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Gem: Donkey playing the lyre

Key data

Roman empire, 1st century BC

Translucent orange cornelian

oval, height 13.6 mm, width 11.9mm

Inv. 1987.252.


It has only recently been possible to identify and interpret the gem illustrated here; the image on it, deeply cut in intaglio (the opposite of cameo), shows a left facing donkey reared on his hind legs (dancing?). He is involved in a human activity, and despite his lack of musicality is playing an instrument, the lyre; a lion's skin is draped round him and he is trying to pass for a lion. However, his braying voice gives him away, he is unmasked and punished. This is a mixture of elements from various stories. Proverb and fable have been given an individual pictorial expression in the glyptic medium. The gem gives some indication of Roman humour. The donkey was regarded as stupid and was therefore frequently made fun of.

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