The slightly convex oval stone is engraved with a profile draped portrait bust of the Empress Sabina. She has delicate features, and her long hair is braided and coiled into an elaborate turban. The stone is mounted as a ring in a late 18th-early 19th century gold setting, with gold filling chips in two places. Vivia Sabina, born circa 86 A.D, was the daughter of Matidia, the niece of the Emperor Trajan, and her husband, the senator L. Vibius Sabinus. Shortly after Trajan’s ascension to the throne, it was arranged that 14 year old Sabina would marry Hadrian. When Hadrian succeeded Trajan in 117 A.D., she became empress. Hardly anything is known about Sabina’s life in the following years, but it is documented that she travelled with her husband. The Historia Augusta informs that she was with him in Britain in 122 A.D. That she was in Egypt in 130 A.D. is confirmed by poems inscribed on one of the colossal statues of Memnon (from the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III) by her lady-in-waiting, Julia Balbilla. The damaged statue was famous in antiquity for emitting sounds; the graffiti states that “Sabina Augusta, wife of the Imperator Caesar Hadrian, during the first hour heard Memnon twice.” Later writers described her as harsh and irritable, and that she boasted of taking precautions to remain childless. Despite the gossipy nature of later writers, she was regularly honored by Hadrian, who granted her the title of Augusta around 119 A.D. She was commemorated regularly on coins, where the inscriptions praise her for her piety, modesty, and marital harmony. Statues of her were erected throughout the Empire, usually in tandem with those of Hadrian, where she was sometimes depicted in the guise of a goddess. She had at least four portrait types distinguished by the hair style, ranging from conservative to elaborate, as seen on the present example, where her hair is coiled into a turban of a type popularized by her mother Matidia. The hair style of the gem portrait is exactly matched on coins minted circa 128 A.D. (see pp. 200-205 in T. Opper, Hadrian, Empire and Conflict). She was deified by Hadrian following her death circa 136 or 137 A.D. The gem has an illustrious history, having been published already in 1750 by A.F. Gori when it was in the collection of the Venitian Count Antonio Maria Zanetti. After its acquisition, together with the portrait of Antinous, by George Spencer, the 4th Duke of Marlborough, he expressed his delight in an early manuscript catalog, where he wrote: “Intaglio stupendo veramente e bellissimo” (truly stupendous and most beautiful) (see Seidmann, op. cit.). The gem was admirably copied by the engraver Edward Burch, which is now in the Walters Art Museum.
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