One of the minor arts in which Roman craftsman excelled.


Carved signet rings were widely employed to authenticate legal documents.

Signet ring

Red jasper sealstone ring depicting a chariot race in the Circus Maximus, second or third century AD. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

The wearing of a ring to denote office or status was an old custom. In the later empire, free-born men wore gold rings, freedmen silver, and slaves iron.


Portrait of Domitia, wife of emperor Domitian, engraved on a gemstone. The head is 10mm high. (From Sir John Edwin Sandys (ed.), A Companion to Latin Studies, Cambridge University Press 1913)

The Romans brought the art of gem engraving to a high level. Portraits and other designs were cut either in intaglio, by incising the surface of the stone, or cameo, where the figure is made to stand out by carving away the background, a method which can be doubly effective if the stone has layers of different colours, as has onyx or sardonyx.

Sardonyx cameo

First-century AD sardonyx cameo depicting a seated poet, a woman, and a man playing the double flute. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Believe it or not:

Gem stones were originally regarded as having magical significance, and they were carved to enhance these powers. The practice began in Babylonia and Egypt.

The Romans collected objets d'art as expressions of their wealth. It is said that Pompey started the craze for gem stones when he displayed in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill the collection of Mithridates which he had captured.