The “Behague” Roman Cameo Horse

Roman · 1st century B.C. – 1st century A.D.




W: 5.8 cm

H: 4.5 cm





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This exquisitely preserved fragment of a cameo cup shows the hand of a master at work. It exhibits all of the skills necessary for hard-stone carving, and the precision of details and execution is accentuated by the stone’s natural beauty. A mottled pattern is formed by irregular layers of milky white and brown, which is enhanced by the stone’s transparency. The entire surface is perfectly smoothed by polishing and demonstrates the great care taken in its finishing by a highly skilled artist. The spirited head of a bridled horse is depicted in profile with details clearly delineated; a quiver for arrows is visible at the upper right. Realistic modeling of the animal’s musculature – the open mouth with veins indicated between flared nostrils and a wide and prominent eye – and also an attention to detail for the hair of the mane and forelocks, all contribute an aura that conveys the spirited, life-like animation of this galloping equine figure.

Workshops in Antioch, especially in Alexandria, likely produced many vessels made of semi-precious or rare stone during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Egypt did not have its own resources of onyx; therefore, the raw material was transported primarily from India. At the time of Augustus, many stone carving workshops settled in Rome, where they met a growing number of important commissions. Stone vessels of various shapes were highly valued by the ruling aristocracy. Jugs and ladles could be used to make libations during religious rituals, and drinking vessels, such as cups, bowls, goblets, skyphoi, and kantharoi, formed part of prestigious table services and served as diplomatic gifts. The literary record relates that when the Romans secured 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 of onyx welded with gold. Cleopatra impressed Anthony and his officers by arranging a royal banquet in his honor, “in which the service was entirely of gold and jeweled vessels made with exquisite art” (Athenaeus, Deipnosophists IV 147f). Originally, this small but important fragment of an onyx cup surely could have been part of a similarly beautiful vessel.

Horses were an essential part of life in antiquity. They played an active role in warfare and transportation as well as in athletic contests and games, which were a distinctive aspect of ancient Greek and Roman society. Greek and Roman art and literature demonstrate the widespread use of horses for racing and hunting. Considered prestigious pleasure vehicles, horses were used by both the Greeks and Romans for riding, while mules did the heavy work of plowing fields and pulling carts. The horse has also long been a symbol of social rank and wealth in Mediterranean lands and beyond. Among the diverse cultures of these regions, social status was determined largely by an individual’s ability to own and maintain horses. Throughout history, social rank has often been defined in terms of those capabilities: the hippeis (cavalry) in Greece, the equites in Rome, or the chevaliers and knights of Medieval Europe. Aristocratic associations with such a highly prized animal were reflected in rare and luxurious objects produced for domestic use, as evidenced by this image of a horse head from a cameo cup.


Onyx is a banded form of the mineral chalcedony. Its colored bands range from white to almost every color; specimens commonly have bands of black and/or white. Both Onyx and agate are varieties of layered chalcedony as they differ only in the form of their bands, onyx having parallel bands and agate with curved bands.


The horse’s head, along with the openwork harness in excellent condition, no restorations or repairs, the edge of the fragment is chipped.


Art market, prior to 1867;

Ex- Nolivos collection, Paris, 1867: The Nolivos collection was assembled by this French collector whose art objects were auctioned in 1867 at a Hotel Drouot sale in Paris. One of his most important objects is now in the collection of the Louvre;

Ex- Julien Gréau (1810–1895) collection, Paris;

Ex- Comtesse de Behague Collection, Paris, after 1869 until 1939;

Sotheby’s, Monaco, 3 December 1987, lot 139;

UK art market;

US private collection was acquired in 2001.


FROEHNER W., La Collection de la comtesse R. de Béarn, Quatrieme Cahier, Paris, 1912, p. 81, pl. 20, no. 4;

Sotheby’s, Monaco, 3 December 1987, lot 139.


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

BÜHLER H., Antike Gefässe aus Edelsteinen , Mainz, 1973.

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

GASPARRI C., Vasi antichi in pietra dura a Firenze e a Roma, in Prospettiva 19, 1979, pp. 4-13.

FONTANELLA E., Luxus: il piacre della vita nella Roma imperiale, Rome, 2009, p. 482.

PARLASCA K., Neue Beobachtungen zu den hellenistischen Achatgefässen aus Ägypten, in The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 13, 1985, pp. 19-22.

TOYNBEE J., Animals in Roman Life and Art, South Yorkshire, 2013, pp. 167-185.