In honor of August, I thought I would feature a work of art that depicts Augustus.
This sardonyx cameo, which is called the Gemma Augustea (Gem of Augustus), is a masterpiece of ancient Roman art. It features two registers of figures, both of which are brilliantly depicted in shallow relief. The milky white of these ornately carved figures contrasts with the dark background of the cameo, making this work of art both beautiful and striking.
In addition to the remarkable workmanship and elegant appearance of the cameo, the Gemma Augustea also has a complex and sophisticated significance. It was created to celebrate and glorify the leadership of Augustus. On the top register of the work, there is a scene in which the focal point is the semi-nude Augustus. Next to Augustus is a female figure, who is thought perhaps to be a personification of the World. This female figure holds a crown over the head of Augustus. On the other side of Augustus is another personification. This armed and helmeted female is traditionally identified as the goddess Roma.
It is important to note that in this depiction of Augustus, the stylized image of the Roman Emperor is meant to evoke the power and glory of the god Jupiter (Jupiter, remember, was the ruler of the Roman pantheon). An eagle, which is traditionally a symbol associated with the ruler of the Roman gods, is poised underneath the throne of Augustus. The presence of this bird of prey further reinforces the identification between Augustus and Jupiter. Taken together all of these symbols on the Gemma Augustea can be read as tribute to the manifest victory and power of the Emperor Augustus.
The Gemma Augustea is part of the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.