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GEMMA a gem or precious stone (Greek, λίθος: there is no Greek word for gems as distinguished from ordinary stones. On the supposed rule of the grammarians that λίθος, a precious stone, is feminine, consult Liddell and Scott, s. v.). [p. 1.902]

The desire to possess the precious or semiprecious stones, whether as ornaments or as objects of superstition, is universally prevalent. In any nation, however, it is limited by the geographical conditions, and by the degree of mechanical skill available. At the early stage of civilisation represented on Greek soil by the graves of Mycenae and kindred deposits, the stones found are of no great rarity, but are shaped and polished in a way that proves considerable mastery over hard materials. Thus objects of agate, rock-crystal, sard, and amethyst are elaborately worked and engraved. (Schliemann, Mycenae, figs. 307-315; Lolling, Kuppelgrab bei Menidi, pl. vi.; Cat. of Gems in Brit. Mus. 104-109.) In Homer, however, there are no traces of the use of gems, as there is not any good reason for supposing them to be intended by the ἕρματα πρίγληνα μορόεντα of Iliad, 14.182; Od. 18.297. (See Buchholz, Homerische Realien, ii. p. 214.) It has long been observed that Homer was unacquainted with the use of seals (Pliny, Plin. Nat. 33.12), and the nearest approach in Homer to the use of gems as ornaments is the employment of the attractive and easily worked amber in jewellery (Od. 15.460, 18.295; Helbig, Das homerische Epos, p. 183). From these facts it may be inferred that the art of working in hard stones was lost after the Mycenaean period; and this conclusion is confirmed by statistics as to the very early gems known as the “gems of the Islands” [see SCALPTURA]. These gems are found both among Mycenaean and early Greek deposits. But while in the former case they are often of the hard stones mentioned above, in the latter case they are of soft materials, such as steatite. (See Dümmler, Mittheilungen des Arch. Inst. in Athen, xi. p. 177.)

The Greeks of historical times had a restricted choice of precious stones, until the conquests of Alexander had opened up intercourse with India. The stone of Polycrates was an emerald, according to Herodotus (3.41); but a sardonyx, according to Pliny (Plin. Nat. 37.4). In the treasure lists of the temples of the Acropolis of Athens, the only gems mentioned are the jasper, sard, and onyx, together with the χρυσίτης λίθος, or gold ore. (Compare with this list Plato, Phaedo, 110 D, τὰ ἀγαπώμενα, . . . σάρδιά τε καὶ ἰάσπιδας καὶ σμαράγδους.) The gems mentioned in the treasure lists were for the most part set in rings or used as seals, and were therefore of small size. An onyx, however, is mentioned in a list for 398 B.C., which represented a τραγέλαφος and weighed 5 oz. (C. I. A. 652 b, 50.12). Another onyx is mentioned in the list for 385 B.C. (C. I. a. 667, 50.20), which apparently weighed 42 oz. (But cf. Boeckh, Staatshaushaltung, ii.3 247.) Perhaps one of these stones is the “great onyx” reported as broken in the list for 344 B.C. (C. I. A. 701, 50.57; cf. C. I. A. 676, 50.18).

The state of knowledge as to gems about the time of Alexander is represented by the work of Theophrastus Περὶ Λίθων, the only surviving systematic treatise on the subject in Greek. Though written in 315 B.C., the book has not felt the influence of Alexander's campaigns. Theophrastus surveys, however, the whole basin of the Mediterranean, and Asia Minor. He makes one allusion to Bactria, and a doubtful one to India. The number of gems available for the engraver is now become considerable. Theophrastus enumerates among stones suitable for engraving the emerald, sard, carbuncle (ἄνθραξ), lapis-lazuli (σάπφειρος: see below), jacinth (λυγκούριον), topaz [?] (ὑαλοειδής), chrysoprase [?] (ὄμφαξ, rock-crystal, and amethyst. Among the lost works of Aristotle was a treatise with the same title as that of Theophrastus, of very doubtful authenticity. (Heitz, Die verlorenen Schriften des Aristoteles.

For accounts of the extraordinary profusion of precious stones in the East, and among the successors of Alexander, compare Diod. 18.26; Athenaeus, xi. p. 781; Strabo xv. p.718, and other passages quoted by Krause, Pyrgoteles, p. 113. The extravagant luxury of the Romans of the Empire rivalled that of the Diadochi. Thus Heliogabalus wore gems engraved by the best artists, on his shoes. (Lamprid. Heliog. 23; cf. Plin. Nat. 9.117, and other passages quoted by Krause, Pyrgoteles, p. 114.)

This passion on the part of the wealthy for precious stones was naturally favourable to the growth of mineralogical knowledge. Pliny quotes a large number of writers who had treated of gems between Theophrastus and himself. Some of these writers (as Zenothemis, Plin. Nat. 37.87) seem to have had a personal knowledge of India (cf. King, Precious Stones, p. 1). Pliny devotes the 37th or final book of his Natural History to gems, regarding them as the most perfect works of nature. The book consists of an historical introduction ( § § 1-5); of an account of the most important gems, arranged by colours ( § § 6-54); of an account of minor gems in alphabetical order. The book concludes with a few general instructions for detecting fraud. This book is the best representative of ancient science in this branch of mineralogy. In attempting to form from it an estimate of the ancient science, we must neglect the false medicine, sometimes rejected by Pliny (Plin. Nat. 37.53), the magical superstitions, and the trade mysteries (cf. H. N. 37.57, on the difficulty of breaking diamonds). We then find that the ancients were remarkably close observers of gems, availing themselves of all methods, short of chemical analysis and other instruments of modern physical research. It is said of Democritus that “ne lapidum . . . vis lateret, aetatem inter experimenta consumpsit” (Petron. Sat. 100.88). Moreover, in the case of precious stones, minuteness of observation was stimulated by the desire of guarding against or of committing a fraud (H. N. 37.197 ff.). Besides a minute study of colours of gems, frequently illustrated by Pliny's felicitous comparisons, the tests enumerated involve a study of weight (H. N. 37. § § 98, 199), consistency (corpore, § 199), hardness ( § § 98, 113, 200), conductivity ( § § 128, 199), transparency ( § 198 and passim), diffractive power ( § § 87, 136), friction ( § 189), crystallography ( § § 26, 56, 76, 137, 144, 171, 178), taste ( § § 162, 173), and smell ( § § 139, 145, 147, 174, 185).

There are no traces in Theophrastus of magical properties attributed to gems. In Pliny, the doctrines of the Magi are frequently quoted, but usually with ridicule. (Cf. H. N. [p. 1.903]37. § § 118, 142 ff. and passim.) Some of the medicinal virtues of gems apparently accepted by Pliny, may appear little better than the doctrines of the Magi. But while Pliny is not in a position to criticise the alleged virtues of gems applied as medicines, he consistently rejects their supernatural powers under other conditions. The magical system is seen fully developed in the Lithica of Orpheus. This poem claims to be a statement of the magic properties of gems made by the seer Theodamas to the poet Orpheus. The work is assigned by Tyrwhitt to a time subsequent to the edict of Constantius against magic, in 357 A.D. (cf. lines 73, 74), and not long after Valens. (Tyrwhitt, Περὶ λίθων, poema Orpheo adscriptum, London, 1781.) In this view Tyrwhitt is followed by subsequent editors, although Krause (Pyrgoteles, p. 6) assigns the work to the 5th century B.C.; and King (Precious Stones, pp. 4, 397) dates it “at least as early as the 2nd century B.C.” King gives an English verse translation (Precious Stones, p. 375).

On the later developments of the magical system of Orpheus until mediaeval times, see King, Precious Stones, p. 6.

Much confusion and uncertainty exist as to the true nomenclature of gems. Both in ancient and modern times there has been considerable looseness of usage as to the meaning of names. In many instances where the ancient word exists in modern language, it denotes a stone entirely different from that originally signified. For example, σάπφειρος is certainly the lapislazuli, and has no connexion with the sapphire. The correct equivalents of the ancient names are generally given after King and others, in Liddell and Scott's Lexicon (ed. 7).

Literature.--Krause, Pyrgoteles, oder die edlen Steine der Alten (learned, but untrustworthy); Lenz, Mineralogie der alten Griechen und Romer, Gotha, 1861; C. W. King, Natural History of Precious Stones and Gems, and of Precious Metals, London, 1865; Blümner, Technologie, 3.227. On the use of gems in rings, see ANULUS; on the art of gem engraving, see SCALPTURA


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