The upper scene depicts Augustus on a throne. The way that he is portrayed recalls no one less than the supreme deity Jupiter himself. Note, for example, the eagle, a symbol of Jupiter, underneath Augustus’ throne. Seated next to him is the goddess Roma, the embodiment of the city itself, with a face that is perhaps modelled after Augustus’ wife, Livia. Another woman holds a wreath above Augustus’ head, crowning him. She probably represents Oikoumene, identifiable by her mural crown and veil. Oikoumene embodies the civilized world, i.e. the Roman Empire itself.
At the far right sits another woman holding the cornucopia or “horn of plenty”, a symbol of the prosperity that Augustus has brought to the Roman Empire. Some identify her as either Gaea (Mother Earth) or Italia (the embodiment of the Italian peninsula). The former is most likely considering her close proximity to the ground. Gaea is sometimes depicted as half-buried to emphasize her connection to the earth. The children are perhaps a reference to the laws that Augustus set up that encouraged Roman citizens to procreate. The male figure is perhaps Neptune, whose seas connect the distant parts of the Empire.
At the far left, a chariot has arrived driven by the winged goddess Victoria. The figure descending from the chariot can be identified as Tiberius, the son of Livia from an earlier marriage and the man destined to succeed Augustus. We’re perhaps to imagine him as having just returned from his victorious campaigns in Germania. The other male figure, in military costume, further emphasizes the military nature of Tiberius’ achievements.
In public, Augustus was always careful to present himself as the defender of the Roman Republic. The gemma augustea presents a very different side of his reign, emphasizing the glory of imperial expansion. This gem was perhaps carved shortly before his death in AD 14 or during the reign of Tiberius. It was passed around solely in private circles and presumably made for someone either belonging to the imperial family or closely associated with it.
After the demise of the Roman Empire in the west, the Gemma Augustea found its way into the treasuries of the kings of France and Austria. It is currently on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.