Roman Sidonian Glass Flask with Birds and Butterflies



From this point we must go back to the coast and to Phoenicia. There was formerly a town called Crocodilon, and there is still a river of that name…Then comes Cape Carmel…Next are Getta, Geba, and the river Pacida or Belus…Close to this river is Ptolemais…Next Tyre, once an island separated from the mainland by a very deep sea-channel 700 yards wide, but now joined to it by the works constructed by Alexander when besieging the place…but the entire renown of Tyre now consists in a shell-fish and a purple dye!…Next are Zarephath and the City of Birds (ornithon oppidum), and Sidon, the mother-city of Thebes in Boetia where glass is made“.

Pliny, Natural History V.75-76

Roman Sidonian Glass Flask with Birds and Butterflies

Circa 1st century A.D., 8.2 cm. High, intact, excellent state of preservation.


Blown in a tripartite mold. The hexagonal body is decorated with a series of birds and winged insects perched atop spherical objects in aediculae with triangular pediments. Each of the six panels has a lower egg-and-dart border, below which is a series of 27 upturned tongues. The piece rests on a low foot with flattened bottom, where the carefully aligned mold seams are visible. Between the triangular pediments are spherical objects, with alternating pointed rays and leaves on the shoulder above them. The rather tall, separately made cylindrical neck has a rim that is folded first out, and then up and in. The panels contain a long-necked bird, perhaps a heron; a butterfly; a bird with folded wings facing left; a bird with long legs; perhaps an ibis; a bird flying with outspread wings; and another bird with outspread wings perched on a spherical object. The piece was made from an opaque glass that now has a glossy, slightly yellowish surface with a beige-toned area on one side. This surface has flaked off in small spots on the neck and body to reveal a rougher, green to purple iridescent layer. An exceptionally detailed mold of Series A from an early strike.


The birds type of hexagonal mold-blown flask is relatively uncommon, with only about two dozen examples published, and within this type there are two series, A, as here, and B. Series A with at least four different mold employed. This flask appears to be from mold A, the same as the Toledo museum example, Toledo 1995, cat. no. 46, pp. 144-145. Most of these flasks are opaque white, with a few in blue.

Scholars have hypothesized that the motif was chosen to evoke the name Ornithopolis, “City of Birds”, located between Tyre and Sidon on the Phoenician sea coast, and mentioned in Pliny’s passage cited above.

Pictures and text courtesy of Aphrodite Ancient Art, New York U.S.A.

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