From Transport to Politics
The Ship Gemstone from Slovenska Cesta in Ljubljana
In November 2015 the archaeological excavations of Slovenska cesta, on the site of Insula XIII in ancient Emona, yielded an iron ring set with a gem. The gem features a war galley with clearly visible oars, stem, stern and battering ram (rostrum). Above the ship are two signa militaria, military standards used by centuries. The shape of the ring suggests the 1st century AD, while the style of the gem points to the 1st or 2nd century. The gem is made of nicolo, a type of chalcedony.
Gemstone rings were used to seal documents, the image mirroring the taste and identity of the owner. Although depictions of ships are rare, some analogies were found, the closest being a gem preserved at London’s British Museum. The model for the motif was sought on coins, where depictions of ships and/or military standards were common in the Roman period. The dating of the ring narrowed the search down to coins from the Late Republic and the Principate. The closest counterpart was a series of Mark Antony’s coins, extensively minted in 32–31 BC before the naval battle at Actium. The obverse of these denarii displays a galley with an inscription referring to Antony’s rank as augur and triumvir. The inscriptions on the reverse name various military units and are accompanied by three military standards: two century standards, just like the Emona gem, and the eagle (aquila), a legion’s standard. The craftsman of the Emona gem presumably modelled his motif on these coins or on a similar series.
Our image stands out because naval motifs are surprisingly rare in Roman statuary, particularly considering the significance of civil and military sea transport for the Roman state. This choice may be attributed to the owner’s military past or his pride in belonging to the victorious Roman state.
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