Bronze cista (toiletries box)

Period: Hellenistic

Date: ca. 325–300 B.C.

Culture: Praenestine

Medium: Bronze

Dimensions: H. 11 5/8 in. (29.5 cm); diameter 9 5/8 in. (24.5 cm)

Classification: Bronzes

Credit Line: Purchase by subscription, 1896

Accession Number: 96.18.1a, b


Incised on the body of this cista, Amazons battle Greek warriors, the latter represented either naked or armed. An Amazon is portrayed with the characteristic naked breast, holding a spear and wearing a peculiar Phrygian helmet with a laurel wreath around it. This headgear, once unknown in other representations and regarded suspiciously by scholars, now has an archaeological counterpart. In the 1990s, a similar bronze helmet with a golden wreath was found in a fourth-century Etruscan tomb.
Greek Classical style was popular with Italic artisans in the fourth century B.C. The Praenestine craftsmen, however, did not passively adopt Greek style and iconography but transformed it to fit their culture and beliefs. Mythological figures on Praenestine cistae decorations are often characterized by Italic local elements. Greek divinities, like Athena or Dionysos, are depicted with all their usual attributes and the addition of an armilla or a bulla necklace.
On this cista, the Amazonomachy is used for its value as a legendary struggle. Warlike subjects are frequent on Praenestine cistae, somewhat in contrast with the popular vision of these objects as exclusively pertaining to the female world. Archaeologically, in fact, such a hypothesis cannot be proven. It should be kept in mind that cistae came from funerary contexts and must have had a greater ritualistic function than has so far been imagined.