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Museum corner: The Agilulf helmet plaque

What does the Agilulf helmet plaque reveal? Watch the video to unravel this exquisite archaeological artifact.
Welcome to Museum Corner. In this step, we’ll be talking about the Agilulf helmet plaque. This gold plaque was found before 1891 in Valdinievole in Lucca and has been interpreted as a helmet visor attached by 27 holes. At the center of the scene, King Agilulf is represented seated on a richly decorated throne, his feet resting on a stool, and he is sumptuously dressed in a cloak, with embroidered or richly woven trousers tucked into boots.
He is depicted with symbols of sovereign power: His right hand raised in the interlocutory gesture representing law-giving or verbum regis, while his left holds a sword by its sheath, representing military power. Between his head and his bodyguards, there is an inscription
drawn with a punch before gilding: Dominus noster regi Agilulf. The ruler is flanked by two armed warriors, interpreted as his bodyguards or military unit with cuirasses, spears, shields, and plate helmets. Two winged Victories approach in flight, each holding a cornucopia in the shape of a drinking horn, and in the left hand a banner on which the inscription Victoria, meaning victory, is engraved. At each side are two supplicants, those closest to the Victories, kneeling with a hand gesturing in supplication. Long-haired and wearing trousers under a short tunic, they advance side-by-side. The one closest to the sovereign and to his left has a beard and moustache.
The corresponding figure on his right, however, is clean shaven, as are the two supplicants at the edges of the scene. Each of these holds a cushion on which rests a helmet-like crown, surmounted by a small globe on which a cross is fixed. The scene is framed on each side by a six storey tower with a conical roof, generally interpreted as a symbol of the palace or city of Milan, in which the king resided. Different interpretations of this scene have been advanced.
On the one hand, it has been proposed that it represents Agilulf’s coronation and that the two crowns symbolize the two territories within Italy, the Roman and the Lombard, which the king would have liked to unify as a single kingdom. On the other hand, it has been argued that this is an image of a triumph inspired by similar Byzantine imperial representations on silver plates, for example. The use of imperial symbols fits well with the Lombard imitation of Roman Byzantine ceremonial coins and royal signs, the use of pre-existing palace residences, and their renovation conforming to the same style. The inscription written in the dative form, meaning to the Lord King Agilulf, suggests an act of homage.
It could alternatively be interpreted as an aristocrat, perhaps the Duke of Lucca, expressing loyalty to his king, impressing a scene of triumph that had circulated around the kingdom onto a portable image. The custom of dedicating valuable objects to the ruler has its roots in Roman practice, as in the case of the diptych that Probus made for the Emperor Honorius. But an inscription written in the dative form might alternatively mean that the triumph itself and the homage of the supplicants was dedicated to the king. To which military triumph does the plaque refer? The fact that Agilulf’s son Adaloald, who was made co-ruler in 604 CE, does not appear on the plaque suggests a date of between 594 and 604 CE.
Among the most important victories of Agilulf was the conquest in 602 to 603 CE of Cremona, Mantua, Padua and Monselice, captured from the imperial troops.
This would imply the following interpretation of the scene: The king is enthroned and surrounded by his victorious army, towards which the two winged victories converge with the announcement of Victuria, while the supplicants, representing both Lombard and Roman soldiers, who seem to be coming out of the conquered cities, as symbolized by the towers, are demonstrating their surrender and homage to the king. The Lombard dress of the supplicants could be explained by the fact that at least one of these centers in Mantua had already been occupied by Lombards in the first phase of the conquest, and had been subsequently lost to the imperial offensive of 590 CE.
The helmet could have been a gift from the king to a commander who had participated in the war, perhaps the Duke of Lucca or an influential person. The political situation of 603 CE, after the defeat of the Byzantines and the definitive stabilization of the Lombard kingdom in Northern Italy, would have fostered an affirmation of Lombard royal authority against the Eastern Empire. Such an affirmation was expressed the following year with a proclamation of Agilulf’s son Adaloald who became co-regent in a solemn ceremony in the circus of Milan, in imitation and therefore, also in usurpation, of the imperial proclamations that were held in the circus of Constantinople. And there you have the Agilulf helmet plaque.

What does the Agilulf helmet plaque reveal?

In the previous step, you were asked to think like an archaeologist and observe the Agilulf helmet plaque. This video will unravel this exquisite archaeological artifact.

You’re also encouraged to share your feelings, insights, realisations, and even questions in the Comments section.

We hope you enjoy this up-close look of such a magnificent find!
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Enlightening the Dark Ages: Early Medieval Archaeology in Italy

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