In the luxurious days of the height of the Roman Empire, finger rings set with engraved stones were considered the height of personal fashion. By the late Roman Empire, some people wore rings on all fingers, and sometimes even two or three on a single finger. While the ancient Greeks had known gemstones of various varieties, the advances of the Greek military under Alexander the Great, whose armies reached as far as ancient India, brought new gems such garnet, nicolo, emerald, plasma, moonstone and jasper to the Mediterranean. Intaglios such as the present were originally used as seals, and were therefore very important and highly personal objects. Gemstones were known for their protective powers, and the Roman author Pliny gives a long account of the magical properties of stones.
The ring consists of a D-section sheet gold hoop rising to a large oval bezel set with a flat carnelian intaglio of a bearded male head. The construction and style point to a date in the first to second century AD. The gem itself is deeply and intricately carved, allowing for rich exploitation of the stone’s layers, and a crisp and detailed impression. The stone would have been worked very delicately, with a hand-held drill employed at right angles to the stone surface. The drill bit was a soft metal or hard wood, covered with oil and emery or diamond dust. After rough carving was completed, particularly delicate work was continued with emery powder. Remarkably, all of this detail was achieved without the use of magnifying lenses.
The shaggy hair and beard, ivy garland, and bulbous nose of the male subject are all features which identify him as a satyr. During the Roman period, the terms ‘satyr’ and ‘faun’ are generally used interchangeably and refer to rustic demon spirits of the countryside and woods. Both satyrs and fauns were the close companions of Dionysus and Bacchus respectively, and thus participants in the drunken revelry that characterized the cult of the wine-god. The image of the satyr therefore exemplifies the carefree world of Dionysos, god of wine, and is symbolic of man’s primordial relationship with the natural world. A carnelian intaglio depicting a bearded satyr wearing an ivy garland is in the collection of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (inv. no. GS-01162, first century AD).
F. H. Marshall, Catalogue of the Finger Rings, Greek, Etruscan and Roman, in the Departments of Antiquities British Museum (London, 1907).
J. Spier, Ancient Gems and Finger Rings: Catalogue of the Collections, J. Paul Getty Museum (Malibu, 1993).
R.A.S. Seaford, ‘Satyrs’, in S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization (Oxford-New York, 1998), pp. 638-639.
Private Collection, Zurich, 1970s.
with Numismatic Art & Ancient Coins, Zurich, acquired from the above, prior to 1985.
Art Market, New York, 1985.
Private Collection, New York, acquired from the above, 1986.