Sardonyx cameo portrait of the Emperor Augustus

Period: Early Imperial, Claudian

Date: ca. A.D. 41–54

Culture: Roman

Medium: Sardonyx

Dimensions: 1 7/16 × 1 1/8 × 5/16 in. (3.7 × 2.9 × 0.8 cm)

Classification: Gems

Credit Line: Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1942

Accession Number: 42.11.30


Cameos were a highly developed art form that involved carving details on multilayered gemstones or colored glass so as to leave a white surface in relief against a dark background. Gems and glass were engraved using a drill with changeable heads and a bow wrapped around the drill shaft that was drawn back and forth to make it rotate.
The art of gem cutting reached its peak under Augustus. Gems often bore overtly propagandistic subjects, such as this cameo portraying Augustus with semidivine attributes. The cream-colored portrait rises masterfully from the violet-tinged brown translucent ground. Famous since the seventeenth century, when it was in the Arundel collection (it was later in the Marlborough collection), this virtuoso demonstration of the Roman gem cutter's skill shows the mature but energetic and well-muscled emperor from the back, his head in noble profile, the ribbons of his laurel wreath floating behind him. He turns his back so that his shoulder displays his baldric and the aegis incorporating heads of Medusa and a wind god. The latter is perhaps intended as a personification of the summer winds that brought the corn fleet from Egypt and, thus, an oblique reference to Augustus' annexation of Egypt after the defeat of Marc Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 B.C. The precedents for this imagery lie not in the Republican tradition of gem carving but in the art of Hellenistic kingdoms, where rulers—following the example of Alexander the Great—assumed the attributes of various gods and heroes.