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The History of Jewellery: Ancient Roman Jewelry

The Roman Kingdom, Republic & Empire

Article Copyright © 2012 AllAboutGemstones.com

The ancient Romans began as an agricultural community living in the central Italian region of Tuscany (near present-day Rome), during the same period as the Etruscans, who were also inhabitants of western Tuscany until around 500 BC. Legend has it that the "Roman Kingdom" was founded in 753 BC by the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, who were descended from the Trojan prince Aeneas of Greco-Roman mythology.

The Roman Kingdom lasted from 753 BC to 509 BC, when the last Roman King from the Tarquin monarchy, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (Unknown—496 BC), was overthrown by Lucius Junius Brutus who became one of the first consuls of the "Roman Republic." The Republic began to disintegrate with the appointment of Gaius Julius Caesar (100 BC—44 BC) as dictator for life, and formally ended after the war between Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) and Octavian (aka Gaius Octavius Thurinus, or Caesar Augustus) at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. After the defeat, both Mark Antony and his lover Cleopatra VII—queen of Ptolemaic Egypt—committed suicide. The Roman Empire was established in 27 BC, and lasted only 500 years before collapsing in 476 AD.

Early Roman Jewelry

The Romans used a diverse selection of materials in their jewelry due to the accessibility of a wide variety of natural resources found across the European and Mediterranean continents which were under their dominion. They also had an extensive network of trade, which gave them access to exotic materials and precious gemstones that traveled along the ancient Silk Road from Persia, the Indus Valley, India and the Far East.

1st Century Ancient Roman Jewelry

Roman Earrings: www.vroma.org

   Roman Necklace

Engraving (right): B. Fawcett (c.1878)

Many of the jewelry accessories seen throughout ancient Rome had functional, as well as decorative value. One of the most common jewelry item of early Rome was the brooch, which was used to secure clothing items. Another utilitarian jewelry design that was common throughout Roman history was the fibula, which was an ornately decorated clothing accessory resembling a large safety pin that was used as a clothing fastener. The fibula was often embellished with a glyptic cameo or intaglio of a female bust, or a winged Victory carving.

Roman Jewelry Design Motifs

Although much of the jewelry produced in early Rome resembled Greek and Etruscan jewelry, new motifs were developed or derived from other cultures, and remained well-established throughout the ancient Roman period. Initially, Roman jewelry was somewhat more conservative and austere, when compared with other Mediterranean cultures, but relentless plundering soon led to a more ostentatious lifestyle.

1st Century Ancient Roman Jewelry

Bracelet: www.vroma.org

   Roman Necklace

Rings: vroma.org (left), Roman Earring: IAA (right)

Many Roman jewelry items were fashioned by Greek artisans, in the Greek style. An example of derivative Roman design was the Herakles knot, also known as the "knot of Hercules," or "marriage-knot," which was influenced by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. This apotropaic (amulet and talisman) design was used as a protective amulet to ward off evil. The "Isis crown" was another motif borrowed from ancient Egypt, which was used frequently in earrings that were created during the second century BC.

Another popular jewelry motif invented by the Romans was the gold "hemisphere" which was used in necklaces, bracelets, and earrings (top of page, second from left). Also popular was the Roman motif depicting a coiling snake which symbolized immortality. The snake was typically fashioned into gold bracelets (above, left).

1st Century Ancient Roman Jewelry

Engravings: Auguste Racinet - Le Costume Historique

   Roman Necklace

Roman Necklace (photo: public domain)

The "hoop earring" was another important Roman invention, appearing around 300 BC. Hoop earrings were commonly adorned with finials depicting animals, Maenads (aka Bassarids, Bacchae, or "wild, intoxicated women"), slaves, or the Greek god Eros.

Gemstones of Rome

Pearls from the Persian Gulf were a popular gemstone used in ancient Roman jewelry, which were combined with emerald and peridot from Egypt, and carnelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, and onyx from Persia. The gold, pearl and emerald earring in the photo (above, right) was discovered at a 2008 excavation of the Giv'ati car park in Jerusalem, and dates back to the Roman period, between the first century BCE and the beginning of the fourth century CE [12].

1st Century Sardonyx Cameo

Sardonyx cameo (c.1st Cen AD, setting c. 17th cen), (photo: public domain)

   Roman Jupiter Cameo

Roman Jupiter cameo (photo: public domain)

Amber was a favorite gemstone of the Romans who established the "Amber Route" to transport the precious gem from Gdansk, which had become the center of amber production, to Roman cities throughout the Empire. One of the most famous expeditions for the acquisition of amber occurred during Emperor Nero's reign, when a Roman equites (a member of the Roman equestrian order) reportedly brought back enough amber to build an entire stage for the gladiator fights.

Gemstones fashioned into cameo or intaglio cabochon portraits were also worn as rings and pendants (above, center).

Gemstones and pearls were particularly prized by the ancient Romans, as shown in the gold necklace (above, right) which was found in the ruins of Pompeii, and is generously set with emeralds and pearls. Toward the fall of the Roman Empire exotic gems from India and the Far East were plentiful, including blue sapphire and topaz from India or Sri Lanka.

Perhaps one of the first gemstone collectors was a 1st century BC Roman named Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, starting a collecting frenzy. The madness reached its zenith with Marcus Antonius (aka Mark Antony) offering a Roman Senator named Marcus Nonius a vast sum for a brilliant opal the size of a hazelnut, which Antonius wished to give to Cleopatra. When Nonius refused the offer he was told that he could part with the stone or leave Rome, and he chose the latter.

Roman Fashion & Censorship

There was a great deal of pressure to conform to the accepted style of the time, and a Roman Censor (Censorius) named Marcus Porcius Cato, or "Cato the Elder" (234-149 BC) drafted many rules and regulations against unchecked luxury. Cato imposed a heavy tax upon certain forms of dress and personal adornment, especially when worn by women. The word "censorship" was derived from Cato, who regarded the individual householder as the germ of the family, the family as the germ of the state. So strict was Cato that even a Roman senator would be reluctant to wear his gold signet ring in private.

Roman Jewelry Use

While Roman women would wear a wide variety of jewelry, a man would often wear only a single ring. Rings were commonly made of gold or electrum, and would sometimes feature a carved intaglio semi-precious stone that would be used in conjunction with hot wax to seal important documents (below, center). The gold "coin ring" (above, right) features a portrait of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 AD to 180 AD).

Fayum Mummy Portraits

Fayum Portrait Photos: www.vroma.org

   Encaustic Paintings of Ancient Roman Jewelry

After death, well-heeled Roman women were laid to rest in a painted casket or sarcophagus that was decorated with encaustic (hot wax) paintings called "Fayum Mummy Portraits" (photos above). These portraits would show the deceased at a younger age, adorned with their finest clothing and jewelry.

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Bibliography on Ancient Roman Jewelry

1. John Tsangarides, Ancient Roman Jewellery . Hadrians.Com

2. Luna Nuova, Etruscan Jewelry . www.lunanuova.com

3. Otto J Brendel, Etruscan Art. New Haven,Yale University

4. Bonfante, Larissa, Etruscan Life and Afterlife. Wayne State University Press

5. Oppi Untracht, Jewelry Concepts & Technology - Complete Reference Guide . Doubleday

6. Dean Wukitsch, Etruscan Granulation and Filigree . www.mmdtkw.org

7. Wikipedia, History of Etruscan Jewellery . wikipedia.org

8. F Borrelli, M Cristina Targia, S Peccatori, The Etruscans . Getty Trust Publications

9. Crystalinks, Clothing in Ancient Roman . www.crystalinks.com

10. Barbara F. McManus, Roman Clothing & Jewelry . www.vroma.org

11. Tara Maginnis, Ph.D., Roman Clothing & Costumes . www.costumes.org

12. Israel Antiquities, 2,000 Year Old Roman Earring from Jerusalem . www.antiquities.org.il

13. B. Fawcett, Gems of Nature and Art. Groombridge and Sons London (1880)

14. F. Rogers, A. Beard, 5000 Years of Gems & Jewelry. FA Stokes Co., N.Y.

15. Craddock 2008, p. 108; Healy 1978, p. 196

16. Tylecote, R.F. 1962. Metallurgy in Archaeology, London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd.

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