Gemma Augustea

Gemma Augustea

The Gemma Augustea (Latin, Gem of Augustus) is a low-relief cameo gem cut from a double-layered Arabian onyx stone. It is commonly agreed that the gem cutter who created the Gemma Augustea was either Dioscurides or one of his disciples, in the teens or twenties of the first century CE.

Creation and characteristics

The Gemma Augustea is a low-relief cameo gem cut from a double-layered Arabian onyx stone. One layer is white, while the other is bluish-brown. The painstaking method by which the stone was cut allowed for minute detail with sharp contrast between the images and background, also allowing for a great deal of shadow play. The size of the gem also made for easier manipulation and a grander scene. It stands 7½ inches tall with a width of 9 inches and an average thickness of ½ inch.

It is commonly agreed that the gem cutter who created Gemma Augustea was either Dioscurides or one of his disciples. Dioscurides was Caesar Augustus’ favorite gem cutter, and his work and copies of it are seen from all over the ancient Roman world. The gemma was purported to have been created around 10–20, although some scholars believe it to have been created decades later because of certain interpretations of the depicted scene.

If Dioscurides, or cutters following his example, made it, the gemma was probably made in the court of Caesar Augustus. At some time in antiquity it moved to Byzantium, perhaps after Constantine had officially moved the capital of the empire there. It is important to note that Augustus, though fully accepting and encouraging cult worship of the emperor outside of Rome, especially in the provinces, did not allow himself to be worshiped as a god inside Rome. If this gem were to have been made during his lifetime (he died in 14 CE), it would have to have been made to be sent to a respected family in a province or client kingdom. Either that, or the gem was made after Augustus’ death, which could alter the identity of one or more of the portraits. Another viewpoint is that the gem does portray Augustus as a god, but the gem was cut specifically for a close friend or relative perhaps in Rome who would have been the only one to know of it.

Ages passed during which the whereabouts of the gemma is undocumented, though it still remained relatively intact. The gemma turned up in 1246 in the Treasury of the Basilique St-Sernin, Toulouse. Later, in 1533, King François I appropriated it and moved it to Paris, where it soon disappeared around 1590. Not long thereafter it was sold for 12,000 gold pieces to Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor. During the 17th century, it was set in German gold. This setting shows that the gem must have been damaged, the upper left side being broken with at least one other figure missing, probably before Rudolph II bought it, but definitely before 1700. The gemma now resides in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Interpretations of the figures and scenes

Upper tier

The throned figure #1 is Augustus Caesar (Octavius), though in some interpretations, it could represent a later Roman ruler. Figure #3 is the most readily identifiable, having characteristics held by no other. The woman is Oikoumene – the personification of the inhabited world. This inhabited or civilized world is either that of the early Roman Empire, or more likely the Mediterranean world conquered by Alexander the Great. She wears upon her head a mural crown and veil. She is crowning figure #1 with the corona civica of oak leaves – used to commend someone for saving the life of a Roman citizen. In this grand scale depiction, however, it is given to figure #1 because he saved a multitude of Roman citizens.

Figure #5 and #6 seem to be closely related. Figure #5 is Oceanus or Neptune whose significance is often seen as one balancing the scene across from #4 and #7, and also an important onlooker, as he represents the realm of water. Below him is a reclined personification of either Gaia or Italia. The scholars who see Gaia link her with the cornucopia and the children surrounding her, who might represent seasons. It might be odd that Gaia holds the horn of plenty when it seems as if the horn is not presently producing anything. This supports an argument that she is not Gaia, but Italia, for historically there was famine at the scene’s event. Also, she wears a bulla, a locket of some sort, around her neck, which, again, would seem odd for Gaia to don. Either way, the children present seasons, probably summer and fall, as one of them carries ears of corn.

Figure #10 is the eagle of Jupiter. The eagle could be showing that figure #1 is seated in the role of Jupiter. Seated next to figure #1 is Roma. The helmeted goddess holds a spear in her right arm while her left hand lightly touches the hilt of her sword, probably showing that Rome was always prepared for war. Besides showing her feet resting upon the armor of the conquered, Roma seems to look admiringly towards figure #1. Though there might be a dispute as to who #1 is, it is often said that the image of Roma strongly resembles Livia, Augustus’ long-lived wife. Not only was she his wife, but from a previous marriage, the mother of the man sometimes considered the first emperor of Rome, Tiberius. The reason for the cutting of this gem is also called into question when it is noted that Roma was not worshiped inside Rome till around the rule of Hadrian. Thus the gem might have been custom cut for a friend in the provinces.

Figure #4 is Victoria driving the chariot that holds the descending figure #7. Obviously the deliverer of the victorious, but not necessarily there for celebration, as it seems she might be impatiently urging figure #7 on to his next campaign. In associating Victoria with the chariot, it is necessary to analyze some historical importance relating to the chariot and the horses around it. The two foreshortened horses in front of the chariot are part of the chariot team, whereas the single horse to the side cannot be, and might belong to figure #8. Historically, a victory chariot was driven by four horses forming a quadriga, not the mere two represented on the gemma, a bigae. This might show that figure #7 is not a triumphator.

Lower tier

In the lower scene, the figures are less readily identifiable. In some interpretations of the scene, all the lower figures are anonymous. Other interpretations describe the figures as important and identifiable. At the left, figures combined in #11 are either Celts or Germans, as seen by their brutal fierceness. The seated man and woman depict prisoners of war, symbolizing the Roman victory. The man is bound with his hands behind his back, and both are apparently going to be tied to figure #19, a trophy of war. Figure #19 is a tropaion, a trophy displayed after a winning battle, usually at the point during a battle where victory was evident. The trophy is constructed out of wood to look like a rectangular human. A helmet is placed on top and arms of the enemy are placed upon it. In the scene, four young men are hoisting the trophy, eventually to its vertical position. Figure #18 has the least information, but the helmet upon his head leads some to believe that he might be a Macedonian soldier of King Rhoemetalces, who helped Tiberius in Pannonia. Figure #15 is often identified as a personification of Mars with his armor and flowing cape. Though #16 and #17 seem less important, they look very much alike and might represent the constellation Gemini. Gemini is the more difficult constellation to pick out, and it might represent the hidden identity of figure #8. Two others, however, are more obvious. Figure #20 is a shield with a large scorpion emblazoned upon it. Tiberius was born in November, and thus would be represented with such an item. Figure #9 shows Augustus’ favorite sign, the Capricorn. Though Augustus might have only been conceived during December, he claims the Capricorn as his. Not only is the Capricorn overshadowing, but also an image of the sun or moon, two ancient planets, which were necessary to show the full power of a constellation, is seen behind the sign. Though the Scorpion and Gemini are not directly associated with planets, Mars (#15) is, and figure #13 is often associated with [Diana], who is identified with the moon. Thus at least three major zodiacal signs are evident.

Figure #13 is probably Diana, though a few scholars believe her to be a mere auxiliary troop with #14. Diana holds in her left hand spears, and her right hand seems to rest upon the head of the man in figure #12, not gripping his hair as supposed my many. Another identifying feature of Diana is her bountiful hair, bound up for the hunt, and her hunting clothes. Figure #14 might be an auxiliary, but more likely he personifies Mercurius (Mercury/Hermes), identified by his rimmed hat. Mercurius seems to be dragging the female in figure #12 by her hair towards the trophy erection. The scene is more complicated than it seems. Many interpretations insist that the ‘auxiliaries’ are dragging the barbarian prisoners to join their kindred in being bound to the trophy. However, there are indications that this might not be the case at all. First, the man on his knees is begging for mercy from Diana, who does look down on him. That same man wears around his neck a torque, which often identified a Celtic or sometimes German tribesman with some authority. It may be significant that Diana has her back turned to the observer and possibly the scene itself. She is the only one as such, and perhaps to contrast the celebration of victory in battle, she shows instead mercy to one pleading for his life. In addition, since the man is a leader, it makes for better propaganda that he beg, as a leader, before a goddess supporting Rome. Mercurius might not be dragging the woman to be bound to the trophy, but might be bringing her to kneel before Diana to ask for mercy as well. She shows the sign of a truce by placing her hand upon her chest. Perhaps Diana and Mercurius are sheltering them – offering them salvation in the final moments of victory. Whatever the case, the couple in #12 are not the same as the despaired couple in #11. They seem to balance at the same time as contrast each other – balance by having barbarians on the right and left, literally balancing the picture, and contrast as one couple being doomed to be bound at the trophy, and the other begging for what looks like a good chance of mercy.

Overall scene

The upper and lower scenes take place at different times, and are basically cause and effect. The lower scene takes place at the northern frontiers, just after a battle won by the Romans, who erect a victory trophy. Gathered prisoners of war are waiting for their punishment in grief or begging for mercy at the hands of assisting gods. The triumph on the battlefield precedes the triumph on the upper plate.

The upper scene is a fusion of Rome, Olympus, and the world of cities. Augustus is conspicuously beneath the birth sign he claimed, while the eagle personifying him as Jupiter sits below. He ended many years of internal strife for Rome and will forever wear the oak crown. In his right hand he holds a lituus – his augury stick in which he reads the signs and declares wars to be just. He faces Roma, representing all he united and saved from civil bloodshed. He sits equal to Roma, personifying a god. His feet lay upon armor, which could be identified with the newly conquered barbarians, or it may depict the descent of the Julian family from Mars through his human children Romulus and Remus. Unlike all the other figures, except for #7 and #8, the depiction of Augustus is considered to be an actual portrait because of the iris seen in his eye.

Tiberius, Augustus’ adopted nephew, recently having fought in the north, comes back momentarily – for Victoria anxiously urges that he continue on to fight new battles -to receive his triumph.

There are problems with this interpretation, however. The chariot is not one of victory. It would be unusual if his two-horsed chariot were to be used for the triumph. Also, Tiberius wears the toga. The toga represents civility and peace, not war. Perhaps this is a way in which to hand the victory to Augustus’ auguries. Tiberius steps down from the chariot, doing obeisance to Augustus, giving his adoptive parent the triumph and victory. If all this is true, then figure #8 could still be one of two persons, Drusus or Germanicus. By this age, Drusus was probably already dead, having fallen from his horse and sustaining irreparable injuries. It could be, then a representation of Drusus, and his memory, since he was fondly looked at by almost all. Since he is clad in fighting garb, helmet probably beside him under the chariot, and coincidentally standing next to a horse, this could very well be Drusus. In addition, there are three constellations relating to the three portraits. Drusus would claim Gemini, though the Gemini is quite covert. If the portrait represented Drusus as alive, however, the gem would have been made about the same time as the Ara Pacis and the Altar of Augustus, sometime before 9 B.C., the year of Drusus’ death.

Others, though, think that #8 is Germanicus, son of Drusus. If the gem had been commissioned in A.D. 12, referring to Tiberius’ triumph over the Germans and the Pannonians, or later, it would be quite logical to assume that the young Germanicus, born in 13 B.C., was old enough to don his gear and prepare for war, years after his father’s death. Germanicus was also looked upon quite fondly by Augustus and others. The dispute carries on.

Gemma Augustea is a beautiful work of art that seems to be based on dramatic Hellenistic compositions. The refined style of execution was more common in the late Augustan or earlier Tiberian age, though more likely Augustan. It is said that the image of Augustus as Jupiter is linked to future Roman triumphs by Horace in his Odes:

He be brave who has trusted himself to perfidious foes,
and he will crush the Carthaginians in a second war
who has tamely felt the throngs upon his fettered
arms and has stood in fear of death.

Such a one unknowing how to live life secure
he has mixed peace with war
Oh mighty Carthage, you raise
higher upon Italian ruins!

Tis said he put away his chase wife’s kisses and his
little children, as one bereft of civil rights,
and sternly bend his manly gaze upon the ground
till he should strengthen the Senate’s wavering purpose
by advice ne’er given before,

and amid sorrowing friends should hurry forth a glorious exile.
Full well he knew what the barbarian torturer was making
ready for him; and yet he pushed aside the kinsmen
who blocked his path and the people who would stay his going,
with no less unconcern than if some case in court
had been decided, and he were leaving the tedious
business of his clients, speeding to Venafran fields,
or to Lacedaemonian Tarentum.

Horace, Odes III 5.



  • Clayton, Peter, Treasures of Ancient Rome, New Jersey, 1995, pp. 163-165.
  • Galinsky, Karl. Augustan Culture: An Interpretive Introduction, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1996. pp. 53, 120- 121
  • Hanfmann, George M.A. Roman Art: A Modern Survey of the Art of Imperial Rome. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1975, pp. 248-249
  • Horace: The Odes and Epodes. Loeb Classical Library. Great Britain, 1914. Odes III, 5.
  • Internet:
  • Pollini, John. "Ideology, Rhetorical imagery and the creation of a dynastic narrative", in Narrative and Event in Ancient Art, Peter J.Holliday, ed. (Cambridge Studies in New Art History) 1993.
  • Ramage, Nancy H. and Andrew Ramage. Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1991. pp. 106-107.
  • Schäfer, Jürgen. Die Gemma Augustea (Anfang 1. Jh. n. Chr.) Inv. A 158, (1999).
  • Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History: Volume One. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1995. p. 249.

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