Georgian "Socrates" Cameo Brooch
This neoclassical brooch dates from the Georgian period, circa 1800, and features one of the most exceptional cameos I've ever handled. The Greek philosopher Socrates is depicted in relief, carved from a banded cowrie shell. The artist has utilised the different colours in the shell to stunning effect: his hair, beard and eyebrows are white; his skin a tanned brown; and his cloak features dark and light shadow definition, all over an off-white background. It's Italian, mounted in a 15ct gold bezel brooch setting.
Socrates. Where to start...? He was, by all accounts, quite the character; roaming around Athens firing off provocative questions at unsuspecting citizens. In Socrates' day, Athens was electric. They were coming off the back of a sensational naval victory at the battle of Salamis (480BC), defeating Xerxes' fleet that outnumbered the Athenians four to one. And remember that prior to this Athens had virtually no naval experience... a seafaring people they certainly were not. Pericles rises to prominence in 460BC, ushering in a Golden Age where culture and, importantly, democracy flourished. The Athenian brand of direct democracy was an exhilarating political experiment: any (male) citizen over the age of 20 could take part, indeed it was a duty to do so. Officials were either elected by the Assembly or chosen by lottery in a process called sortition. The term itself comes from the two words, Demos (the people) and Kratos (power).
Socrates' education techniques focused on discovering answers by asking questions. His most famous student, Plato, describes "the disciplined practice of thoughtful questioning [that] enables the scholar/student to examine ideas and be able to determine the validity of those ideas."
His death made Socrates a martyr, and a sort of secular saint. He died as he lived in Athens: adored by his students and loathed by most Athenians. Ultimately, he was sentenced to death by a jury of 500 freemen (a 280-220 margin) for "corrupting the Athenian youth" with his radical ideas and "not believing in the gods the state believes in, but in other new spiritual beings." He spent his last day in prison, refusing offers to help him escape. Plato documented his final hours, although wasn't himself present to witness them. When offered the cup of deadly hemlock, Socrates, "took it quite cheerfully without a tremor, with no change of colour or expression," before uttering the now-famous words, "we can and must pray to the gods that our sojourn on earth will continue happy beyond the grave. This is my prayer, and may it come to pass.” The hemlock acted fast, a numbness starting at the feet gradually rose up his body... by the time it reached his waist, Socrates spoke his final words: "Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Do pay it. Don’t forget."
Socrates did not document his teachings. Everything we know about him and his philosophical ideas comes from the accounts of others, presented as a series of conversations between Socrates and others. The four main sources are: Plato and the historian Xenophon, who were both his pupils; the comic-dramatist Aristophanes; and Plato's pupil Aristotle, who coined the term Socratic dialogues (logos sokratikos) to describe this newly formed literary genre.
Era: Georgian circa 1800
Size: 19.6mm by 15.4mm
Stone: Cowrie shell cameo
Marks: None, tested as 15ct gold
Condition: Great antique condition.
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