Silenus was a much-loved and respected figure in Greco-Roman mythic tradition. Considered to be the tutor of Dionysos, he was the oldest, wisest, and notoriously most inebriated of the wine-god’s followers. As such, he is often depicted being carried by a donkey or supported by his satyr companions. In his intoxicated state, he was said to acquire the gift of prophecy.
This characterful depiction of Silenus adheres to his established iconography, and captures both aspects of his colourful persona; his broad face with snub nose, and long fanning beard, are somewhat comical, and conform to the standard image of Papposilenus, a stock character in New Comedy and the phlyax plays of South Italy. However, his aged appearance and frowning furrowed brow afford him a serious expression, alluding to his sagacious tendencies.
Comparable images of Silenus are known from the Greek colonies of South Italy, particularly in Sicily, for example, two terracotta antefixes in the form of Silenus, now in the Museo Archaeologico Regionale, in Gela. An antefix was a vertical block placed at the eaves of a tiled roof, to cover the joints between the tiles. Often, these were richly carved in the form of vetegal motifs, or male or female ‘masks’. Silenus clearly played a prominent role in the culture of Magna Graecia; as well as his appearance on antefixes, his image featured on fifth century Sicilian coinage, and his character was central to local comic drama, for example the comedies of the leading Sicilian playwright, Epicharmus. His humorous, yet protective, qualities resulted in his popularity enduring long into the Roman period.
For a general overview of Silenus, C. Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks (New York, 1997).
On the prevalence of Silenus and the satyr in Sicilian comedy and politics, ‘Sicilian Comedy and the Attic Satyr Play’ in C.A. Shaw, Satyric Play: The Evolution of Greek Comedy and Satyr Drama (Oxford, 2014), pp. 56-77.
Hanes Collection, North Carolina, purchased in the 1960s/1970s from Mathias Komor, New York.