Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Rare Alexander the Great Gemstone Found

Alexander the Great is as much a historical figure as he is a legend. Today it is sometimes hard to separate the myth from the man, and even during his lifetime the line between man and mythical hero was vague. The facts we know about Alexander are impressive and it is no wonder that so many fantastic stories sprang up regarding his exploits. He was a master tactician; he conquered the Persian Empire and expanded the boundaries of Greek culture all the way to the Indus River. Authors and generals, both ancient and modern, have studied his tactics and victories. Pompey and Caesar are just a few of the famous men that tried to emulate his greatness. Not only was he a military genius, he was also a playboy. He was young, dashing and oh so handsome. It didn't hurt that he died young either, adding to his legendary appeal.

In ancient art, images of Alexander abound. He was a popular subject both during his life and throughout history. The famed sculptor Lysippos was his court artist; the only person Alexander saw fit to translate his likeness to stone. But that didn't stop countless copies from being made during and after his death. When reviewing the catalog of ancient art, you can find an image of Alexander in just about every medium; coins, sculpture, gemstones, etc. Below you can find some examples of these artifacts. The images and legends of Alexander were ubiquitous in the ancient world, just like the names and exploits of Washington and Lincoln are in America today.
Recently a remarkable gemstone carved in the likeness of Alexander the Great was found in Israel. The gem is small, but masterly carved. Such a gem would have been set in a gold ring, which probably would have served as a signet with which to stamp wax scroll seals. Made of carnelian, this gem represents not necessarily that such things were made in the area, but that wealthy residents appreciated such fine objects and had the means to procure them. The gem shows Alexander in profile with a crown on his head. One of the most important aspects of this find is that the gem was actually dug up by archaeologists! So many artifacts in museums today have lost their context, robbing the world of invaluable knowledge. The art of gem carving traces its root back to the Near East, where cylinder seals appear during the Uruk period. Gem carving spread from there to Minoan Crete. We see round and oval shaped gems (like the Alexander gem) being used in 8th century Greece and beyond. Carving on gems became very sophisticated and popular during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The emperor Augustus is said to have worn a signet ring with the image of Alexander.


petersommer said...

Excellent post and really like your blog Matthew. I was hoping to contact you directly but can't find any email for you. Perhaps you'd be good enough to get in touch.

I run Peter Sommer Travels, a travel company that specialises in escorted history tours in Turkey, Greece, and Italy, including an epic archaeological adventure in the footsteps of Alexander the Great.

Best wishes,
Peter Sommer

Peter Sommer Travels