The Gemma Augustea by Kaisa Middleton
Recently, as I was researching for an essay about associations between ancient politics and art, I came across a piece that I found fascinating. Regrettably, it didn’t make the final cut of my essay, which is why I’ve decided to make it the topic of this blog. The item itself is too intricate and intriguing not to write about. The piece of art in question is the Gemma Augustea, Latin for the gem of Augustus, who was the first emperor of Rome, coming to power after the assassination of Julius Caesar, who was his adoptive heir. Augustus’ story, in reality, is not nearly that simple, but is too long to include in a blog. However, some elements of it are explored on the gemma.
The gemma itself is an engraved stone in a cameo fashion. It is made from double-layered Arabian onyx and is 190 mm tall and 230 mm wide. It is generally attributed to Dioscurides, and is dated to the second or third decade of the 1st century AD. The double-layered nature of the stone is what creates contrast between the figures and the dark background they stand against. Who owned the stone when it was made is unclear, but there are theories. For example, as I shall discuss later, Augustus is portrayed as a god on it. If the gem was made in Augustus’ lifetime, it is likely then that it was a gift for a wealthy provincial family. Despite being remembered as the divine Augustus and deifying Julius Caesar and therefore himself, Augustus did not allow himself to be worshipped as a god within Rome. Or perhaps the gem belonged to a close friend of his court. The answer is unclear, but the simplest solution is to believe the gem was carved in Augustus’ lifetime- that way, one doesn’t have to question the identity of some of the figures on the stone. Nowadays, the gemma is kept in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
What I found most interesting about this stone is how each figure has a story to tell, whether that story is told by the position they are in, what they are doing, or where they are in relation to another figure. I’m going to make an attempt to tell the story of the entire Gemma Augustea using a helpfully numbered picture I found online. (Credit: By Dioskurides (?) – Image: Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna June 2006 031.jpg and based upon en: Image: Gemma Augustea2.jpg, CC BY 2.5)
- This is none other than Augustus himself. He is enthroned and presented as a god by what surrounds him (particularly figure 10).
- The second enthroned figure is Roma, personification of the city of Rome. She is dressed in military attire. A good modern comparison for Roma would be Britannia, the goddess who personifies Britain. The relaxed way she sits with Augustus could indicate that the city of Rome should be comfortable with him in power. Augustus was always keen to make himself look like a good leader, given what had happened to his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, who wasn’t seen as one. Roma’s hand on her sword is sometimes taken to mean that Rome is always ready for war.
- Figure 3 is another personification, Oikoumene, personification of the inhabited world. She is the one holding the corona civica over Augustus’ head, a ceremonial item usually given for saving the life of a Roman citizen. However, here, the corona has a more general purpose. As figure 2 reminds us, Augustus has in fact saved the lives of all Romans. He often liked to push this narrative- that he rescued Rome from disaster- to again show himself as a good leader.
- The driver of the chariot is the goddess Victoria, who, as her name suggests, was the goddess of victory. If we look at the chariot she drives, we see that it is a bigae, driven by two horses, whereas a victory chariot was a quadriga, driven by four horses. It has been suggested that this means that figure 7 isn’t in fact a triumphator (a victorious military commander), despite what Victoria’s presence might suggest.
- This figure is an odd one, seemingly having no real significance. He is often taken to be Neptune, god of the sea. Perhaps he represents Augustus’ control over water as well as land, but personally, I think this is a good opportunity to stop and remember that ancient art was not always about politics. Granted, a lot of it was, but Neptune’s position on the end of the line seems to suggest that the artist’s purpose in placing him there is purely for artistic balance.
- It is not certain whether this figure is Gaia, the earth goddess, or Italia, personification of Italy. I prefer the latter interpretation, since Gaia holding a cornucopia that produces nothing and wearing a traditionally Roman bulla (a necklace or locket of some sort) would be odd. There was a famine at the time of the gemma, so it would make sense for Italia’s cornucopia to be empty. Either way, the children around the reclined woman seem to represent the seasons.
- This is Tiberius, Augustus’ stepson and heir. He is the man descending triumphant from the chariot. However, as already discussed, it seems he is not actually a triumphator due to the number of horses pulling the chariot. Perhaps this is a subtle suggestion that although Tiberius performs great military successes, he is not actually the triumphant man- a mere suggestion, but maybe this is Augustus’ way of taking the credit (see the explanation of figure 9).
- The identity of this figure is not certain (indeed, not many are, but this particular man has proven himself quite the mystery), although some suggest it is Germanicus. Germanicus was distantly related to Augustus, and since all his heirs kept dying, as a result of plots or mystery illnesses, Augustus forcibly married Tiberius’ mother, Livia, and then forced Tiberius to adopt Germanicus. Germanicus ended up dying too, in a Syrian province. The historian Tacitus recounts the episode, and strongly suggests that he was poisoned by a man called Piso under the orders of Tiberius.
- This is Augustus’ favourite sign, the Capricorn, which he claimed to have been born under. The lack of triumphator status for Tiberius in his chariot has led some scholars to suggest that Augustus is giving credit for military victories under his rule to his lucky sign, rather than his stepson.
- This is Jupiter’s eagle. Jupiter was king of the gods, and the position of his eagle at Augustus’ feet seems to suggest that the emperor sits in this role himself. This is the divine status on the stone that makes people believe that it was actually intended as a gift for someone in the provinces.
- These seated figures are prisoners of war, perhaps Celts or Germans. This lower half of the stone depicts the erection of a tropaion, a representation of a defeated enemy that often took the form of a tree. If the enemy was one man, particularly great, his armour would be retrieved and placed on the tree too. Virgil describes the great Roman foundational hero Aeneas doing this at the start of book 11 of his Aeneid.
- Another pair of foreigners (whom the Romans would have thought barbarians) brought to subjugation, showing the domination of the world that Augustus brought for Rome. The pair are not yet prisoners. The woman has her hand on her chest, appearing to beg for mercy, attempting to avoid the fate that those in figure 11 have suffered.
- Most likely the goddess of the hunt Diana. She holds a spear in her hand, appropriate for this scene of war. She is symbolic of divine approval of Roman actions such as these, which might otherwise simply seem too brutal.
- This figure is another god, Mercury, the messenger. He is also a symbol of divine approval. The fact that two gods act as auxiliary troops for the Romans sanctions their conquering actions in expanding the frontiers of their empire.
- Often taken to be another god, Mars, the god of war. He certainly looks like a model figure in combat, with his perfectly positioned helmet and flowing cape. Personally, this is one of my favourite parts of the gemma, not because of what it depicts, the brutality of empire, but the beauty of the craftsmanship. Notice how the cape perfectly fills the gaping space left by the crouching figure, along with the well angled spear of Diana. It is small, intricate moments like this in ancient art that renew my appreciation for it every time I look at it. I think it’s wonderful to imagine an artist centuries ago pondering how to structure their art and recognising their achievement of filling the space all these years later.
- The crouching figure’s identity seems unimportant. He looks like just another soldier, however…
- Alongside 17, figure 16 is thought to make up part of a representation of the constellation Gemini (the twins- the two men are very similar). Germanicus, figure 8, was born on the 24th May, making him a Gemini, and therefore figures 16 and 17 serve to add his sign in alongside Augustus’.
- Figure 18’s helmet has led some to believe he is a Macedonian soldier, serving King Rhoemetalces I who helped Tiberius in some military endeavours in the province of Pannonia.
- This is the tropaion being erected. You can see that it is already wearing some armour, with an empty set on the floor presumably ready to be put on once it is upright.
- You can’t really see in the numbered picture, so I’ve put in a closer image. It is a shield with a scorpion on it, corresponding to the star-sign Scorpio, which was Tiberius’ (born on the 16th November).
That has hopefully given a comprehensive account of the Gemma Augustea and created a sense as to the huge depth of meaning that art in the ancient world could have. The art of Augustan Rome is particularly fascinating, as propaganda was essential to his regime. If you are at all interested in seeing more, two very famous examples of art from Augustan Rome are the Ara Pacis (altar of peace) and the Prima Porta statue of Augustus. The original of the latter is lost to us, but there are plenty of copies. What is particularly fascinating about the gemma though, and is partly why I wrote about it instead of the other two examples just given, is the fact that all that depth of meaning and positive representation of Augustus and effort to show how wonderful he was as an emperor is not in a huge piece of public art. It is a gift for some rich family or confined to the emperor’s private collection. It just goes to show what an interesting time Augustus’ was for art and culture, a time that is still worth exploring c.2000 years later.