This double portrait shows the Roman emperor Trajan and his wife Plotina. The cameo is carved from a three-layered sardonyx, a type of precious stone.
Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Traianus, about AD 53–117), was a native of Italica in south-west Spain. His father had risen to prominence as a military commander and politician under the emperor Vespasian (AD 69–79). Trajan followed him into a successful military career and was adopted by the elderly, childless emperor Nerva. He became ruler in AD 98 and under him, the empire reached its greatest extent.
Trajan and Plotina did not have any children. In AD 85 Trajan became guardian of the future emperor Hadrian, son of his cousin. There are indications that Trajan may have groomed Hadrian as his potential heir. He guided Hadrian’s career and agreed to a marriage with his great-niece, Sabina. But Hadrian was never confirmed with the title of Caesar, so it was never publicly clear that he was the intended successor. In fact, Trajan frequently pronounced that a number of men were capable of ruling the empire. Only on his deathbed did Trajan adopt Hadrian as his heir and successor. The letter of adoption was signed by Plotina, leading to rumours she may have manipulated the succession.
The maker of this cameo has created a powerful mix of naturalistic and idealised features in his depiction of the imperial couple. Many of the best gem cutters came from the Greek parts of the Roman Empire and luxury objects of this kind were circulated among the elite.