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Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Grand Camée de France


At 31 by 26.5 cm, the Grand Camée de France is the largest ancient cameo to have survived. With 24 human figures in three registers, it is complex. The sardonyx has five layers (while the Gemma Augustea has but two), with colors ranging (outer to inner) from dark reddish-brown to cream to light reddish-brown to white to bark brown. The carving in low relief is exquisite. The stone is beautiful. And enigmatic.

Enigmatic: in other words, yet another locus of scholarly dispute. Yet there are points of general agreement.

The figures in the top register are aloft. Those in the middle register are seated or standing on a ground line, while those in the lower register appear to be crouching in a space in which they can neither stand nor even move much at all. The natural reading of this composition is that the upper register represents the heavenly realm in which all the figures must be divine—either deities or divine personifications or deified mortals, while the middle register is the earthly realm, that of the living; the lower realm is just that: a nether world in which all figures are subdued, confined, imprisoned.

In the top register, a togate male figure (10) bearing a scepter and wearing a radiate crown, his head shrouded, rides on the back of a flying male figure (13) holding a sphere. To the left is another flying male figure (12). His head is crowned with a laurel wreath; he wears military clothing and carries a shield in his hands. To the right, a cherubic boy (14) leads a winged horse on which rides another male figure (11) in military dress, his head adorned with a laurel wreath.

In the middle register, the central male figure (1) is seated, facing to the left, with an aegis on his lap. He cradles a tall scepter in his raised left arm and holds a lituus in his right hand. His chest is bare and his head is adorned with a laurel wreath. To the left of (1) is a standing male figure (3) in full military dress: helmet, shield, sword, cuirass, and greaves. He is flanked by a woman (4) standing and facing him on the right and on the left by another woman (8) seated and facing him, with a scroll in her hand. In front of her is a boy (7) whose military costume corresponds to that of the male figure (3). To the right of (1) and sharing a footstool with him is a seated woman (2) holding wheat sheaves and poppies. To the right of her, two figures gaze heavenward: one, a man (5) in military dress,  gestures toward (10) in the heavenly realm; behind him is a woman (6) seated in on a chair shaped like a sphinx.

The lower register is crammed with the vanquished: Parthians wearing the Phrygian cap and Germans with long hair.

So who are all these figures? Everything depends on the identification of the central figures in the middle and upper registers.  Here we consider two possibilities.


A. In the middle register the central figure (1) is Tiberius, Augustus’ adopted son and successor; the woman (2) to the right is Livia, Augustus’ wife and the mother of Tiberius. The young general (3) presenting himself before Tiberius is Germanicus. The boy (7) whose military outfit matches that of Germanicus (3) is his son Caligula, the darling of the army and the people, looking like his daddy in the miniature legionary kit fashioned for him by the soldiers who gave him his nickname.


In the top register the central figure (10) is Augustus. He is being carried upwards: this top register represents his apotheosis, his ascent to heaven as a new god

In short, the Grand Camée affirms the cohesion and continuity of the Julio-Claudians. And it affirms their legitimacy: to question the Julio-Claudians’ right to rule is to question that of Jupiter himself.

If one accepts this reading, one may date the cameo to the reign of Tiberius, between AD 14 (Tiberius’ accession) and 29 (Livia’s death). Yet some have argued for a later date, pointing out that Tiberius is here depicted in the guise of Jupiter: partially nude, with aegis and long scepter. Impossible during his reign, they say. For Tiberius followed Augustus in refusing divine honors, at least in the western half of the Empire. So, they contend, the Grand Camée postdates Tiberius’ death and was probably made under Claudius.  (The same argument has been made concerning the Gemma Augustea, on which Augustus is presented as seminude, holding the long scepter, and with an eagle beneath his seat.)

B. And now for another, quite different reading.  The central figure (1) in the middle register is not Tiberius but Claudius, sitting next to his wife Agrippina (2). The focal figure (3) in military dress is Nero. In the upper register the central figure is not Augustus but Antonia, Claudius’ mother, in the guise of Venus Genetrix, with Cupid at her side. She rides on the back of Aeternitas, the personification of Eternity, holding the globe that represents Rome’s imperial possessions. The stone affirms the Julio-Claudian dynasty, to be sure. But its special purpose is to legitimate the rule of Claudius (cf. our previous post on Claudius in the guise of Jupiter). The date is about AD 50.




Symptomatic of the history of this cameo’s interpretation is the disagreement on the gender of the central figure in the top register (10).  Man or woman?  If even this is disputed, the cameo is likely to remain what it has been thus far: an enigma.



Heinlein, Christine. Kaiser und Kosmokrator. Der Große Kameo von Frankreich als astrale Allegorie. Dissertation, Tübingen. 2011. 41-98 (on the history of the cameo's interpretation).
Kleiner, Diana. Roman Sculpture. 1992. 149-152.
Tuck, Steven. A History of Roman Art. 2015. 158-160.


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