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Etruscan Scarab (c. 400 BC)


Laocoon scarab
Carnelian scarab engraved with Laocoön and his two sons being attacked by serpents. The British Museum.

The image of Laocoön and his two sons appears on an scarab that was produced around the turn of the 5th century in Etruria and is now held by the British Museum.[note 1]

Etruscan scarabs have one rounded side carved in the shape of a scarab beetle and an underside engraved with a mythological scene. As with most Etruscan scarabs, this one is made from carnelian, a semi-precious gemstone often used for signet or seal rings because hot wax does not stick to it. This was the function of this scarab. The ring could be worn with the rounded scarab facing outwards; when a letter or document needed to be sealed, the ring was removed, the gem flipped, and the engraved side stamped upon hot wax. Somewhere in Etruria, then, the image of Laocoön was used to seal important documents and correspondence.

The gem draws attention to the significance of Etruria as a commercial hub. Scarab gems originated in Egypt and were brought to Italy in the 5th century by Greeks and Phoenicians. Carnelian, too, may have been imported. As Richard de Puma observes, Etruscan carnelian is "consistently red", whereas Greek carnelian of the period ranges from dark red to orange. This "might indicate a single and likely indigenous source".[note 2]

The appearance of Laocoön on an Etruscan scarab also highlights another important Etruscan import: Greek mythology, found throughout Etruscan art. In turn, Etruscan civilisation was assimilated into the Roman Republic (from the 4th century BCE). The Etruscan scarab, then, marks Laocoön's route into Roman culture.

At first sight, the scarab's engraving may not look all that accomplished: the image of Laocoön and his sons in the coils of the serpents seem badly adapted to the beetle shape. Yet the image is undoubtedly ambitious and more elaborate than that found on many scarabs. Not only did the Etruscans produce more elaborate engravings than the Greeks and Phoenicians had done, but this one is unusual in featuring more than one figure. A high degree of skill would be needed to produce such a detailed image in a small piece of carnelian. This, then, is hardly unaccomplished workmanship, and its owner was certainly wealthy.

In the scarab's engraving, Laocoön bends one leg at the knee and is flanked by his two sons, shown as youths. All three figures are half-turned to the left, while Laocoön himself looks over his shoulder to the left-hand son. Laocoön's left arm holds the son on the right; his right hand is raised by his head. The figures are held, and held together, by the coils of what seem to be three serpents: one bites Laocoön's head; another's head appears by the left-hand son's calf; the third has its head near Laocoön's left hand. The outer legs of each son cross the decorative cable border.

Engraved on the small piece of carnelian, Laocoön and his sons appear in isolation from their Trojan context, and yet we know that the Etruscans were drawn to the story of Troy's fall, references to which appear across their art. The wider implications of Laocoön's death within that story, therefore, would undoubtedly have been known to the gem's wearer and the recipients of his communications.

Note 1. See also H. B. Walter, Catalogue of the Engraved Gems and Cameos, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman, in the British Museum, Revised and enlarged edition (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1926), pp. 83–84 (no. 673). [back to text]

Note 2. Richard De Puma, Etruscan Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013), p. 281. [back to text]

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