Gemma Augustea, 1st century AD

The gem shown above is known as the Gemma Augustea. It resides in the Kunsthistorches Museum in Vienna and is from the 1st century AD during Caesar Augustus' reign. The sardonyx cameo, is a low-relief cameo engraved gem cut from a double-layered Arabian onyx stone. The cameo is thought to have been by Dioscurides who as court gem cutter was a favorite of Augustus'. It was created to glorify the reign of Augustus and is full of symbolism and iconography in both its registers.

In the upper tier, Augustus sits enthroned, half-clothed in the guise of Jupiter, the king of the Roman pantheon of gods. Oikoumene, who is the icon or personification of the inhabited world, crowns Augustus' with a laurel of leaves as a Roman citizen. He is flanked by a personification of Roma and a female personification of Italy. The man behind him is thought to Neptune, the ruler of the seas. Victoria drives the chariot while urging a man who seems to be stepping off the chariot on. This male figure is thought to be Tiberius in his role as Augustus' heir and that Victoria urges him on to a new battles to be won. The other male figure standing near Victoria is considered to be either Drusus or Germanicus, his son. Drusus by this time was likely already dead and so it is more likely that is Germanicus, Augustus' other, adopted, son and possible heir.

The lower tier shows the barbarians Augustus, and maybe Tiberius, have been victorious over. Their identity or nationality is questionable but they are a defeated enemy. A tropaion, or victory monument of the foes' weaponry, is being raised on the left. The male figure helping to raise the tropaion is thought to be a personification of the god of War, Mars, due to his costume. The nearly identical figures to his right and left helping him are the Gemini or Twins, Castor and Pollux. This should not however give the impression that Augustus was partial to the Gemini constellation as the Capricorn, his favorite, is shown above his head in the upper register. The other figures, the two holding the barbarians' hair are thought to be the Gods Diana, with her long hair and customary spear, and Mercury who bring the fallen enemies to Augustus.

Overall, the gem is a statement about Augustus' rule. It also shows a pre-ordination of his apotheosis, of when he will die and on the back of Jupiter's eagle, shown near Augustus on the gem, will ascend to the ranks of the Gods. There are many interpretation questions and my account here is by no means the only one, but to me it seems the most coherent.

This is an object I will be returning to later on as I learn more as it is as fascinating as it is complicated!

1 comment:

  1. You are concise. Thankyou.

    "Roman commander Germanicus was the step-grandson of Emperor Augustus. In the 1500s, Emperor Rudolf II privately bought the cameo for 12,000 golden ducats" [p. 7].

    Bauer, J. & Bouska, V., 1983 (1st Ed.). A Guide in Colour to Precious and Semi-Precious Stones. Octopus Books Ltd, London. ISBN 0-7064-1487-X