AND FINGER RINGS FROM ASIA MINOR
Choice of Designs on Engraved Gems
The designs engraved
on gems reflect the fashion of their day. The principal motifs were pictorial
and in the Roman period included reproductions of statues of deities, heroes,
portraits, animals, mythological scenes and creatures, objects, symbols, and
scenes from daily life. Deities were by far the most common, those worshipped
by soldiers and merchants (Athena, Nike, Ares, and Hermes) being particularly
popular. Portraits were also popular, both official and private. Many such portrait-gems
have survived of Hellenistic kings and Roman emperors. Some were distributed
to favoured subjects and evidently had a propaganda value. In the Roman Republic,
it was considered an honour to have a portrait of a distinguished ancestor on
a seal. Family ancestry also played a role in the choice of the design of a
signet-ring. This can be compared to our modern rings bearing family crests
or coats of arms. Julius Caesar, for instance, had on his seal an armed Venus
(Venus Victrix), since he claimed descent from that goddess through Aeneas.
On a different note, we are told by Clement of Alexandria that some people even
had figures of their naked mistresses on their seals.
Animals were also
very popular and often had a symbolic meaning. The ram's head, for instance,
was an emblem of good fortune. Eagles were particularly popular with legionary
soldiers. Sometimes the design of a gem cannot be readily interpreted when it
involves the combination of characters or objects that have lost their meaning.
Combinations of several figures, masks, parts of animals, heads of satyrs, etc.,
usually known as grylloi (gryllos, a misnomer, means caricature), were in great
favour from the first century B. C. onwards. These were not merely fanciful
but had a recognised superstitious significance. They were worn as amulets to
avert the evil eye or ensure fertility and prosperity for the owner. Early Christian
and Byzantine gems emphasised religious motifs, and monograms of individual
names are also common.
Some stones, on
account of their colour and properties, were specifically used for certain motifs.
From the second century A. D. onwards, lions were very often engraved on yellow
jasper, presumably to render the natural colour of the lion's mane. Bloodstone
and haematite were popular stones for magical gems in Egypt. Intaglios cut on
bloodstone frequently portray the sun god Helios, which is partially explained
by the Greek name of the gem, heliotrope. Many amethyst or mauve glass gems
with a mask of Dionysos engraved on them have survived and provide an attractive
combination of the prophylactic property of the stone (protection from drunkenness)
with the image of the inebriating god of wine.