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Thursday, April 9, 2015
This is a cameo—a relief carved out of stone with layers of different colors. The stone used is sardonyx, an onyx that has parallel layers of sard. The subject is a dynastic group portrait. Portraits of family members had been shown in public during the Republic. But from the time of Augustus dynastic groups appear regularly in the archaeological record—in statuary groups and on coins. This cameo shows two couples facing each other. Who are they? Everyone agrees that the man on the left is Claudius—his facial features are distinctive. We may suppose that the female figure behind him is his wife Agrippina the Younger. As for the two to the right, there are various opinions. One is that they are Germanicus (Claudius’ brother) and his wife Agrippina the Elder (the mother of Claudius’ wife Agrippina the Younger). Another is that they are Tiberius and Livia (but they are son and daughter, not husband and wife).
The male portrait heads emerge out of cornucopiae, horns of plenty, which rest upon heaps of captured weapons. Both Claudius and Germanicus wear the corona civica, the crown of oak leaves awarded to a Roman who had saved the life of a fellow Roman in battle (from the time of Augustus, this crown became part of the emperor’s iconography). Between them, Jupiter’s eagle looks up at Claudius. What does all this mean? The empire is the fruit, as it were, of the military exploits of these men, the “saviors” of their fellow Romans and guarantors of their continuing prosperity. And the eagle serves to confirm the emperor’s authority.
What about the women? On the right, Agrippina the Elder wears a helmet encircled by a laurel wreath, the attribute of Dea Roma, the personification of the city of Rome. Her daughter wears a crown in the form of a turreted wall, a veil, and a garland of ears of wheat: she may represent Oikoumene, the personification of the inhabited world.
There is room for different interpretations here, to be sure. But the general import of this dynastic portrait is clear enough: through military action, and with the full approval of the gods, the imperial family maintains the welfare of Rome and the Roman world. It should be compared with the other great gems that have come down to us from the Julio-Claudian period, the Gemma Augustea and the Grand Camée de France. The Gemma Claudia is thought to have been a wedding gift to Claudius and Agrippina the Younger.