It is the best known piece of Roman cameo glass and has served as an inspiration to many glass and porcelain makers from about the beginning of the 18th century onwards.
It is first recorded in Rome in 1600-1601, and since 1810 has been in the British Museum in London.
It is made of violet-blue glass, and surrounded with a single continuous white glass cameo making two distinct scenes, depicting seven human figures, plus a large snake, and two bearded and horned heads below the handles, marking the break between the scenes.
The bottom of the vase was a cameo glass disc, also in blue and white, showing a head, presumed to be of Paris or Priam on the basis of the Phrygian cap it wears.
This roundel clearly does not belong to the vase, and has been displayed separately since 1845.
It may have been added to mend a break in antiquity or after, or the result of a conversion from an original amphora form (paralleled by a similar blue-glass cameo vessel from Pompeii) - it was definitely attached to the bottom from at least 1826.
The meaning of the images on the vase is unclear and none of the many theories put forward have been found generally satisfactory.
They fall into two main groups: mythological and historical, though a historical interpretation of a myth is also a possibility.Historical interpretations focus on Augustus, his family and his rivals, especially given the quality and expense of the object, and the somewhat remote neo-classicism of the style, which compares with some Imperial gemstone cameos featuring him and his family with divine attributes, such as the Gemma Augustea, the Great Cameo of France and the Blacas Cameo (the last also in the British Museum).Interpretations of the portrayals have included that of a marine setting (due to the presence of a ketos or sea-snake), and of a marriage theme/context, as the vase may have been a wedding gift.Many scholars (including Charles Towneley) have concluded that the figures do not fit into a single iconographic set.Interpretations include: Another variant theory is that the vase dates back to circa 32BC, and was commissioned by Octavian (later Caesar Augustus), as an attempt to promote his case against his fellow-consuls, Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus in the period after the death of Julius Caesar.It is based on the skill of the famous Greek carver of engraved gems Dioskourides, who is recorded as active and at his peak circa 40-15BC and three of whose attributed cameos bear a close resemblance in line and quality to the Portland vase figures.