2nd century bc

Greco-Roman Gold Earrings with Garnet African Heads, 2nd Century BC-1st Century AD

The jewelry of the Hellenistic and early Roman periods is among the finest of the ancient world, unsurpassed in richness of subject matter and composition, luxurious media and exquisite attention to detail.

This type of African head pendant originates from Greece, from the third to second century BC. Images of Ethiopians and Nubians were popular in Egyptian art but were relatively rare in the Mediterranean world until the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in the late fourth century BC suddenly exposed the Greeks to the peoples of the African continent. As part of this new and intriguing Nilotic landscape, images of Africans evoked the distant and exotic cultures at the edge of the known world. The popularity of Nilotic themes coupled with a Greek tradition in jewelry of elaborate figural pendants (for example, beads, acorns, vessels, and female heads) led to the depiction of Nubians and Ethiopians as part of the popular repertory of wearable art. Initially, heads were fashioned wholly in gold, but by the late third and early second century, semi-precious stones were incorporated into the composition, as here. Materials rich and warm in color, such as carnelian, sardonyx, amber, and garnet, were all transformed into African figures, not only rendering each piece more elaborate, but also imbuing them with a striking liveliness and depth of character.

The use of gemstones set into gold jewelry remained a popular practice in the early Roman period; precious stones were said to have held magical properties and were considered markers of high social status. Pendants and earrings in the form of African heads seem to have been particularly popular in Italy, with examples known from Bari and Ruvo.

A pair of gold earrings with the head of an African in garnet is in the collection of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (inv. no. 57.1562-3, circa third century BC), and a similar pair from Cyme, Turkey, is in the British Museum, London (inv. no. 1877,0910.28, circa fourth to third century BC). However, these examples are earlier, and lack the clarity of form and sharpness of carving evident in the present pair.

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Rare Celtic “Rainbow Cup” Gold Stater, 2nd-1st Century BC

What appears to be a cup on the reverse of this coin is actually an upside down torc, often worn by wealthy Celts. Inside the torc are 6 pellets whose meaning is not well known. Additionally, the symbolism of the obverse side can only be guessed at due to its abstract nature. Other designs on similar coins include stars, crosses, birds’ heads, wreaths and coiled serpents or dragons.

These types of coins got the name “Rainbow Cups” from Medieval monks who believed they appeared on the ground at the spot where the end of a rainbow touched the earth, as they were often found after a heavy rainfall had washed away the topsoil. They have been found in Western Europe from France to Germany.

Greek Gold and Garnet Bracelet, Hellenistic, 2nd Century BC

The most distinctive feature of this bracelet or armlet is the treatment of the outer surfaces of the hoops. Decorative elements are covered with a delicate network of filigree created by placing parallel rows of wire in a zigzag pattern and dotting the points of contact with granules. This unusual decoration is best paralleled in a few exceptional works from Thessaly. It is a rare forerunner of a popular kind of Roman bracelet featuring twisted hoops and hinged box settings decorated with gemstones.

Marble portrait of Alexander The Great

Youthful image of the conqueror king

Hellenistic Greek, 2nd-1st century BC, Said to be from Alexandria, Egypt

Literary sources tell us, though perhaps not reliably, that Alexander (reigned 336-323 BC) chose only a few artists to produce his image, and famous names such as the sculptor Lysippos and the painter Apelles were associated with his portraiture. Though none of the famous images have been recovered, many sculptures in different materials, as well as portraits on gemstones and coins, survive. These were mostly produced long after Alexander’s death and while the portraits follow similar general characteristics, they also vary in style.

Alexander was always shown clean-shaven, which was an innovation: all previous portraits of Greek statesmen or rulers had beards. This royal fashion lasted for almost five hundred years and almost all of the Hellenistic kings and Roman emperors until Hadrian were portrayed beardless. Alexander was the first king to wear the all-important royal diadem, a band of cloth tied around the hair that was to become the symbol of Hellenistic kingship.

Earlier portraits of Alexander, in heroic style, look more mature than the portraits made after his death, such as this example. These show a more youthful, though perhaps more god-like character. He has longer hair, a more dynamic tilt of the head and an upward gaze, resembling his description in literary sources.

This head was acquired in Alexandria, the city founded by Alexander in 331 BC, and the location of his tomb. Alexandria was also the capital of the longest surviving Hellenistic dynasty, the Ptolemies. From the time of the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (‘Saviour’) (305-282 BC), Alexander was worshipped as a god and the forefather of the dynasty.

Source: British Museum

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The Winged Victory of Samothrace, also called the Nike of Samothrace, is a 2nd-century BC marble sculpture of the Greek goddess Nike (Victory). Since 1884, it has been prominently displayed at the Louvre and is one of the most celebrated sculptures in the world. H.W. Janson described it as “the greatest masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture.

The sculptor is thought to be Pythokritos of Rhodes.