Roman, Late Republican or Imperial
Carnelian; 1/2 x 3/8 x 1/8 in. (1.3 x 0.9 x 0.4 cm)
Gift of John Taylor Johnston, 1881 (81.6.102)
This carnelian intaglio shows a winged Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, holding forth a triumphal wreath and a palm in her left hand. The figure is riding on a chariot pulled by two snakes. The imagery of chariots drawn by serpents was not uncommon in antiquity; numerous heroes, gods, and goddesses were depicted on ancient sarcophagi riding in similar carts. Most often, however, the chariot drawn by serpents was associated in antiquity with Ceres (goddess of agriculture, crops, and fertility) or with the demi-god Triptolemus, to whom Ceres entrusted her chariot.
The association of Nike with the chariot pulled by snakes occurs rarely in ancient art and its meaning is difficult to interpret. The nineteenth-century scholar and gem collector Charles William King (1818–1888), who once owned this gem, suggested that the unusual iconography might allude to the recovery of Africa (the granary of Rome) by the Romans after the revolt of the legatus Clodius Macer in the first century A.D.