Our fish rhyton or drinking horn is an especially fine example with light blue iridescence. It is free blown, with a flattened ovoid body with three curving horizontal ribs each side (incised when blown), with an applied dorsal fin, on top of head, drawn back along the body as a long green trail, pinched into eleven narrow projections; the tail fins are also applied, the eyes incised, the beak-like mouth open worked by pinching. The tail is formed by a tubular neck curving slightly obliquely upwards to form a funnel mouth with a rounded rim, below it is encircled with a trail.
There was an established tradition of producing animal-shaped rhyta in the Levant, manufactured in imitation of metal prototypes. Our flask was probably used for drinking wine, poured in through the neck and consumed from the mouth of the fish, its flow could be easily regulated by applying the thumb over the neck to create a vacuum. Such vessels were also produced elsewhere in the Roman Imperial period and the export market was truly international, from the western Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. The relative number of zoomorphic rhyta declined through the third century onwards in preference for closely related drinking-horns, mentioned by Pliny the Elder in the first century AD, described as cornu, plural cornua. Roman drinking-horns were in fact the prototype of glass drinking-horns of early Medieval Europe.
Fish flasks of this quality and scale are rare. A similar example belongs to the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu (Inv. 2003.439, third century AD). However, this was manufactured on a slightly more modest scale, and the vessel is discoloured due to weathering, with a small proportion of iridescence. Two additional flasks are in the Corning Museum, New York, and are of a slightly inferior quality (Inv. 79.1.107, second century AD (Fig. 2), 55.1.94, third century AD).
For Pliny’s reference to drinking-horns, Natural History, vol. X, books 36-37 (esp. 36.41), translated by D.E. Eichholz. Loeb Classical Library 419 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 1962.
The function and history of rhyta/drinking-horns is presented by D.B. Harden, Glass of the Caesars (Milan: Olivetti, 1987).
For the flasks in the Corning Museum, D. Whitehouse, Roman Glass in the Corning Museum of Glass, vol. 2 (Corning: The Corning Museum of Glass, 2001), pp. 200-201.
Prof. D.B. Collection, 1980s.
Acquired UK Art Market 2000s.