There is confusion about the date of this carved sardonyx jewel, about a foot in diameter, which now resides in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. The Cameo commemorates the unity of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. On all interpretations, Augustus in heaven watches over Tiberius, who, under the wise guidance of his mother, the Augusta, is surrounded by the stalwart men and women of the family who will carry the dynasty on. This was the public face of the Augustan succession. And it had a job to do – reinforcing the obvious reality of Rome’s power with the belief that it radiated from a divinely appointed stable imperial household.
From the time of Augustus, the provincial peoples worshipped the Emperor and, over time, more and more of his deified relatives. The Cameo presents his lineage in heroic style. The jewel has 3 levels. At the top is heaven, where dead Julio-Claudians reside. Roman heaven is only for gods: starting with Julius Caesar, Augustus’ father by daoption, the dead Julio-Claudians become gods on death. The reclining figure with veiled head and rod of office is always taken to be Augustus himself, at the head of his dynasty.
IN the middle are members of the dynasty. This is where opinion begins to conflict. I see these as people who were alive when the jewel was made, following the theory that it was made in AD 23, to celebrate Tiberius’ adoption of his nephews Nero and Drusus as heirs following the death of his own son. Another theory is that the Emperor Claudius had it made. On either theory, the jewel tells an open story of unity and strength, which covers up a tale of violence, instability and cruelty.
What we see in the middle ground is a group of strong men and noble women, in heroic pose around a commanding throned man and his female consort. The clothing generally suggests the loose draperies of an earlier age, and that the men of warrior age wear armour. Strong eyelines connect the figures with each other and the heavenly scene.
Most interpretations agree that the throned man is the Emperor Tiberius, who ruled from 14-37 AD. The throned woman is not his wife but his mother, the dowager Empress, known as the Augusta. Under the throne sits a defeated Parthian, reminder of Tiberius’ role in recovering the Roman standards lost at the battle of Carrhae (53 BC) . These returned to Rome after negotiation in 20 BC, but both Augustus and Tiberius presented their recovery as evidence of massive military victory.
Under the imperial feet, at the bottom of the Cameo, the images of captives and subjects, use the language of violence openly. The Romans were traditionally a warrior society, and celebrated their power over lesser peoples. For centuries, triumphant generals had literally paraded captives in the streets. In diverting Romans away from Civil War, Augustus used the tactic of reinforcing traditional military values and promoting foreign war instead. So the artist’s decision to use images of abased subjects is not subversive; it is a traditional part of Roman self-glorification. The humility of the subjects is contrasted with the glory of the rulers, the imperial house.
The identification of other figures is more tenuous and varies depending on the date ascribed to the Cameo. Everyone agrees that they are Julio-Claudians, especially members of the family of Germanicus, and however you swap them around, the Cameo tells the same story of public grandeur concealing private dysfunction.
Augustus lacked a son, the male heir he craved to keep his dynasty in power. At one point he took his daughter’s sons as heirs, but they died before him. He then looked at various options for the succession involving marrying descendants of his sister and his only daughter, to create a bloodline. He came to view his great-nephew Germanicus as the next dynastic head. Germanicus married Augustus’ granddaughter Agrippina 1 to produce great-grandchildren multiply descended from Augustus and his sister. These children were Augustus’ best hope for taking the dynasty forward.
There was a snag in the shape of Augustus’ step-son, Tiberius, Germanicus’ wicked uncle. Tiberius was a significant commander, and an earlier plan had been for him to head the next generation, married to Augustus’ daughter, Julia 1. This marriage had been a disaster, and led to the strangest possible compromise. When the grandchildren died, Augustus adopted Tiberius as his heir AND made Tiberius adopt Germanicus as his heir above his own only son. The idea was that Tiberius should be a caretaker emperor, and pass power back into Augustus’ biological family, by handing power over to Germanicus at the right time.
When Augustus died in AD 14, Tiberius took over and restored his own son to the succession. But when this son died in AD 23, Tiberius returned to Augustus’ plan. Germanicus too was already dead, murdered in very grisly circumstances, so, according to Roman custom Tiberius adopted of Germanicus’ sons, Nero and Drusus. However, their closeness to the throne was to cost both these young men and their mother their lives. Germanicus had already paid this price, undoubtedly murdered, at the behest of someone very high up in the court – perhaps even Livia, the dowager Empress.
Returning to the jewel, around Augustus in heaven are some dead heirs. If we are in AD 23 and Drusus has just died, he may be the warrior ascending to heaven on Pegasus. The other figure is probably Germanicus. No-one is quite sure but we need to choose two from this short-list; Drusus son of Tiberius, Germanicus, and Germanicus’ father, Drusus, brother of Tiberius. In front of these figures is a man in a tunic, who may represent Aeneas, founder of the Julian family. Heaven consists of Augustus and, probably, the two dead heirs of his adopted son, Tiberius.
We move to the living in the middle row, which, on this version, contains the Emperor and his newly adopted sons and heirs. Tiberius and Livia are central. In front of him and behind him stand two young warriors, the sons of Germanicus, whom he has just adopted. We’ll assume the elder son, Nero (not the Emperor) is standing in front of him. Portioning out the girls is more controversial. The woman with the laurel wreath may be Germanicus’ wife, Agrippina, the granddaughter of Augustus (hence the wreath). The little boy may be Germanicus’ youngest son Gaius, known as Caligula. This all sounds very neat, but it doesn’t account for all three of his three daughters. The woman on the far right is often identified as Germanicus’ daughter Agrippina 2, wife of the Emperor Claudius.
Without worrying about the details, we can use the Cameo to look at the carnage the Augustan succession caused in the imperial family.
Germanicus, a resident of heaven, was undoubtedly poisoned on campaign in 17 BC. To be more precise he was undoubtedly attacked by witchcraft – in Rome, poison and cursing magic went together. His wife, Augustus’ granddaughter, whom I identify as the wreathed woman proudly supporting her son on the Cameo, would be put to death by Tiberius. So would the two elder sons, the new heirs. So far, that is four figures dead by unnatural means.
But Drusus, winging his way to heaven, was also said to have been poisoned – by his wife, Germanicus’ sister. We could count her death too, as she was later put to death for conspiring against Tiberius, but she isn’t on the Cameo. So the official Cameo unnatural death toll is 5 and counting.
The boy, Caligula, would survive to be Emperor – and to be assassinated. That makes 6. His three sisters lasted his reign. One of them, Agrippina 2, became the wife of her uncle, her father’s brother, the Emperor Claudius. The other two survived Caligula’s reign to be put to death by their uncle, their father’s brother, the Emperor Claudius. Agrippina 2 went on to be assassinated by her own son. So whichever they are, the Cameo unnatural death toll rises to 8 – everyone except Tiberius and Livia from the middle panel met sticky ends.
Even if you try some new identities for the figures, the death toll does not improve much. If one of the heavenly figures is Tiberius’ brother, Drusus, it improves a bit, as he fell off his horse on campaign. In the version where Claudius makes the jewel for Agrippina 2, he and Agrippina are said to be the figures behind the throne. Emperor Claudius was supposedly poisoned by his wife and she Agrippina 2 was assassinated by her son, so no improvement there. On this reading the little boy on the left may become a young version of Agrippina 2’s son, the future Emperor Nero, who was dethroned and committed suicide to avoid execution. If we make the woman holding the boy an allegorical figure, such as Providentia, goddess of Providence, then at least she is immortal.
All this only scrapes the surface of unnatural and suspect deaths in the imperial family, let alone the acrimonious marriages and divorces and punishments without trial. If the Cameo was made by Claudius, the Cameo shows Tiberius with people he had openly had killed. I find this a major problem with the later date. If the date is 23 AD, the irony is accessible only to later viewers; Tiberius’ strong household consists of people he was to kill and with others who would kill and be killed because of their claims on the Augustan succession. Whichever members of the family you place around him, you still get a litany of violent death. How can something so exquisite be so grim?
If you liked this post, you may like the post on the Hampton Court Portrait of Henry VIII and his family.