Hellenistic gems: other royal portraits

Real portraiture emerged for the first time in the Hellenistic period, usually of a ruler or his consort. The heads combined realistic features in a somewhat idealised manner, with royal and sometimes divine attributes. The royal portraits on coins ensured their value and authenticity, and the continuation of similar types over generations suggested stability to their subjects. Alexander's portrait served as a prototype, and engravers, for both coins and gems, emphasised family features.

Gem image

Florence, Museo Archeologico Etrusco (Plantzos 85) Tassie 9757, Amethyst 26x18mm, convex face.

A portrait of Mithridates Eupator Dionysos, who became king of Pontos in 120 BC. It is almost identical to the coin portraits issued in the first half of the first century BC and shows the ruler in the familiar heroic pose, with untamed hair falling down his neck and the royal diadem-bands flying. The attributes borrowed from Alexander's portraits promoted the image of youthful energy and certified his role as a successor.


Among the Hellenistic royal families only the Ptolemies in Egypt depicted a substantial number of their non-ruling queens on coins and gems, sometimes assimilated to a goddess. A general or family Ptolomaic portrait type seems recognizable in the features of many gems.

Gem image

Baltimore, Walters Art Gallery 42.1339 (Plantzos 30) Garnet, height 20, convex face.

This stone in Baltimore shows a female member of the Ptolemaic family, signed by the artist Nikandros. It shows Berenike II Euergetes wearing a chiton, himation, and a necklace.

Gem image

Oxford 282 (Fortnum FR. 36) Gold set in iron ring, 25x21mm, flat face

This ring shows another portrait, again probably of a Ptolomaic queen, showing her head in profile. The hair in horizontal plaits (the so-called 'melon-coiffure') is tied at the back in a chignon. The strong features, the striking nose, big eyes and the neck are well known family characteristics known from coins.