previous next


MU´RRHINA or MU´RREA VASA were first brought to Rome in 61 B.C. by Pompey, who, after his triumph, dedicated cups of this material to Jupiter Capitolinus (Plin. Nat. 37.18). Pliny (ibidem) states that the price of these vases was continually increasing, and that 70,000 sesterces were paid for a cup holding three sextarii. He also speaks of a trulla which cost 300,000 sesterces, and of a drinking cup for which Nero paid a million sesterces. The costliness of these objects may t also be inferred from Seneca, de Ben. 7.9; Martial, 3.82, 25; Plin. Nat. 37.20. [p. 2.182]

According to Pliny's account (H. N. 37.8), the material came from various littleknown regions in Parthia, the best specimens being obtained from Carmania. He states that it was supposed to be a moist substance (humor), solidified by subterranean heat; that the pieces never exceeded the size of small tablets (abaci) in breadth, and were rarely as thick as the drinking cups above quoted. They were also fragile, and the chief value lay in. the variety of the colours, which were purple and milkywhite, with subtle gradations and interchanges between the two. Some connoisseurs chiefly admired an effect of iridescence; others admired opaque fatty spots (pingues), crystalline deposits (sales), and warts (verrucae non eminentes, sed . . . plerumque sessiles). The smell was also approved.<

There has been much discussion as to the nature of the material thus described by Pliny, and it has frequently been held that the murrhina vasa were true Chinese porcelain. Confirmation is sought for this view in the words of Propertius (4.5, 26), “Murreaque in Parthis pocula cocta focis.”

It is also argued that the importation of porcelain from the far East is proved by the discovery of Chinese vases in Egypt. But probably all such vases belong to a very late date. One specimen, for example, which is now in the Egyptian Collection of the British Museum, is inscribed with a line from a Chinese poet of the 11th century A.D. Moreover, the ancient witnesses to the fact that the material is a natural mineral are too numerous and too clear in their testimony, to let this theory be admissible. In addition to Pliny's account above quoted, the following authorities may be cited:--Plin. Nat. 33.5, 37.204; Sidon. Apoll. Carm. 11, 20; Peripl. M. Erythr. p. 27, 100.48; cf. also Dig. 34, 2, 19.19.

No mineral, however, has been suggested which answers very exactly to Pliny's description. The onyx has been proposed, but our authorities plainly imply that the onyx was a material akin to but yet distinct from that here in question. (Cf. Lamprid. Heliogab. 32, and Peripl. M. Erythr. p. 27, 100.48.) Jade, fluorspar, and a special kind of agate, the “Chinese agate,” have also been advocated, but at present the problem is unsolved. (King, Precious Stones, Gems, and precious Metals, p. 237; Marquardt, Privatleben d. Römer, p. 743; Blümner, Technologie, iii. p. 276.)


hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: