By Gordon Franz and Ernie McGinnis
The term “skeletons in the closet” conjures up secrets from our past that we do not want other people to know about. But here is an unusual twist from the ancient Greco-Roman world: skeletons on the table! Recently we visited the Getty Villa in Malibu, CA. Gordon was working on a self-guided tour of the Biblically related objects in the Villa for the students in the Talbot School of Theology’s Bible Lands program, and Ernie was photographing the objects on display for the courses he instructs on Greek and Roman archaeology at Burbank High School. In the Coin Room (212), we observed a small bronze skeleton. When Ernie saw this object he said with excitement, “Cool, my high school kids would love this!” Gordon stared at it with a quizzed look on his face and said, “What was this used for?” Well, inquiring minds wanted to know, so we began our search, (not in closets), but on library bookshelves!
The Skeleton at the Getty
The small bronze skeleton was acquired by the Getty Museum in 1978 and published in their museum journal (Frel 1980: 171-172; accession number: 78.AB.307). The Romans called these skeletons a larva convivalis, which means “banquet ghost.” The Latin term convivalis bases its roots on the term vivo, which literally means “to be alive” or “to be lively”. The term itself suggests not only the contradictions between life and death, but also the Greco-Roman view of the futility of life in the face of impending death.
The skeleton in the Getty collection is made of bronze and is preserved to a height of 6.6 centimeters. It has its skull, collarbone, ribs, spine and pelvic bones and left femur bone. The arms, right leg, and the lower portion of the left leg are missing. The metal “joints and sockets” can still be seen where the limbs were attached to each other in order to give the skeleton flexibility, so when shaken it gives the impression of jumping or dancing. This skeleton reminded people “of the brevity of human life and the necessity of profiting from the short time which remained” (1980:171).
There are ten similar skeletons scattered in museums throughout Europe; one is made of silver, another of wood and the rest are made of bronze. Dr. Frel has dated all these skeletons from the first century BC to the first century AD and associated them with Roman Epicureanism (1980:171, 172). Epicureanism bases its roots in the ancient Greek philosophy of Epicurius of Samos (341-270 BC) who taught man’s greatest accomplishment is to be found in his tranquility of mind, which is subject to those most base activities that bring man his fleshly pleasures. Epicureans believed that the gods existed, but they were impersonal and off somewhere living a life of eternal, undisturbed happiness. They thought that the gods should be admired and respected, but not to expect favors or even punishment from them (Furley 1996:533). The Apostle Paul had some encounters with Epicurean philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:18).
A picture of this skeleton can be seen at the Getty Museum website:
Party Time in Puteoli
Titus Petronius Arbitor lived during the reigns of Emperors Claudius and Nero. Tacitus, a Roman historian (ca. AD 55-AD 120), recounts some aspects of Petronius’ life this way: “He was a man whose day was passed in sleep, his nights in the social duties and amenities of life: other industry may raise to greatness —Petronius had idled into fame. Nor was he regarded, like the common crowd of spendthrifts, as a debauchee and wastrel, but as the finished artist of extravagance. His words and actions had a freedom and a stamp of self-abandonment which rendered them doubly acceptable by an air of native simplicity. Yet as proconsul of Bithynia, and later as consul, he showed himself a man of energy and competent to affairs. Then, lapsing into habit, or copying the features, of vice, he was adopted into the narrow circle of Nero’s intimates as his Arbiter of Elegance; the jaded emperor finding charm and delicacy in nothing save what Petronius had commended” (Annals 16.18; LCL 5:363-365). In other words, Petronius was a competent, happy-go-lucky, administrator, yet also a consummated “party animal” par excellent!
As an intimate with Nero, Petronius was falsely accused by his rival, Tigellinus, of being involved in the Piso conspiracy to overthrow Nero. When this was known, Petronius took matters into his own hands and committed suicide in AD 66, by slitting his arteries and slowly bleeding to death as he ate his final meal listening to music and poetry. He died, but not before revealing the skeletons in Nero’s closet! Tacitus goes on to say, “Not even in his will did he follow the routine of suicide by flattering Nero and Tigellinus or another of the mighty, but — prefixing the names of the various catamites [boys kept for sexual purposes] and women – detailed the imperial debauches and the novel features of each act of lust, and sent the document under seal to Nero. His signet-ring he broke, lest it should render dangerous service later (Annals 16:19; LCL 5:367, brackets added by authors).
Most likely, Petronius was the author of the satiric novel, Satyricon, written during the reign of Emperor Nero. In chapters 26-78 of this lengthy novel (LCL 43-183), he described a debaucherous party, a Cena Trimalchionis, (Latin for “banquet of Trimalchio”, the host of the meal) at the home of a freedman named Trimalchio, most likely in Puteoli (Harrison 1996:1150).
At one point in this extravagant comic meal, served with exotic dishes and lavish “entertainment”, the host, Trimalchio, brings in vintage wine that was said to be 100 years old. He notes, “Ah me, so wine lives longer than miserable man. So let us be merry.” Petronius goes on to say that the guests “drank and admired each luxury in detail, a slave brought in a silver skeleton, made so that its joints and sockets could be moved and bent in every direction. He threw it down once or twice on the table so that the supple sections showed several attitudes, and Trimalchio said appropriately: ‘Alas for us poor mortals, all that poor man is is nothing. So we shall all be, after the world below takes us away. Let us live then while it can go well with us’” (Satyricon 34; LCL 61).
The bronze skeleton on display at the Getty Villa is the kind of object mentioned by Petronius. Interestingly, a silver skeleton was found in the excavations at Pompeii, not far from Puteoli. It is now on display in the Museo Nazionale in Naples (Frel 1980:171, footnote 2; Caetani-Lovatelli 1895:10, fig. 1). The Apostle Paul, Dr. Luke and Aristarchus visited the believers in Puteoli for seven days as they made their way to Rome for the first time in AD 60 (Acts 27:2; 28:13).
The Greek historian Herodotus (484 —ca. 430 BC), describes drinking bouts at banquets in Egypt several hundred years before the time of Petronius. He wrote: “At rich men’s banquets, after dinner a man carries round a wooden image of a corpse in a coffin, painted and carved in exact imitation, a cubit or two cubits long. This he shows to each of the company, saying ‘Drink and make merry, but look on this; for such shalt thou be when thou art dead.’ Such is the custom at their drinking-bouts” (Persian Wars 2:78; LCL 1:365).
Eat, Drink and be Merry?
The Mosaic Law describes the punishment for a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his parents, even after being disciplined by them. The parents would bring him to the elders of the city and state that he was a stubborn and rebellious son, and also a glutton and a drunkard. If he was found guilty, all the men of the city would stone the rebellious son to death (Deut. 21:18-21).
Solomon, the wisest man in his generation, passed on some wisdom to his son: “Hear, my son, and be wise; and guide your heart in the way. Do not mix with winebibbers, or with gluttonous eaters of meat; for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe a man with rags” (Prov. 23:19-21).
Yet this wise man (Eccl. 12:9; cf. I Kings 4:29-34), nicknamed Koheleth (“the preacher”), anticipating the Epicurean philosophy, put eating and drinking in their proper perspective. He begins and ends his sermon by stating: “Vanity of vanities. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2; 12:8), but sets this concept in the context of his concluding remarks: “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13, 14; see also 11:9, 10).
The Apostle Paul has both these themes in mind when he penned his epistles to the Romans and the Corinthians. He understood the whole creation to be subject to futility, or vanity (Rom. 8:18-22), and also that the believers in the Lord Jesus will one day appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ to receive rewards for the work they do in their bodies for God’s glory (1 Cor. 3:12-15; 2Cor. 5:9, 10).
The theme of the Book of Ecclesiastes is the search for the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of life. Solomon states: “He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. I know that nothing is better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor — it is the gift of God” (Eccl. 3:11-13). The concept of eating and drinking and enjoying the fruits of ones labor reoccurs over and over in the book (Eccl. 2:24; 3:12, 13; 3:22; 5:18, 19; 8:15; 9:7-9).
God has put eternity in the hearts of people who wish to know the end from the beginning, but who will not fully understand the plans and purposes of God this side of eternity. Thus, the believer in the Lord Jesus must walk by faith and not by sight, believing that God is sovereign and in control of history and all things will work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). While walking by faith, they are to eat and drink and enjoy the labor of their hands because it is a gift from God. [For a full development of the theme of the book of Ecclesiastes, see Wright 1972:133-150].
The Epicureans, on the other hand, eat and drink to excess, and do not recognize that life is a gift from God and have no thought of a future judgment. Petronius, who did not labor with his hands, exemplified this philosophy. For him, life was one big party. He thought, “Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!”
Jesus, a Glutton and Winebibber?
Jesus ate with tax-collectors and sinners, and was falsely accused of being a glutton and winebibber (Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34). Apparently He ate at some extravagant banquets and one wonders if a silver or bronze skeleton was thrown on the table during these meals.
Ironically, it was Jesus that held the key that unlocked the door to the meaning of life, as well as eternity. He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Jesus came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 9:56; 19:10), and to give His life for a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). The Lord Jesus was sinless, (He had no skeletons in His closet), so as God manifest in human flesh, He could die on the Cross and pay for all the sins (the “skeletons in our closets”) of humanity (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; James 1:13). He rose again from the dead three days later to prove that sin had been paid for, Satan conquered, and death vanquished.
He offers the free gift of eternal life and God’s righteousness to any and all, including Petronius and other Epicureans, who would put their trust in Him and Him alone for their salvation, and not their works or any merits of their own (Rom. 4:1-8; 5:8; Phil. 3:9). All who trust in Him would receive an invitation to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-10). Since believers in the Lord Jesus Christ will have new bodies and live forever in Heaven; at this banquet they will also sing the lines from Handel’s Messiah, “O Death, where is your sting? O Grave, where is your victory? … But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (cf. Hosea 13:14; 1 Cor. 15:55, 57). Alas, there will be no servants walking around that banquet throwing skeletons on the table!
1895 Di Una Piccula Larva Convivale in Bronzo. Monumenti Antichi 5:5-16.
Frel, Faya Causey
1980 A Larva Convivalis in the Getty Museum. The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 8: 171-172.
1996 Epicurus. Pp. 532-534 in Oxford Classical Dictionary. Third edition. Edited by S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth. Oxford and New York: Oxford University.
Harrison, Stephen J.
1996 Petronius Arbiter. Pp. 1149-1150 in The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Third edition. Edited by S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth. Oxford and New York: Oxford University.
1926 The Persian Wars. Books 1-2. Vol. 1. Trans. by A. D. Godley. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 117. Reprinted 1999.
1969 Satyricon. Trans. by M. Heseltine, Revised by E. Warmington. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 15. Reprinted 1997.
1937 Annals. Books 13-16. Vol. 5. Trans. by J. Jackson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 322. Reprinted 1994.
Wright, J. Stafford
1972 The Interpretation of Ecclesiastes. Pp. 133-150 in Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation. Edited by W. Kaiser, Jr. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. Third Printing 1976.