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This May Be the Best Monument to Caesar Augustus

Reputedly, the last public words of Caesar Augustus (63 B.C.-A.D. 14) were “Behold, I found Rome of clay, and leave her to you of marble.” Augustus also left us a magnificent, exquisitely carved cameo whose double-narrative all but deifies him. It is the Gemma Augustea in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which I visited last spring.

Since it is an unequivocal masterpiece, The Wall Street Journal let me write about it for its Masterpiece column. Headlined A Man Among Gods, my piece was published in the  Sept. 22 edition..

The Gemma has three things going for it, any one of which might catapult it into the realm of masterpieces. First, Augustus, who was a great patron of the arts, probably commissioned it and just as probably owned it. Its later provenance–in the hands of Rudolph II, for example, is equally impressive. Second, it is one of the finest cameos ever created–with sharply delineated details (feathers, muscles and toenails) and diaphanous garments, among other features–in low relief on a piece of onyx no thicker than 1/2 inch. It was possibly made by the renowned Greek master carver Dioskourides, who was active late first century B.C. and had created Augustus’s personal seal, or (more likely, given its date of 9-12 A.D.) by one of his sons or extremely good disciples. The characters and story of the piece is by no means a simple one, either. And third, it is (as I wrote) “surely the finest and almost the largest cameo that survives from antiquity.” The Louvre owns one a bit larger–the Grand Camee de France–but the quality does not compare.


Here’s how the Gemma’s story is told in two frieze-like registers, from my column:

In the upper level, Roma, the goddess of Rome, sits at the center on her throne in a relaxed pose, her eyes meeting those of Augustus, enthroned just to the right. Their knees almost touch. Augustus, his chiseled face in profile and his muscled body naked from the waist up, holds in his right hand a lituus, a crooked wand used by augurs for divination. Behind him is Oikoumene, a goddess who personified the civilized world, about to place a military wreath known as a corona civica on his head. Below his throne is an eagle, symbol of Jupiter, touched by the hem of Augustus’ garment. Further to the right are Tellus Italiae, a goddess personifying Italy in all its fecundity, who holds a cornucopia, and Oceanus, god of the sea. …

Thickness of the onyx

The left half of the upper register carries a different but equally potent message. Near the edge is Tiberius, the stepson Augustus adopted as his heir. Holding a staff, he has arrived in a chariot with none other than winged Victory, but is now alighting, as if encouraged by her to move on to the next military challenge. To the right is Germanicus, the nephew Tiberius adopted as his heir at the behest of Augustus, in military dress. Here Augustus is setting forth his plans for a dynasty that will wage war to expand the Roman realm and extend the prosperity he engineered.

The lower register displays a moment of triumphalism whose meaning may be keyed to the date of the Gemma’s making (A.D. 9-12): In the year 9, the Roman army conquered the Pannonians with Tiberius as general. The cameo, on the left, depicts Roman soldiers raising a victory monument over their enemies, one clearly stripped of his armor and with hands tied behind his back. On the right, it shows the enemy being yanked into captivity by a pair that may be Mercury and Diana, a sign that the gods sided with the Romans. And this is all happening—literally—at the feet of Augustus and Roma. (The Roman army also suffered a defeat at the hands of Germanic tribes in A.D. 9, and an alternative interpretation holds that the lower register presents a counter-narrative to that setback. Either way, it’s propaganda.)

The Gemma Augustea sits in a dark room at the museum, mounted in its own vitrine and hanging on a little gold loop extending from the top of its backing (added much later). It outshines everything else in the gallery, though the other ancient cameos are museum-quality, too. So it seems that Augustus, who after all was the founder and great expansionist of the Roman Empire, the architect of the Pax Romana, the creator of a golden economic age, the instigator of grand civic structures, managed to make his mark with this artifact, too.

If you cannot access my piece at the WSJ, you may see it on my archive website.

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