It is not known exactly where and when the vase was found. It is recorded as being seen in 1601 when it was in the collection of Cardinal del Monte, who purchased it around 1582. After the cardinal’s death it was bought by the Barberini family where it remained for 150 years. Eventually, in 1778, it was purchased by Sir William Hamilton, British Ambassador at the Court of Naples. He brought it to England and sold it to Margaret, dowager Duchess of Portland, less than two years later, in 1784. In 1786 it came into the hands of her son, the third Duke of Portland, and it was he who lent it to Josiah Wedgwood, who made it famous through various copies.
The vase probably originated around 5–25 A.D. in Rome at the hands of craftsmen trained in Alexandria, where cameo-glass manufacturing techniques were first practiced. The meaning of the images on the vase is unclear and controversial.