Collection Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna/Photo by Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

CROWNED WITH A LAUREL WREATH, and resting his feet on the shield of a vanquished enemy, the Roman emperor Augustus (top register, right of center) poses as the supreme god Jupiter in this early-first-century C.E. sardonyx cameo. Jupiter’s symbol, the eagle, stands beneath the imperial throne.

In ancient Rome, where politics and religion were inextricably intertwined, the emperor was considered divine, the “Son of God,” the savior of the people. Jesus’ religious teachings were not just religious, but political, too, which is why they so frightened the imperial establishment.

Known as the Gemma Augustae (Gem of Augustus) this 7- by 9-inch cameo celebrates the emperor’s military might. The goddess Roma, armed for war, sits to the emperor’s right; mother Earth sits on the ground to his left with her children. At far left in the top register, Augustus’s adopted son and heir, Tiberius, descends from his chariot, with winged Victory covering his back. In the bottom register, Roman soldiers erect a trophy celebrating military triumph. At far right, two prisoners, male and female, are dragged away.