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Gemma Augustea

Upper register (detail), Dioskourides, Gemma Augustea, 9 - 12 C.E., 19 x 23 cm, double-layered sardonyx with gold, gold-plated silver (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)
Upper register (detail), Dioskourides, Gemma Augustea, 9 - 12 C.E., 19 x 23 cm, double-layered sardonyx with gold, gold-plated silver (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)
Head (detail), Augustus of Primaporta, 1st century C.E. (Vatican Museums)
Head (detail), Augustus of Primaporta, 1st century C.E. (Vatican Museums)
When you think of Roman art, the Colosseum and the ruins of the Roman Forum immediately spring to mind. You may also think of all the public sculpture that decorated ancient Rome, such as the portrait of Augustus from Primaporta (left) or the Ara Pacis Augustae. These public works of art functioned as political propaganda and advertised to all Romans the accomplishments of the emperor. In public art Augustus wanted to promote that he was a military victor, that he brought peace to the Roman Empire, and that he was connected to the gods.

Private Art

But the emperor also commissioned small private works of art such as gems, and cameos. Unlike art in the public sphere, private art would not have been seen by a large audience. Instead, only a select few would have been granted access. If you were lucky enough to be invited to a dinner party at the emperor’s palace, he might display his gem collection or show off his large imperial cameos. However, despite the fact that private art would not have been seen by the majority of Roman citizens, the messages contained within these works would have functioned in much the same way as their public counterparts. So if you were at that dinner party with Augustus and he showed you a large cameo, that cameo would have advertised the emperor’s military victories, his role as the bringer of peace, and his connection to the gods.
Gemma Claudia, 49 C.E., 120 x 152 cm without setting, five-layered onyx and 18th century gold band (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)Gemma Claudia, 49 C.E., 120 x 152 cm without setting, five-layered onyx and 18th century gold band (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna); Emperor Claudius (left), his fourth wife, Agrippina the Younger behind him, her parents are opposite, Germanicus, brother of the emperor, and behind him his wife, Agrippina the Elder
Gemma Claudia, 49 C.E., 120 x 152 cm without setting, five-layered onyx and 18th century gold band (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna); Emperor Claudius (left), his fourth wife, Agrippina the Younger behind him, her parents are opposite, Germanicus, brother of the emperor, and behind him his wife, Agrippina the Elder
Cameos were a popular medium in the private art of the Roman Empire. While cameos first appeared in the Hellenistic period, they became most fashionable under the Romans. Typically cameos were made of a brown stone that had bands or layers of white throughout, such as sardonyx. This layered stone was then carved in such a way that the figures stood out in white relief while the background remained the dark part of the stone. Most cameos were small and functioned as pendants or rings. But there are a few examples of much larger cameos that were specifically commissioned by the emperor and members of his imperial circle, the most famous example is the Gemma Augustea.
Dioskourides, Gemma Augustea, 9 AD - 12 C.E., Double-layered sardonyx with gold, gold-plated silver (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)Dioskourides, Gemma Augustea, 9 - 12 C.E., 19 x 23 cm, double-layered sardonyx with gold, gold-plated silver (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)
Dioskourides, Gemma Augustea, 9 - 12 C.E., 19 x 23 cm, double-layered sardonyx with gold, gold-plated silver (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)

Gemma Augustea

The Gemma Augustea is divided into two registers that are crammed with figures and iconography. The upper register contains three historical figures and a host of deities and personifications. Our eyes immediately gravitate towards the center of the upper register and the two large enthroned figures, Roma (the personification of the city of Rome) and the emperor Augustus. Roma is surrounded by military paraphernalia while Augustus holds a scepter, a symbol of his right to rule and his role as the leader of the Roman Empire. At his feet is an eagle, a symbol of the god Jupiter and so we quickly realize that Augustus has close ties to the gods. Augustus is depicted as a heroic semi-nude, a convention usually reserved for deities. Augustus is not only stating that he has connections to gods, he is stating that he is also god-like.
Eagle from the upper register (detail), Dioskourides, Gemma Augustea, 9 - 12 C.E., 19 x 23 cm, double-layered sardonyx with gold, gold-plated silver (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)
Eagle from the upper register (detail), Dioskourides, Gemma Augustea, 9 - 12 C.E., 19 x 23 cm, double-layered sardonyx with gold, gold-plated silver (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)
Two other historical figures accompany Augustus in the upper register. At the far left is Tiberius, who will eventually succeed Augustus on the throne. To the right of Tiberius is the young Germanicus, another member of Augustus’ family and a potential heir to the throne. Clearly the Gemma Augustea is making Augustus’ dynastic message clear: he hopes that Tiberius or Germanicus will succeed him after he dies.
Interspersed amongst the three historical figures of the upper register are deities and personifications. Directly behind Tiberius is winged Victory. Behind Augustus is Oikoumene, the personification of the civilized world, who places a corona civica (civic crown) on the emperor’s head. In the Roman Empire, it was a great honor to be awarded the civic crown as it was only given to someone who had saved Roman citizens from an enemy (and Augustus had certainly done just that by rescuing Romans from civil war). Oceanus, the personification of the oceans, sits on the far right. Finally, Tellus Italiae, the mother earth goddess and personification of Italy, sits with her two chubby children and holds a cornucopia.

Pax Romana

What does the top register mean, with its grouping of mortals, deities, and personifications? In short, everything praises Augustus. The emperor expresses his domination throughout the Roman Empire and his greatest accomplishment, the pacification of the Roman world, which resulted in fertility and prosperity. Augustus’ peace and dominion will spread not only throughout the city of Rome (represented by the goddess Roma), but also to all of Italy (represented by Tellus Italiae) and throughout the entire civilized world (symbolized by Oikoumene). And as to Tiberius and Germanicus, Augustus’ potential heirs, either will continue the peace and prosperity established by Augustus.
Lower register (detail), Dioskourides, Gemma Augustea, 9 - 12 C.E., 19 x 23 cm, double-layered sardonyx with gold, gold-plated silver (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)
Lower register (detail), Dioskourides, Gemma Augustea, 9 - 12 C.E., 19 x 23 cm, double-layered sardonyx with gold, gold-plated silver (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)
The lower register is significantly smaller than the upper, but it nevertheless has plenty of figures in its two scenes, both of which show captive barbarians and victorious Romans. At the left, Roman soldiers raise a trophy while degraded and humiliated barbarians sit at their feet. At the right is a similar scene, with barbarians being brought into submission by Roman soldiers. While the upper register focuses on peace, the lower register represents the wars that established and maintained peace throughout the Roman Empire.
Lower register (detail), Dioskourides, Gemma Augustea, 9 - 12 C.E., 19 x 23 cm, double-layered sardonyx with gold, gold-plated silver (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)
Lower register (detail), Dioskourides, Gemma Augustea, 9 - 12 C.E., 19 x 23 cm, double-layered sardonyx with gold, gold-plated silver (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)
So even though the Gemma Augustea is a work of private art, the cameo nevertheless offers a political message and thus serves a purpose similar to public art. The Gemma proclaimed Augustus's greatest accomplishment, the Pax Romana, his military victories, his connections to the gods and his god-like status, and his hopes for dynastic succession.
Dr. Beth Harris viewing the Gemma Augustea (for scale)
Dr. Beth Harris viewing the Gemma Augustea (for scale)
Text by Julia C. Fischer

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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    I wonder if in offering two options for the succession of Augustus (Tiberius and Germanicus) visually, Augustus himself would have showed off this cameo in order to seek counsel. In other words, the implication that Augustus would like either Tiberius or Germanicus to succeed himself is clear, but I wonder if he would in fact hope that by showing this piece off he would get feed back from various aids and friends as to whom they thought would be more deserving...
    (8 votes)
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  • female robot ada style avatar for user Hoelscher
    It seems to me that the eagle, indicated to represent Jupiter, looks up in fear towards Augustus. It is almost cartoonish as well. Would Augustus, in his efforts to sing his own praises through private artwork have been so bold as to suggest Jupiter might have been intimidated by him?
    (5 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user mellettt
      I personally don't think so. Augustus worked very hard to get people to see him as a pious man, although he showed great ambition, I think he would not have been so self centred as to declare in any form that he could be above the Gods. However this was not the case for many emperors who followed him.
      (3 votes)
  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Melody Kagamine Rin
    Before emperors were made emperors, did the citizens still say they were connected to the gods somehow?
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Gloria Blanchard
    Hoetcher expressed the opinion that the eagle "is almost cartoonish"., it could be that the close up is well just too close up, it is Jupiter though. Just a thought - could this be sort of a visual pun? The iconography of Egypt was still very much on everyones mind, The position, the profile of this eagle reminds me of the Horus glyph used to denote Pharaoh. Both birds as Gods are King Makers / God Makers. At least in Egypt the Falcon placement in or around a cartouche says "this is a Kings Name" "this is Pharaoh". Do you think Augustus was making another statement there too?

    Oh and between Roma and Augustus there is a disc (moon or sun?) with some sort of Chimera on it. Does it have a name? What is it;s symbolism?
    (3 votes)
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  • piceratops tree style avatar for user czamador29
    Who did the art work of Gemma Augustea?
    (1 vote)
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