Silenus Jar

This jar in the shape of the head of Silenus regroups many characteristics of the Roman Empire such as its mythology and rituals, as well as daily life routines. It was found in a grave in Eijsden, Limburg and is thus believed to have been part of grave offerings, which were part of a funeral ritual in the Roman religion (Hope, 2009). This vessel, named balsamarium, contained an ointment often used by Romans in bathhouses (S. Aarts, personal communication, March 1, 2023).

3D model of the Silenus Jar

More than showcasing Roman religion and beliefs, this balsamarium also demonstrates the skills craftsmen proved to have during the Roman empire. The small size of this artifact makes us even more appreciative of the intricate details that the head of Silenus bears.

This object belongs to the following theme:



Place of Origin
Eijsden, The Netherlands

Time Period of Use (ca.)
27 BCE – 476 CE


Dimensions (cm)
 Height: 7

3D Model

Canon EOS 80D

Processing software
Agisoft Metashape Professional Edition

Manuela Ingels & Marta Podolšak

Bathing with the Gods: The Story of Silenus Jar

Silenus jar
Silenus jar with open lid

Maastricht was a Roman provincial town and many archaeological finds have been retrieved over the years. This artifact is one of them as it was found in Eijsden, a village south of Maastricht, in a woman’s grave. This object, called balsamarium, was not only used in bathhouses but was also a common grave good Romans offered their beloved ones for their journey in the afterlife. Even though not much information about the deceased can be given, we could still discover some indications about the object and its function. The object is asymmetrical and small but still presents intricate details. The grapevine and its leaves are extensive around the object and effortlessly merge with the hinges of the handles. Additionally, curly hair and a beard were crafted in relief around the head. Given the object’s dimension, it is surprisingly heavier than one would imagine as it was made out of bronze. While the craftsmanship of this object is quite impressive, we will present it in the context of both Roman bathhouses and their funeral rites.

The story behind the face  

The face depicted on this jar can be referred to two different characters of Greek mythology who are both linked to the god of wine, Dionysus. The first possibility would be the reference to Selinoi, satyrs and followers of Dionysus. Another one would be that it represents the deity Silenus, who is described in myths as being Dionysus’ foster parent as well as the guardian of wisdom whenever he is drunk. He is seen as being the oldest one of Dionysus’ followers and represented with more human features over time. Consequently, both characters are usually depicted playing music, drinking wine as well accompanied by nymphes (March, 2014). 

One of the most known Greek myths featuring Silenus is the one where king Midas takes care of a drunk Silenus. While there are many versions about how it came to this encounter, they all have similar endings. Ultimately, Dionysus arrives to bring Silenus back and in gratitude, rewards king Midas by giving him the power to turn everything he touches to gold, following the king’s wish (March, 2014). 

Two satyrs bringing Silenus King Midas standing at the left, Retrieved from MET
The drunken Silenus with putti, Retrieved from MET
Drunken Silenus holding a cup aloft into which a Satyr pours wine, Retrieved from MET
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While this myth is not represented on the vessel, depicting deities and divinities on objects was common in the Roman Empire. Indeed, images are generally easily understood and thus facilitated the veneration of each deity, as these were recognizable through specific physical characteristics and objects (Talloen & Poblome, 2005). In this sense, several similar anthropomorphic balsamaria depicting Dionysian cult were retrieved from Roman graves in Central and Eastern Europe (Agre et al., 2019). However, when it comes to the representation of Silenus on this particular vessel, one can only suggest that the symbolism of joyful life and depravity, the attributes of Dionysus and his followers, was being meaningful to the deceased (S. Aarts, personal communication, March 1, 2023).

Balsamaria and bathhouses

The Silenus balsamarium is believed to have contained bath ointments (S. Aarts, personal communication, March 1, 2023). This fits the common indication that balsamaria were related to bathing practices during the Roman Empire (Agre et al., 2019). Roman bathhouses were central parts of Roman lives as many social activities took place in these buildings. Indeed, next to bathing and exercising, Romans also went there for art and cultural activities, but it was also a usual place to make business enquiries (Ward, 1992). Bathhouses were usually public, however the wealthy had private ones inside their villas. They either built them on natural hot springs or created them artificially. In big cities, bathhouses could hold up to hundreds of people (Cartwright, 2022). 

Google maps (n.d.) [areal screenshot of “Op de Thermen”]. Retrieved March 21, 2023 from

In Maastricht, the bathhouse was located in what is now called, ‘Op de Thermen’. This small courtyard is placed near the river Meuse. It is believed that this bathhouse originated after 100 CE (Livius, 2020). 

While bathhouses had many rooms, all with different uses, there were some preparations needed before entering the hot and steamy baths. One would have to clean themselves beforehand (Cartwright, 2022). This was done by ointments and a tool called strigil, a small, curved, dull blade that would scrape away the dirt and sweat from the body. The strigil did not go in on the bare skin, as it was treated beforehand by ointments or oils, the most popular one being olive oil (UNRV, n.d.). These products were contained in balsamaria which were often small and showed different motifs. The most popular ones were representations of deities, such as Hercules or Dionysus (Agre et al., 2019). For example, one could show Hermes and Herakles, which are pictured executing athletic movements (Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d). 

On this note, we can see the importance of bathhouses and thus balsamaria throughout a Roman’s life. This suggests an explanation of why these objects were perceived as commodities for grave offerings (Agre et al., 2019).

Burial rituals

Roman religion believed in an afterlife in the Underworld where the souls would continue to live and thus some offerings were placed in their graves for their last journey. Commonly, these goods would range from a certain amount of money to food, thus commodities that the deceased regularly used during their earthly life (Hope, 2009). Archaeological research done on ancient burial sites could also retrieve several balsamari (Anderson-Stojanović, 1987). Looking at these similar grave goods, some have indications of usage before they were used as an offering (Agre et al., 2019). Observing the Silenus balsamarium, we have no evidence that it has been used by the deceased beforehand, but this cannot be known for sure. Thus, we can still question if its sole purpose was to be a grave offering or if it was used by the deceased during her life.

Roman Tomb, Retrieved from

Roman grave in Southeast Bulgaria, Retrieved from

Sarcophagus of Dionysus, Retrieved from MET

The content of these vessels, as well as other grave findings, can give archaeologists and historians more indication about the buried person. Indeed, burial sites are often important references for gender practices in ancient times as literature often shows only a male perspective. Looking at previous finds, common burial goods associated with female graves were jewlery, dresses or cosmetics (Penelope, 2015). On this note, the word “cosmetology” during the Roman Empire would not only encompass make-up, but also body creams or medicaments (Olson, 2009). Taking in the broadness of its meaning, we could link the bath ointments contained in the Silenus balsamarium to this category of grave goods and say that this vessel was found in a female grave (S. Aarts, personal communication, March 1, 2023). However, as cosmetics were common goods in Roman society, it is difficult to give an indication of the societal rank the deceased belonged to (Olson, 2009). This suggests that this Silenus balsamarium alone cannot give us further information on the woman’s life.


While the particular story of this Silenus balsamarium cannot be fully traced back yet, this object nevertheless gives us an insight on common Roman practices through the lens of religion. As one of the few objects in this collection that does represent a face, this balsamarium is a testament to Roman beliefs and ways of organizing their existence even beyond death. As our civilization is built on the foundations of the past, archeological artifacts such as this object reveal a particular characteristic of society which can be found throughout time: the need to understand one’s surroundings and origin.

Written by Manuela Ingels & Marta Podolšak