Hellenistic gems: introduction

The Hellenistic period (the late fourth to first centuries BC) commences with Alexander the Great and ends at the transition to full Roman control of the Mediterranean world. It saw the rise and fall of powerful Greek empires and the complexity of historical events is mirrored in the diversity of the art produced. The arts of the gem engraver develop from the Classical in several significant ways, all of which also inform the development of the craft in Roman Italy, and there is no abrupt transition to the styles of the Roman period. Internal evidence for dating and classification is scant and changes in style difficult to pinpoint. As a result the distinction between 'Greek' and 'Roman' is often unclear, if not meaningless.

11 drawings of ring shapes
  • Hellenistic ring shapes (generally gold). Plantzos Fig. II.

Alexander's conquests opened trade routes from the east, and a greater variety of precious stones, from India and Ceylon, became available for gem engraving. They included the more colourful quartzes (amethyst, sard, onyx, and agate), and the silicates, the garnet group, peridot, and beryl. The chalcedonies common in previous periods remained popular, in particular the bright red cornelians. Another material enjoying a new popularity in this period is glass, often coloured to imitate stones.

Some of the latest classical scaraboids had the intaglio cut on their convex backs. This use of the curved surface, and a preference now for making ringstones rather than larger gems for setting in mounts (and so pierced) typify the Hellenistic. The most distinctive shape is the long oval ringstone, met occasionally in the earlier period but now considerably larger. The shape lends itself to the depiction of slender standing figures. Other shapes are oval or circular, mostly with flat backs, but also with concave or convex. The numerous head and portrait studies seen on the circular gems probably indicate a strong influence from contemporary coinage.

Abbreviations in this section:


Antike Gemmen in deutschen Sammlungen.


J. Boardman, Greek Gems and Finger Rings: Early Bronze Age to Late Classical (1970).


J. Boardman, Engraved Gems: the Ionides Collection (1968).


J. Boardman and M. L. Vollenweider, Catalogue of the Engraved Gems and Finger Rings in the Ashmolean Museum, vol. 1, Greek and Etruscan (1978).


D. Plantzos, Hellenistic Engraved Gems (1999).


P. Zazoff, Die antiken Gemmen (1983).

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