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Roman agate handle with a dog head terminal

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: Roman
: 1st Century A.D. - 2nd Century A.D.
: Agate
: Length: 10.40 cm

“Hardstones from the Ancient World”, Robin Symes, 6th – 16th December 2000, lot 33. Old British collection, London, 1990’s.


Entirely preserved, some dirt inside the incision lines.


The semi-translucency and the contrasting combination of colors (bluish-white, milky white, yellow and brown, green and grey) make this stone piece highly attractive. The unusual design brings together the figurative representation and the abstract geometric form. The head of the Malossian dog shapes the tip of the handle while the diagonal grooves constitute its body; the ridges which look like the dog’s collar unite both parts. Characteristic is the narrow muzzle of the dog which perfectly suits the long shape of the piece. The incised lines mark the dog’s mane and the details of anatomy (eyes, nostrils, mouth). The entire surface is perfectly smoothed by polishing that demonstrates the high skill of the craftsman.


In can be suggested that the piece was a handle of a knife or a spoon; another opportunity would be that the piece was attached to a patera, a shallow libation bowl with the straight handle. Vessels of various shapes made from semi-precious stones, gold, and silver were highly appreciated by the members of the ruling houses, priests and the wealthy international clientele in the Hellenistic and Roman period. Specific jugs, bowls and ladles were used during religious ceremonies to make libations. Drinking vessels with or without handles such as cups, bowls, goblets, skyphoi, kantharoi made up part of the most prestigious table services and often served as diplomatic gifts. Historians left records of such sumptuous possessions: when the Romans took the treasury of Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus, in the city of Talauri in 65 B.C. (Appian, Mithridatic Wars XII 115), they found 2,000 drinking-cups made of onyx welded with gold; Cleopatra impressed Antonius and his officers, arranging a royal banquet in his honour, “in which the service was entirely of gold and jewelled vessels made with exquisite art” (Athenaeus Deipnosophists IV 147f). At the time of Augustus the stone workshops had settled in Rome, where they met the growing number of important commissions. Some of the surviving agate vessels have handles of simple profile, the completely preserved animal-form handles are rare. Such objects are greatly admired for their beauty and the sophisticated modeling.


In the Mediterranean world agate was popular since the Minoan period. Theophrastus (On Stones V 31) mentions that the name of the stone is derived from the river Achates in Sicily where it was first found, and that it is sold at a high price. Pliny (Natural History 37.54) reports on its many varieties and their markings found in different locations, at this time moss agate was known among the agates brought from India. Pliny also states that agate was highly valued in older times but was cheap during his time. This probably should not be taken for granted as Seneca, his contemporary, includes the gemstone cups in the “trophies of Luxury” and complains about the wealthy Romans’ excessive extravagance in their use (On Benefits VII 9).



BALL S. H., A Roman Book on Precious Stones, Los Angeles, 1950.

BÜHLER H.-P., Antike Gefässe aus Edelsteinen, Mainz am Rhein, 1973.

GASPARRI C., A proposito di un recente studio sui vasi antichi in pietra dura in Archeologia Classica 27, 1975, pp. 350-377.

KOZZLOFF A. P., ed., Animals in Ancient World from the Leo Mildenberg Collection, Cleveland, 1981, p. 192, no. 179.

PADGETT J. M., A Chalcedony Statuette of Herakles in Record of The Art Museum Princeton University 54, 1, 1995, p. 5-6, n. 30 and 37.

SLAVAZZI F., Vasi in pietra dura nell’etá ellenistico-romana in ZANETTIN B., ed., Cristalli e gemme: realtá fisica e immaginario, simbologia, techniche e arte, Venezia, 2003, pp. 437-458.

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