Date of Award


Document Type

Thesis - Open Access

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Fine and Decorative Art and Design

First Advisor

Ann-Marie Richard


The Grand Cameo for France is the largest cameo surviving from antiquity. Scholars have debated who is portrayed on the stone and what its scene means for centuries, often, although not always, limiting their interpretations to this narrow area and typically only discussing other causes in passing. This pattern can and should be broken, allowing the stone to be what all objects truly are: windows to the lives that that objects have lived, just as all physical things are; evidence of an experience part of the world went though, whose meanings have and continue to be part of a wider network of object-meanings. The underlying purpose of this thesis is to use the Grand Cameo to prove this point. It does so by asking why the Grand Cameo came into being using Aristotle’s four-part fragmented “Why” to widen this meaning broadly enough to expand the scope of what cause means from the vernacular use of the term to include material, formal, efficient and final causes. This allows for a sufficiently satisfactory exploration of many elements of the ancient world.

This thesis comprises an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. The first chapter discusses the material sardonyx itself, its possible origin points and how it would have been seen and used in its time in both the India and the west. It discusses the development of trade routes through the Indian ocean and Hellenistic and Egyptian ties to the east which were later taken over by Rome, as well as the Ptolemies, who they replaced. The second chapter discusses the relationship between Rome and Egypt, how their imagery and materials were usurped, and how this connects to the cameo, a medium that became Roman. Chapter three discusses Rome’s absorption and reuse of Hellenistic kingdoms, their people and their culture to see how these influenced images of Roman Rulers in the transition from the Republic to the Julio Claudians. The fourth chapter details the nature of Julio-Claudian power in Rome, the roles the family took over, and how they made themselves essential to the state, especially in how this relates to imagery from the Grand Cameo. Finally, the fifth chapter allows for the exploration of final cause by using a process of elimination based on living number of family members to establish a coherent narrative for the stone’s scene, allowing an interpretation of message and intent. It seems most likely to be justifying the handing over of power to Emperor Claudius as intended by the heavens regardless of the plans of his relatives.

A roughly chronological understanding of this stone’s role from being plucked from the ground to the imperial court is presented by assessing available material. The expansive nature of the question “Why?” allows for an explanation of the stone both broader and more satisfactory than the intentions of one emperor alone, however interesting. The Grand Cameo intersects with the highly international and interactive dynamics of the ancient world as well as specific elements therein which earlier interpretations do not allow for room to explore.