The standard late antique letter was written on a sheet of papyrus cut to the length required and then folded and sealed, with the address written on the back.73 A diptych such as symmachorvm / nicomachorvm would have to be wrapped up before it could be addressed and sealed, and wrapped up thoroughly so as to protect the high relief of the carving.

Surprisingly enough, no one seems to have adduced in this context Martial 14.5, the one surviving text that describes the advantage of writing on ivory tablets:

Languida ne tristes obscurent lumina cerae,  Nigra tibi niveum littera pingat ebur.

Lest somber wax dim your failing eyes, let black  letters paint snow-white ivory for your use.

Why would anyone prefer to write74 on the dull grey wax used in wooden tablets75 rather than direct on the bright surface of the ivory tablet?

In the last decades of the fourth century well-connected members of the elite are likely to have accumulated quite a pile of presentation diptychs. It is likely enough that those equipped with a waxed or polished ivory interior were on occasion treated as writing tablets, used for taking notes or making drafts. But they would have been too large and heavy to carry on one's person, and quite unsuitable for letters. For example, apropos the claim that inscriptions of names in the genitive were intended to denote ownership, it should be noted that the greater part of the pile will have borne the names of other people, the presenters!

In conclusion, it is instructive to consider the one passage where Cicero refers to using codicilli for a letter. When dining at a friend's he drafted a letter to Paetus on his tablet: "I was reclining at table at the ninth hour when I inscribed a draft of this letter to you on writing tablets" (accubueram hora nona cum ad te harum exemplum in codicillis exaravi).76 The actual text sent was surely copied from this draft (probably by a freedman) onto a piece of papyrus. [End Page 321]

Alan Cameron†
Columbia University


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1. I have discussed many aspects, citing all the relevant sources, in two recent papers, Cameron 2013 and Cameron 2015. To save space and cost I include a minimum of illustrations. Most of those I refer to but do not illustrate can be called up in a few seconds on the Internet.

7. For example, fl. constantivs, com(es), mag(ister) mil(itum).

8. On the identification of the figure as a muse, Shelton 1983, 14–18.

9. Shelton 1983, 22; for a clearer image, Cameron 2013, 179, fig. 3 (a).

11. For many reasons, it is a pity that we do not have the diptych which Tatianus (cos. 391) sent to the rhetor Libanius.

12. In the eighteenth century, the diptych was kept in a marquetry box, the outside of which is decorated with a copy of the two panels, supplying (implausible) inscriptions for both tabula and plinth. For photos of both diptych and box, see Gibson 1994, 10–15. With the partial exception (see below) of the Probus diptych (V 1), no other surviving diptych is inscribed at both top and bottom.

14. See Sid. Ap. Ep. 8.6.5, with Cameron 2013, 189.

17. Kinney 2009, 203 (my italics). See also Kinney 2009, 199: "Always it is assumed that it was 'distributed,' 'offered,' 'given,' 'issued,' or 'sent.'"

19. Visconti 1874, 101–13; see now Laurenzi 2015, with fine color photo on page 296.

20. The v(ir) c(larissimus) after the name on the right-hand panel makes it clear that we are faced with a single name plus rank, not a separate name on each panel.

21. There would, of course, be no ancient equivalent for a collective modern letterhead such as Smith, Brown, and Jones from a law firm.

24. The Lampadius who was consul in 530 was an easterner, and sixth-century eastern diptychs were very different from fifth-century western diptychs (Cameron 2015). In any case, even if lam-PaDIorVm were to be dated to 530, this would still not explain the genitive plural rather than (say) Fl. Lampadius v. c.

25. Chastagnol 1958, 231–37; see also Chastagnol 1976, 58–59 and Chastagnol 1992, 247.

27. This is uncontroversial: see recently Cameron 2015, 279–80.

28. In my earlier discussion, I mistakenly stated that both the smaller figures were holding mappae.

32. Cameron 1986. For these and other arguments, see now Cameron 2011, 718–19, 728.

33. Christ 2015, 186 (my italics).

34. Symm. Ep. 1.103; 3.59; 4.15. See the detailed discussion by Salzman, 2006, 352–67 (quotation from p. 358).

35. For these and other anomalies, see Cameron, 2007, 191–202.

36. For bibliography on this issue, see Cameron 2007, 201 n. 32.

37. Symm. Ep. 2.81.

39. Since diptychs were issued to commemorate the games that the official provided (Cameron 2013, 179–82) rather than (as often assumed) his assumption of the office itself, those who did not give games at their inauguration—perhaps officials in office far from court or generals on campaign—may not have been obliged to issue diptychs.

40. For all the details and figures, Chastagnol 1958, 99–114; Jones 1964, 2: 537–40.

41. CTh (a. 372); Jones 1964, 2: 538–39.

42. Symm. Epp. 4.60.2; 4.58.2; 4.59. 1.

43. Christ 2015, 188 assumes that, "Apotheosis pertains easily to commemorations of past emperors," but the man ascending to heaven is not shown as an emperor, and why would late Roman nobles choose to commemorate deified emperors dead several centuries?

44. Cameron 1984. There was evidently once a monogram in the medallion above the tabula ansata, which was simply removed. Presumably Ennobertus had no monogram.

45. See "Telesphorus" in LIMC 7: 870–78 and Wroth 1882; add the head recently found at Perge and illustrated online under "Head of Telesphoros found after 34 years."

46. Marin. V. Procli. 7.

47. CTh 15.9.1.

48. Texts quoted in Cameron 2013, 179–80.

49. For more detail, see Cameron 1982.

50. Aug. Ep. 15.1. Since the interpretation of this letter is uncertain at some points, here is a complete Latin text: Non haec epistula sic inopiam chartae indicat, ut membranas saltem abundare testetur? Tabellas eburneas, quas habeo, avunculo tuo cum litteris misi. Tu enim huic pelliculae facilius ignosces, quia differri non potuit, quod ei scripsi, et tibi non scribere ineptissimum existimavi. Sed tabellas, si quae ibi nostrae sunt, propter huius modi necessitates mittas peto. Scripsi quiddam de catholica religione, quantum Dominus dare dignatus est, quod tibi volo ante adventum meum mittere, si charta interim non desit. Tolerabis enim qualemcumque scripturam ex officina Maiorini.

51. The tabulae he asks Romanianus to return are surely regular wooden writing tablets rather than a second reference to ivory diptychs, and the necessitas for which he needs them is presumably running out of papyrus, his preferred medium for letters.

53. Jer. Ep. 7.2; with Arns 1953, 27.

54. Aug. Ep. 171.1; 238.1; 261.1.

55. For all that is known about Romanianus, see Mandouze 1982, 994–97.

57. See tabellis eburneis at Aug. Ep. 246. 2; compare Hist. Alex. Mag. 4.5–6 (ed. Kroll 1926).

58. Evans 2004, 4–10 (adding Augustine Ep. 246 to the sources cited); see too now, with color photos, Heilen and Greenbaum 2016, 126–30.

59. Lib. Ep. 1021: Ἡρόδοτος μὲν λέγει 'δελτίον δίπτυχον,' οἱ δὲ Ἀττικοὶ 'γραμματεῖον δίθυρον'; cf. Poll. Onom. 4.18 (ed. Bethe, Teubner 1: 207.25).

62. Gori 1759 1: 203–7 and in more detail at 2: 45–86 ("dono data fuisse" at 2: 56–57).

64. Reiske 1830, 277: Sunt propriae eburneae tabulae diptychae, seu duarum alarum, plicatiles, quae medio suo continebant diploma honoris in membrana exaratum. See too Cutler 1994a, 235.

65. Joh. Chrys. In illud vidi 2(PG 56.110): οἱ βασιλεῖς τοῖς ἑαυτῶν ὑπάρχοις χρυσᾶς ὀρέγουσι δέλτους, σύμβολον τῆς ἀρχῆς; Them. Or. 23.293b (ed. Downey and Norman, Teubner), Themistius refers to a gold writing tablet (δέλτῳ χρυσῇ).

66. All the texts are cited in Cameron 2013, 175–78.

68. For measurements of the more than 400 wooden tablets found in the Bloomberg excavations in London, see Tomlin 2016, 22–30 and throughout, lavishly illustrated. No weights are supplied, but Roger Tomlin kindly had one specimen (his no. 135 on p. 266) weighed for me: 14.5 cm × 11. 7 cm and 51.5 grams. Similar material is assembled in Speidel 1996. Two smaller tablets are illustrated in Roberts and Skeat 1987, plate 1.

69. According to Delbrueck 1929, 255: "je 10 doppelseitige Wachstafeln."

70. Paul Williamson of the Victoria and Albert Museum kindly had symmachorvm weighed for me.

74. Using ink that could be washed off for reuse: see the texts quoted by Leary 1996, 62 on Mart. 14.7. 2.

75. For the composition and color of writing wax see L. J. E. Cramp, in Tomlin 2016, 284–86.

76. Cic. Fam. 9.26.

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