Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.06.46

Richard Veymiers, Ἵλεως τῷ φοροῦντι. Sérapis sur les gemmes et les bijoux antiques. Publication de la Classe des Lettres. Collection in-4o, 3e série, tome I, no 2061.   Bruxelles:  Académie Royale de Belgique, 2009.  Pp. 608.  ISBN 9782803102617.  €60.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Valentino Gasparini, Universität Erfurt (

During the First International Conference of Isiac Studies held in 1999 at Poitiers,1 Laurent Bricault lamented the absence of a corpus collecting jewelry and glyptic with Isiac iconography. Richard Veymiers faced this challenge in his dissertation done under the aegis of Michel Malaise, by gathering and analyzing the iconography of the Egyptian god Serapis on cameos, carvings, gems, jewels and seals of Greco-Roman period.

The results of this enterprise are extremely impressive:2 before this volume only 150 examples were known but now as many as 1218 objects have been collected and categorized into 74 different iconographical types. Most of them (75%) represent the bust or head of Serapis (which the author describes carefully, including clothes and attributes), while the enthroned or standing god is depicted less often. The latter is portrayed lying on a klinè only four times. Usually crowned by a kalathos (90% of the examples), an atef or a winged scarab, the god sometimes holds a scepter and is accompanied by Cerberus. Yet he is also represented with eagles, griffins, ibises, rams, scorpions or snakes, bearing a patera, a cornucopia, an ear of wheat or a thunderbolt, and surrounded by globes, zodiacs, planets or heavenly lights. When enthroned, he can be alone, or in an architectural context, on a boat, over a ram or inside a magic composition . If accompanied by other gods, he mostly shares the scene with Isis, is never paired with Anubis, and only two times with Harpocrates. In the triads, Serapis is usually accompanied by Victories, Dioscuroi or Isis and Demeter (or Harpocrates). The tetrad Serapis-Isis-Harpocrates-Anubis appears only in two examples. Other deities, such as Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis of Ephesus, Asclepius, Athena, Eros, Helios, Heracles, Hermes, Horus, Hygia, Jupiter Heliopolitanus, Nemesis, Selene, Thot, Tyche-Fortuna, and Zeus can figure at the god’s side. Seldom is Serapis accompanied by a Ptolemaic queen, the Emperor, or a member of the army. In several cases the iconography of the Egyptian god is enriched, overlapped or combined with those of other gods, such as Helios and Ammon, for example, or less often Zeus and Agathos Daimon. In 69 examples, this coexistence of images makes of Serapis a “pantheus” god. The use of these polysemic images stresses the different prerogatives of the god, depending on the context: sometimes his agrarian aspect is underlined instead of his maritime protection, whereas others highlight his role as healer rather than victorious, chthonic or kosmokrator god.

We have information concerning the provenance of the archaeological material (often a funerary context) only in the 20% of the cases, and about the place of production of these objects in far fewer: indeed, their small dimensions and hence their easy transportability facilitated their movement throughout the Roman Empire. The author suggests identifying the presence of some workshops producing magic gems in Egypt, mostly in Alexandria. The spread of this material seems to begin already in the Hellenistic period (at least in Egypt, the Near East, on Delos and in the Cimmerian Bosporus) and then accelerates in all the Roman Empire (except the Iberian Peninsula and only sporadically in North Africa west of Egypt). Some pieces even have been found in the Kushan territories.

The owners of the precious objects (usually men) sometimes have left their name carved on the gems, even inscribing acclamations in order to honor Serapis’ “megatheism” or to request his help. It is extremely difficult to identify correctly the use that these persons made of this material: although in the 5% of the cases we can conjecture a magic function, the meaning of these objects can range between an ornament or a seal, a travel souvenir or an identity mark, or more properly, an expression of religious devotion.

The nature of the materials worked to obtain these representations is diverse: often the artisans made use of terracotta (the seals), pâte de verre and metals, but usually precious or semi-precious stones were preferred, particularly agate, carnelian, jasper, onyx, sard, sardonyx and heliotrope, but also alabaster, amethyst, chalcedony, chrysoprase, emerald, garnet, hematite, jacinth, lapis lazuli, nicolo agate, obsidian, opal, rock crystal, sapphire, and steatite.

The rigor and the methodological scrupulousness that characterize the volume are absolutely astonishing: Richard Veymiers treats every detail with extreme care, managing with ease the huge mass of archaeological material, ancient literary sources, and inscriptions. Formal errors or omissions are so rare in the 608 pages of the volume (including the accurate catalogue, the rich bibliography, the useful indices, and the 105 excellent plates) that they can be considered almost nonexistent. The author finds a perfect balance between originality and prudence, simultaneously avoiding the risk of excessively skeptical positions while producing several new theories and reflections relating to wider themes of ancient iconography and history of religion. Perfectly conscious of the fact that the material he deals with does not necessarily reflect religious aspirations, he stresses the success of the iconography of Serapis, distinguishing it from the function of the objects and avoiding over-interpretations. The author carefully documents the polymorphism of Serapis and his interactions with the other deities by recognizing that these can be due to a functional similitude or integration between cults, cohabitation of different gods worshiped in a single town, combination of tutelary deities of different towns, or finally, the simple preference of artisans and clients. Defining the models which the artisans referred to in the creation of the gems, Veymiers prefers to reconstruct them carefully by a constant comparison with similar iconographic types on lamps, in coroplastic, and, in particular, on coins: the latter play a very relevant role since the iconographies created in numismatics were of easy accessibility and already designed for miniaturization. The success of numismatic types often created subsequent fashions in jewelry and glyptic. Both coinage and gems were sometimes directly inspired by statuary: in several cases they represent directly a cultic statue (on a base or between the columns of a temple). Yet only rarely are these reproductions faithful: in order to respond to the specific requests of the clients, artisans modified scenes, attributes, details and epiclesis with a certain freedom.

The complete mastery of this figurative repertoire has allowed the author to distinguish the ancient creations from the modern fakes: stones and engraving techniques have remained almost unchanged, and only a careful iconographic and stylistic examination (often difficult using only photographs) may allow the identification of the originals.

Finally, from a geographical point of view, the inclusion in the catalogue of the material coming from Egypt is not a trivial detail: although Egypt represents the starting point itself of the diffusion of the Isiac cults in the Greco-Roman period, only very recently has it begun to be involved in the studies dealing with this spread.3 In conclusion, I welcome with enthusiasm a volume that will act as a reference point for future iconographical studies, and not only for those ones dealing with Egyptian cults. At the same time, I sincerely wish that Richard Veymiers will continue updating the material concerning Serapis, as he has already done with 121 other pieces,4 and will widen his study to the other members of the so-called “gens isiaca.


1.   Laurent Bricault, Études isiaques: perspectives, in Laurent Bricault (ed.), De Memphis à Rome. Actes du Ier Colloque International sur les études isiaques (Poitiers – Futuroscope, 8-10 avril 1999), (“RGRW” CXL), Leiden 2000, p. 195.
2.   A preliminary account has been published in Richard Veymiers, Sérapis sur les gemmes et les bijoux antiques, in Corinne Bonnet, Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge, Danny Praet (edd.), Les religions orientales dans le monde grec et romain. Cent ans après Cumont (1906 - 2006). Bilan historique et historiographique (Colloque de Rome, 16-18 novembre 2006), Brussels 2009, pp. 187-214.
3.   See Laurent Bricault, Miguel John Versluys (edd.), Isis on the Nile. Egyptian Gods in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. Proceedings of the IVth International Conference of Isis Studies (Liège, 27-29 November 2008), (“RGRW” CLXXI), Leiden 2010.
4.   Richard Veymiers, Ἵλεως τῷ φοροῦντι. Sérapis sur les gemmes et les bijoux antiques. Supplément I, in Laurent Bricault, Richard Veymiers (edd.), Bibliotheca Isiaca II, Bordeaux 2011, in print.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2011
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 12:47:50, Monday, 20 June 2011