Recently, a whole trove of small ancient gems and amulets was discovered in a house in Pompeii. Treasured possessions for the Greeks and the Romans, ancient gems were often carved with images from myth or history. Even the tiniest detail could be full of meaning, reminding us of the value of looking at things really closely.
The Roman gem from the Getty Museum’s collection is a perfect example. It measures just over an inch in height, and its tiny carvings are barely visible unless light hits its surface at the right angle, revealing the bodies of a seated woman facing a standing man.
Their nudity suggests that they are mythological figures, though there are several possible interpretations of their identities. They could be the Cretan princess Ariadne with the wine god Bacchus, who found her after she was abandoned by the hero Theseus. Alternatively, she could be the goddess of love Aphrodite with her lover Adonis. Or these could be Venus and the Trojan hero Anchises, the parents of Aeneas who was an important figure in Roman legend.
Whoever they are, the small details like the stones the woman sits on and the hunting stick the man carries place the figures in the natural world. Among these, located in front of the naturalistically sculpted rocks, is a tiny rhombus shape no bigger than the head of a match. It is this detail that offers the most compelling question about the gem. With its straight edges and harsh angles, it contrasts with the uneven texture of the stones it leans against. What is this minuscule feature? Why is it there?
Other Roman objects provide clues to identifying the ambiguous object. A cameo from the Medici collection, now housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, shows the goddess Artemis also seated on a pile of stones. A rhombus lies to the right of her foot, though with a visible hole at its center.
The same museum also has a large glass cameo vessel commonly known as the Blue Vase of Pompeii, which features a scene of cupids playing music, collecting grapes, and reclining on a dining couch—and yet another small rhombus with a central hole.
The shape also appears on the famous Portland Vase in the British Museum. On one side, a female figure reclines with two objects at her feet. On the right is a plain rhombus shape, similar to the one on the Getty gem, and on the left is a larger object with the same central depression, as seen on the other examples mentioned above. As with the Getty gem, scholars have guessed at the meaning of the vase’s imagery for a long time. However, because the vase is bigger, it is easier to see that the larger shape is actually an overturned capital from the top of a column.
In practice, a capital would have had a metal pin inserted into the center that attached it to a column’s shaft. Here it lies discarded at the edge of the scene, together with another bit of broken architecture.
Ruins of and in the Ancient Past
For the last few centuries, artists have found inspiration in classical ruins and inserted pieces of broken architecture into their works. Often, these fragments line the edges of an image, filling space and lending it a sense of antiquity. They are seen as the remains of collapsed civilizations and the results of generations of abandonment. Today they have become infinitely instagrammable, as tourists flock to take photos among fallen ancient columns.
What the Getty gem shows is that this is not a new trend: such images existed even in the ancient world.
It may seem odd to think of ruins in, rather than of, ancient Greece and Rome. Many modern reconstructions have been created of ancient spaces—there are digital versions for viewers to explore at home, enormous models to visit in museums, and countless movie sets to see on screen—but these largely feature intact buildings and cityscapes free of architectural litter. Ancient evidence provides a different picture, one in which material fragments were part of the everyday scenery.
Just as today, natural disasters, war, and weather 2,000 years ago meant that architecture often crumbled. Rebuilding was costly and often slow, leaving parts of ancient cities broken for years. For instance, Romans believed King Romulus built Rome’s first temple in the 8th century BC. Seven centuries later, writers described it as having fallen into ruin, left to stand broken in the city (until the emperor Augustus had it rebuilt). Similarly, Pompeii had ruined buildings before Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried them with the rest of the city in AD 79.
Such fragments provided inspiration for ancient writers and artists too. Poets such as Ovid and Lucan symbolically evoked the remains of ancient fallen cities, such as Troy, and ancient authors recorded their characters’ tears at the sight of broken and destroyed Corinth, Syracuse, and Carthage. The poet Propertius wrote an elegy for the Etruscan city of Veii, which the Romans captured and sacked in the 4th century BC, even though, by his lifetime, the city had already been rebuilt:
Alas, ancient Veii! You too were then a mighty kingdom,
and a throne of gold was set in your forum:
now within your walls sounds the horn of the loitering shepherd,
and men reap ploughed fields over your bones.
—Propertius 4.10.27–30, Goold translation, adapted
Further, in the second century AD, the writer Pausanias journeyed around Greece and recorded descriptions of the remains of buildings from centuries earlier. Both ancient Greeks and modern travelers have used his work as a guide to finding ancient ruins.
The scene on the Getty gem, with the architectural fragment tucked in a corner, fits into this image of the ancient world. So common and recognizable were such remains in ancient times that even mythological landscapes were imagined to include them. The broken fragment at the woman’s feet lends the scene its own antiquity. This small detail on a small object gives us a chance to think about how we visualize the past, but also how the people of that past did the same for their own.
Isabella Colpo, Ruinae et putres robore trunci: Paesaggi di rovine e rovine nel paesaggio nella pittura romana (I secolo a.C.-I secolo d.C.). Antenor Quaderni 17. Rome: Quasar, 2010.
C. Edwards, “Imagining Ruins in Ancient Rome,” European Review of History: Revue europeénne d’histoire 18, no. 5–6 (2011): 645–61.
Denys Haynes, “The Portland Vase: A Reply,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 115 (1995): 146–152.
Massimilliano Papini, “The Romans’ Ruins,” in The Atlas of Ancient Rome: Biography and Portraits of the City, vol 1., ed. Andrea Carandini (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 122–28.