BMCR 2000.06.15

Hellenistic Engraved Gems. Oxford Monographs on Classical Archaeology

, Hellenistic Engraved Gems. Oxford Monographs on Classical Archaeology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. 144, pls. 96. $145.00.

This volume contains a thorough and well-illustrated catalog such as we have come to expect from the Oxford Monographs. The catalog per se is remarkably concise: 709 engraved gems covered in 14 pages of text, which is supplemented in the illustrative materials with select seal impressions, cameos, rings, Delian portraits, and, of course, coins. This is preceded by 112 pages of commentary and analysis of engraved gems, particularly intaglios, of the Hellenistic period, with a few line drawings interspersed in the text. The book is arranged in three parts: “The Evidence” (chapters 1-3), “Hellenistic Intaglios: Technique, Style, and Subject-Matter” (chapters 4-8), and “Engraved Gems in the Hellenistic World” (chapters 9-10). The need for a conclusion is obviated by Plantzos’ disclaimer at the end of his introduction: “The nature of our material does not allow us to presume that we have said the last word” (p. 3).

In his preface P. claims to have “… tried to identify and discuss the problems and reach whatever arrangement of the material might be useful for others,” which suggests that he has approached his work as a source book. He reinforces this opinion throughout the introduction with statements dismissing the usefulness of “manifestos on method or unnecessary polemics” with “… such a corpus of material that seems to defy rigorous and systematic analysis….” Finally he asserts that “bold and exciting interpretations … are better abandoned in favour of what seems to be the sensible approach” (p. 3). But what is his sensible approach? The working principles on which P. wrote his book are embedded in a small paragraph in the introduction (p. 2): (1) stylistic and iconographical analyses are useful for the purposes of classification but are of limited consequence in the field of Hellenistic art; (2) previous opinions should be evaluated with regard to the background from which they emerged; (3) comparanda must be understood in their own right before being used as a solution for a “glyptographic” problems; (4) such solutions must be evaluated with regard to the historical and social conditions of the Hellenistic period. With these principles P. cautions himself and his readers throughout the text. The closest he will come to a methodological statement is as follows: “In this book the work of earlier scholars is accepted as a working hypothesis, and more such hypotheses are offered, to be tested against the internal coherence of the material, external evidence from other media, and historical probability” (p. 2). What P. offers is thus neither an overarching analysis nor a new approach, but rather a highly informed and measured discussion of what is and is not evidenced by the glyptic material itself.

Part I, “The Evidence,” concerns the two main categories of corroborating evidence: ancient testimonia and contextual evidence. Ancient testimonia are divided into textual sources (misleadingly called “Scholarship and Literature”) in chapter 1 and epigraphic sources in chapter 2, while chapter 3 concerns “Seals and Seal Usage in Antiquity,” a topic which relies heavily on the ancient testimonia in chapters 1-2. P. interweaves sporadic mentions of gems in literary sources into parts II and III but in chapter 1 concentrates on the primary textual sources from antiquity: Theophrastos’ De Lapidibus and book 37 of Pliny’s Natural History. P. considers the purposes of these texts, contrasting Theophrastos’ “scientific” approach to Pliny’s “encyclopaedic” account that at least is aware of the work of magicians and alchemists with regard to gems. A deeper investigation of Pliny’s sources and the papyrological evidence for less “scholarly” interest in gems in antiquity might broaden our understanding of the gems as well as Hellenistic culture. Chapter 2 is restricted to temple inventories. Here P. similarly concentrates on two major sources — the series of inventories from the Parthenon and the sanctuaries at Delos — as well as the fragmentary accounts from Eleusis, Brauron, and the Asklepieion on the South Slope of the Akropolis. Regardless of the fact that these inventories provide more evidence for the late Classical period than for the Hellenistic (as P. admits), they give an Athenocentric bias that is ill-suited to a catalog of gems from the far-reaching Hellenistic realms. A discussion of the implications of these inventories in contrast to the lack of records from elsewhere in the Hellenistic world, in conjunction with the scanty archaeological evidence, would have done more to inform the reader of the actual historical context of the gems that fill the catalog. Chapter 3, “Seals and Seal Usage in Antiquity,” finally provides a much-needed synthesis of literary, archaeological, papyrological, and epigraphic evidence on a variety of topics. Its particular value lies in its inclusion of source material that is scattered through an otherwise intractable range of ancient texts, detailed scholarly articles, and excavation reports. P.’s discussion is not continuous, however, between the two subsections of this chapter, which might have instead supplemented the previous chapters to make the book more “user friendly.” The subsection on “The Literary Evidence,” for example, would have provided an excellent introduction to an enlarged version of chapter 1. The subsection on “Archives in the Hellenistic World” expands beyond the skewed Athenocentric perspective in chapter 2 and thus would have served better in that chapter. Or at least the reader would have been better prepared for chapters 1-2 if s/he had read chapter 3 first!

Part II treats the gems themselves. As with part I, while the content is generally solid the overall organization is bewildering. The iconographic chapters (5-7) are sandwiched between technical matters (chapter 4: “Shapes and Materials”) and “Stylistic Groups and Chronology” (chapter 8). Because shapes and materials are inextricably linked to the determination of groups and thus might serve as chronological indicators, chapters 4 and 8 would have served well in a united chapter.1 In chapter 4 P. thoroughly discusses trends in Hellenistic gems, their relation to earlier Greek gems, the particular break with Classical tendencies in the choice of materials, and the preponderance of glass intaglios (which constitute more than half of the catalog). Technique is also summarily discussed in chapter 4 although it is not included in the chapter title; as P. notes, techniques hardly changed from the Archaic period. With the exception of a section on Hellenistic cameos (which more properly belongs in chapter 4), chapter 8 in effect serves as an argument against using style and iconography for the purposes of chronology.

The iconographic section is artificially divided into three groups: “Royal Portraits” (chapter 5), “Gods and Humans” (chapter 6), and “Objects and Animals” (chapter 7). There is too much overlap between each of these groups for P.’s divisions to hold. Even the royal individuals portrayed saw themselves on the continuum between gods and humans, not as something apart. Personifications also exist on this continuum; P. has disappointingly dispensed with questions of their divine status. A more considered treatment of the nature of the figures represented would bring us closer to P.’s stated goal of appreciating the social and historical context of these gems. The benefit of isolating the royal portraits in their own chapter (chapter 5) emerges only in the inclusion here of useful but belated historical information such as an outline of Hellenistic history and a discussion of the craftsmen employed, as well as an excursus on the Ptolemaic ruler cult and the concept of royal patronage. In contrast to the solid historical treatment, however, P. seems to have restricted his iconographic analysis. He begins the chapter, for example, with an assertion that portraiture was a Hellenistic invention.2 This highly contentious point is unsubstantiated by discussion or even citation of scholarly opinions/works.

It is in chapter 6, “Gods and Humans” that P.’s chronological classification of Hellenistic intaglios emerges. He follows Richter’s general categories,3 dividing the gems treated in this chapter into “The Main Hellenistic Phase” (by which he seems to mean trends and styles originating in the third century B.C.), “Second-century Trends,” and “Graeco-Roman.” Under these headings come a variety of subsections that cover an unbalanced assortment of iconographic types or groups as well as broader questions. Within “The Main Hellenistic Phase,” for example, we find iconographic subsections such as “Standing Figures,” “Gelon and the Armed Aphrodite,” and “Heads and Busts” intermingled with more wide-ranging subsections on “The Influence of Monumental Art” and “Gems For The Masses.” Just as the Ptolemies dominated half of chapter 5 they crop up unsurprisingly in several subsections of “Second-century Trends”: “Tyche,” “A Class of Late Hellenistic Intaglios,” and “Late Ptolemaic Busts.” A unified discussion of the overlap between these subjects, not to mention the iconographic connections between these and earlier types (especially in the case of Sarapis) would have provided a more useful investigation of these types. The brevity of the iconographic comments does not enliven or encourage scholarly investigation. P. again shows his surprisingly Athenocentric bias by introducing Tyche as “a goddess conceived only in the fourth century BC…” without discussing or even citing the works that have delved into sources indicating her worship before that time.4 P.’s sober treatment of the “Graeco-Roman” material is perhaps the most thought provoking section because of issues of craftsmen and converging styles that P. interweaves with his bewildering array of iconographic subjects (a fourth level of subtitles is finally reached in the category of “Maenad Busts”). This is one of the longest sections of the book and certainly the most thoroughly worked, with many recent bibliographic citations and discussions of scholarly controversies. The third iconographic chapter, a mere two pages on “Objects and Animals” (chapter 7) is disappointingly brief in contrast.

Part III returns to the (contextual) issues of cost, value, and ownership. These chapters on “Cost and Value of Engraved Gems in Antiquity” and “Engraved Gems and their Owners”, which would have worked well as part of an expanded chapter 3, give particular attention to literary sources and emphasize P.’s strength as a cultural historian.

It remains unclear for whom this book was written. The wealth of background and contextual information is clearly included for a scholarly audience — historians and art historians who do not study gems per se. The superficiality of the iconographic sections, however, lessens the book’s appeal for specialized gem scholars as well as the wider scholarly audience. The author’s vision of his work as a source book would explain why the text is sharply broken up into subsections without much in the way of introductory explanations or conclusions. But the titles given to each of these subsections are misleading and at times give the impression that some topics are being overlooked. As a result one has the burden of a sourcebook, i.e., lack of synthesis, without the benefit of easy reference. P. must be congratulated, however, in bringing a large number of gems to the fore, along with a useful collection of related materials.


1. For an excellent example of the use of shapes and materials in isolating a unified group of gems, see J. Spier, “A Group of Ptolemaic Engraved Garnets,” JWalt 47 (1991) 91-96

2. While the determination of “who” invented portraiture depends on one’s definition of portraiture, it is variously attributed to the Egyptians, Classical Greeks, and Etruscans, as well as the Hellenistic Greeks. Tobias Fischer-Hansen, John Lund, Marjatta Nielsen, and Annette Rathje eds., Ancient portraiture: Image and Message (Danish studies in classical archaeology. Acta Hyperborea 4) (Copenhagen 1992) considers ancient portraits in a wide range of cultural contexts.

3. Gisela M.A. Richter, Engraved Gems of the Greeks and Etruscans (New York 1968) 133.

4. Susan B. Matheson summarizes these sources in “The Goddess Tyche” in An Obsession with Fortune. Tyche in Greek and Roman Art. Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin 1994, 20-21.