Oval gem with eagle on altar crowning male bust, possibly Mark Antony
Second half of the 1st century B.C.
Length: 21 x 15.24 mm (13/16 x 5/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Not On View
Yellow-orange carnelian (also called sard). Intaglio. Convex front surface and flat back surface. On the right of the gem, an eagle perches on an altar, facing left in profile. Its feathers are rendered by small pellets, and it holds a wreath or a fillet in its beak. Two slight marks on the altar may indicate that the altar is garlanded. On the left of the gem is a male bust, facing right in profile. The eagle is slightly larger than the bust, and it appears that it is crowning the bust with the object held in its beak. The man has short, close-cropped hair. Based on comparisons with other gem portraits, it is possible that the man is Mark Antony, the Roman Republican politician and general. A retrograde Greek inscription runs along the bottom of the gem, reading “PROCOPAC.” The letters may well have been added later to indicate the gem’s owner. The gem is set in a modern gold ring and its surface is unpolished and quite dull.
To the Romans, eagles were symbols of victory, of the military legion as a whole, and of apotheosis. The image of an altar topped with an eagle, which is quite common on Roman gems and glass pastes, has been interpreted as a symbol of the cult of the victor, bringing wealth and luck. In this regard, it is logical that the eagle crowns the bust as a victor. Given the military associations of eagle imagery, as well as Mark Antony’s role as a general of the Roman army, perhaps this gesture is in reference to one of his military victories.
By date unknown: with Bernheimers' Antique Arts, 44 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA 02138; purchased by MFA from Bernheimers' Antique Arts, April 8, 1964
Theodora Wilbour Fund in memory of Zoë Wilbour