A Roman Eye Agate Intaglio Ring, Roman Imperial Period, ca. 3rd century CE
This fine signet ring features a solid hoop of high carat gold, with a D-shaped hoop, broad sloping shoulders and a round, high bezel. The bezel is set with an outstanding cone-shaped eye agate displaying three strata layers of color within the gem – semi transparent red at the bottom, white in the middle, and the frequently used red at the top and the tiny top surface is skillfully engraved. Eye agates were highly prized in Roman society for it was believed they held magical properties. It was thought eye agates would assist in finding hidden treasures, increase happiness, build confidence and bring victory.
For a related example see: Marshall, FH; Catalogue of the Finger Rings Greek, Etruscan & Roman in the Department of Antiquities, British Museum (London, 1907) pl.12, no. 525.
Background: The Signet, or Seal Ring, was significant in Roman society, as it was used in validating serious legal documents by its owner. Intaglios, and engraved or intaglio-cut gems could serve as seals, even while appearing decorative. Cicero mentions them, and Pliny cites that the fashion of wearing signet rings eventually shifted to the little finger although statues show that Roman men often wore rings on the fourth finger of their left hand, which, in time, came to be known as the 'goldfinger'. A signet ring was highly representative of the individual who wore it. It was, in effect, their signature.
During the first two centuries AD, rings operate within a complex nexus of ideas of power, image, status and gender. According to Pliny, the first-ever ring (anulus) and jewel (gemma) were forged from a fragment of the Caucasus into an iron bezel and worn by Prometheus (37.2), the Titan god of forethought and creator or mankind. Pliny explains the chronology of Roman ring-wearing began in the Republic, with the earliest made of iron, the gold ring being specially reserved for certain classes of persons or for certain special occasions. Thus envoys sent on missions of state wore gold rings when engaged on that particular service, but resumed their iron rings upon their return home. From the time of Augustus, gold rings were used to signify public status and recognition, especially for the equites, who became a third-order between the Senate and the Plebs (33.29).
Bibliography: Hawley, R. (2007). Lords of the Rings: ring-wearing, status and identity in the page of Pliny the Elder. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. Supplement, (100), 103-111.
A. N. Sherwin-White (ed.), The Letters of Pliny (Oxford 1966)
Condition: Some very minor around the bezel shoulder that does not detract, otherwise intact and in excellent condition overall.
Dimensions: US ring size 6 3/4 (UK=N 1/2)
Provenance: Private British collection assembled prior to 2000, thereafter with the London trade.
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