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Writing Gems: Ekphrastic Description and Precious Stones in Hellenistic Epigrams and Later Greek Prose


This study investigates how inscribed gems and precious stones serve as a particularly useful model for discussing a variety of concerns of the Hellenistic world. These widely circulated objects, typically made from valuable materials and ranging in type from uncarved gems to decorative cameos and seal stones, were anything but inert objects. Rather, as I argue, precious stones were not only treasured for their economic value, but were also charged with social, political, and cultural significance. Such stones functioned as more than ornamentation, frequently serving as markers of personal authority and social identity, thus possessing significant semiotic power despite their typically small size. Due to their highly symbolic and multifaceted nature, gemstones seem to have deeply engraved themselves upon the literary imagination of a number of writers of Greek poetry and prose from the third century B.C.E. to the third century C.E. who wrote detailed descriptions of such stones. Although the art of gem carving had been well established by the Hellenistic period, literary treatment of precious stones is rather limited up to that point. It is only after the eastward expansion of Alexander the Great and an influx of new materials and gems types, that a select number of Greek epigrammatists began to engage with the themes of the production of gemstones and their materials in response to an increasingly available category of luxury goods and perhaps also as a self-conscious nod to the genre's own lithic origins. Through their ekphrastic descriptions of gemstones, therefore, Hellenistic epigrammatists initiated a literary discourse on precious stones, whose influence would extend not only across temporal, spatial, and generic boundaries, but well beyond the classical world.

In the first half of my dissertation, I probe the metapoetic significance of the relationship between ekphrastic epigrams and Greco-Roman gemstones by focusing on the production and

materials of gemstones. My second chapter argues that a close link exists between the poems and the objects described and concludes that the minute attention to detail displayed by the glyptic artist becomes simultaneously a source of delight and wonder as well as a metapoetic device for the exacting art of ekphrastic poetry. In the third chapter, I discuss the manner in which later Greek authors, much like glyptic artists, drew upon technological and intellectual knowledge of precious stones, their properties and symbolic values in order to explore issues of adaptation, authority and originality in literary texts. I contend that engraved seal stones and their impressions can be seen as a metaphor for later prose adaptations of the poetic discourse and conclude that such imitations ought not to be viewed as imprecise copies of an original, but rather as adaptations whose mimetic qualities allow for creative originality.

In the second half of my dissertation, I analyze the social and literary implications of the ekphrastic description of gems. The fourth chapter treats one of the most pervasive forms of magic in antiquity: magic stones and amulets. I show how the literary descriptions of magical stones are noteworthy, not only for their representations of the magical stones themselves, but also for the way in which they imitate magical practices through the careful combination of the written with the visual. The fifth chapter explores the social reception of gems and their

ability to illuminate ancient ideas about gender. Although precious stones were used by both men and women, their use was largely divided along gender lines. Both sexes utilized precious stones, however, in their literary treatment during the Hellenistic and Imperial periods gems are predominately associated with women. By means of a detailed study of the gendered treatment of gems in ekphrastic texts, I argue that women become assimilated with precious stones and on

account of the gendered conceptualization of stones in literary texts, women become eroticized, objectified and commodified in a manner similar to gemstones by means of this association. The final chapter traces Greek authors' utilization of precious stones as a means of treating identity and character and suggests that gems become metonymic representations. In these instances, visual impact becomes not an end goal for ekphrasis, but rather a means for exploring the didactic nature of stones' properties and of the images graven upon them. Through the examination of portraits carved on gemstones, a connection may be forged between an ekphrastic character sketch and the representation of types found on inscribed gemstones.

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