Felix Gem

c. AD 1-40

Gallery 35, Rome


The Maker and its Patron

The Felix Gem is named after its artist, who signed the altar in Greek “Felix epoiese”- “Felix made (this)”. Above the head of Diomedes is the name of the Roman owner Calpurnius Severus, also inscribed in Greek by the same hand. We may, then, suppose that the gem was especially commissioned by or for Calpurnius Severus, a contemporary of the artist. Severus is unknown from other sources, but Felix may be a gemcutter listed in an inscription found on the Via Sacra in the centre of Rome, and the author of other signed works, including a portrait of Drusus, son of Augustus’s stepson and successor Tiberius (AD14-37). It is likely, then, that Calpurnius Severus was a prominent Roman of the early years of the first century AD who was familiar with Virgil’s Aeneid.

How was the Felix Gem used?

The gem embodies a moral message: sacrilegious behaviour provokes the wrath of the gods. In this way, the gem may well have served as an image for private contemplation, rather like more recent religious images, themselves like the gem linked to a familiar text. We might then picture Calpurnius Severus listening to a reading of Virgil Book II while meditating upon the fatal twists and turns of war, the loss of innocent life in conflict and the resulting displeasure of the gods. The gem then becomes the pagan equivalent of a religious devotional image in which the viewer is invited to contemplate, say the suffering of a martyr or the eventual triumph of goodness over adversity. Of course in religious art too the image is tied to a text familiar to the viewer- the Bible, the Koran or the Talmud, for example, just as the gem is tied to the Aeneid.