The ancient Romans considered jewellery to be an essential accessory, for it provided a public display of their wealth. Roman jewellery at first followed trends set by the Etruscans, using gold and glass beads, but as the power and spread of the Roman Empire increased, so too did jewellery designs became increasingly elaborate. Different cultural styles from Greece, Egypt, North Africa, and the Orient were all incorporated to reflect Rome’s prosperity as a dominant, conquering city. The wide range of natural resources enabled artisans to create ostentatious jewellery using a diverse selection of materials: this increasingly included sapphires, diamonds, emeralds, garnet and amber from India, and pearls (which were particularly prized). Archaeological finds of Roman jewellery are relatively rare, considering the magnitude of Roman civilisation, and the historical and geographical span of the Empire.
The custom of wearing rings was popular amongst the Romans, and was probably introduced by the Sabines, who are described in early legends as wearing gold rings with precious stones. During the Roman Republic it became customary for all the senators, chief magistrates, and at last for the equites also, to wear gold rings.
This agate gem is finely carved with the depiction of a standing nude male figure, possibly the god Harpocrates. Harpocrates was represented as a naked infant, and was characterised by the finger in his mouth. This was originally interpreted as a childish gesture, but later as an invitation to silence, thereby preventing the divulging of secrets related to his cult’s initiation. In the Hellenistic age, when the cult was widespread, Harpocrates assumed the appearance of the Greek god, Eros, with plump figure and curled hair. It was bearing such characteristics that he entered the Roman world, where he was revered as the god of fertility (as suggested by the new attribute of the cornucopia). According to ancient Roman mythology and culture, the cornucopia was a symbol of good fortune, fertility, and abundance. The world derives from the Latin word ‘cornus’, meaning “horn”, and ‘copia’, which means “abundance”.
To find out more about intaglios, please visit our relevant blog post: Engraved Gemstones in Ancient Rome.