Carnelian intaglio

Period: Late Republican or Imperial

Date: ca. 1st century B.C.–3rd century A.D.

Culture: Roman

Medium: Carnelian

Dimensions: Other: 7/16 x 5/8 x 1/8 in. (1.1 x 1.5 x 0.3 cm)

Classification: Gems

Credit Line: Gift of John Taylor Johnston, 1881

Accession Number: 81.6.94


This Roman intaglio is engraved with the bust of Asklepios, the hero and god of healing. As on this gemstone, he generally appears as a mature, bearded man accompanied by a snake. The success of the cult of Asklepios in antiquity was due to the hero-god's accessibility– although the son of Apollo, he was still human enough to attempt to cancel death. Those who sought a cure in the temples erected to him were subjected to ritual purifications, fasts, prayers, and sacrifices. A central feature of the cult and the process of healing was known as incubation, during which time the god appeared to the afflicted one in a dream and prescribed a treatment.
Most sanctuaries of Asklepios had a sacred snake, believed to be Elaphe longissima, a boa constrictor native to southern Europe and known to be harmless to man but which feeds on small mammals. In classical mythology, the snake is associated with the underworld and the realm of death, but was also seen as a symbol of healing and believed to revive itself by sloughing off its skin.