The Sparkle of Jewelry in the Roman Empire
by Shalini Kagal
Jewelry designs and trends during Roman empire period – The strange thing is that the Romans were when the empire first began, rather austere in their tastes – their food, their clothes, their ornaments. What they wore was more functional rather than flaunting. Then came the army’s success as they began to spread out and conquer. Soon, Spartan gave way to Style. This could have been due to two reasons. One, the fact that they saw a new world out there where many dressed in a more resplendent manner and flaunted jewelry. Two, the fact that very often they carried back the spoils of war of which gold and precious stones formed a part. By the first century B.C., there was a variety of jewelry available with a wide choice of designs.
The first foray was probably into gold as this was the metal that they brought back most often from their conquests. Then, the trend grew to embrace both Greek and Eastern influences. So we see beads made of glass, colored stones and the use of silver as well as the rare bronze. After all, according to Homer, wasn’t this the metal used to fashion Achilles’ shield? We also see the use of pearls and bone.
It all started with piercing – but piercing with a purpose. The men pierced themselves as a show of strength. If they pierced their nipples, it symbolized both their loyalty to their empire as well as being a symbol of power. In fact the gladiators would pierce various parts of their body believing that this was supposed to protect them from injuries.
As interest in jewelry grew, the early designs show a marked leaning towards the Greek styles. However, with time, a more distinctive Roman style seems to emerge. The Romans had a partiality for stones like emeralds, sapphires, rubies and topaz. They also had a choice of pendants which were encased in gold and were cameos. Some of them were made to be large enough to hold a bit of perfume. These were in full display with the ladies who came to watch the chariot races as they began to get more popular in Rome. The horses too, especially the ones that took part in the races, were decked out in pearls and stones woven into their tails and their manes. The young boys usually wore a neck chain or a ‘bulla’ which had a small pouch that contained protective amulets.
The Romans were very conscious of their status in society. So clothes became important items of demarcation between the various classes – between those born free and the slaves, as well as the many classes in polite society. Jewelry therefore became a very important status symbol together with clothing to make this distinction.
One could see a lot of gold hemispherical shapes which were made into earrings, necklaces or bracelets. The men usually were a little more subtle and their jewelry was constrained to one finger ring. At first these rings were made of iron, then of gold. Then precious stones were used for rings as were semiprecious stones like chalcedony and carnelian. The trend grew however and there were some Roman men who wore a ring on every finger. Roman women were said to wear friendship rings as well. Both men and women wore carved rings – the stone was often carved so it would facilitate sealing documents. The ring was pressed into hot wax and the document sealed. This practice continued well into the later times when kings used this method to seal anything.
The trend of relief where silver ornaments and vessels was concerned was practiced in the fourth century B.C. This type of ornamentation was done a lot in the Greek era and it permeated all silverwork right through the Roman civilization.
The most popular item of jewelry by far however, was the brooch. This was what held most Roman clothing together. It really was an ornamental safety pin but the Romans raised it to a work of art. In fact, you can find variations of it in far flung parts of the Roman Empire. What was unique at that point of time was the clasp or the ‘fibula’. Though the brooches served a very functional purpose – that of holding clothing together – they were beautifully made. There were laurel leaves, branches of palms, winged eagles and goddesses.
From what has been unearthed and is now in the museums, one realizes that over two centuries ago, this empire had jewelry that used diamonds from India and sapphires from Sri Lanka. In the England of the Roman era, ‘jet’ or fossilized wood was used to make jewelry. The ancient Romans used a lot of amber in their jewelry as well. Amber is the resin from fossilized trees and it was referred to as the ‘gold of the north’. One sees that a lot of ornaments fashioned out of amber were made during the second century B.C. Many of the ancient civilizations made jewelry out of amber and they were much-prized possessions. Remains of amber workshops have been found in parts of Europe.
The women wore beautifully designed jewelry in their ears, fingers, around their necks, on their clothes and even in their hair! As well designed as their brooches and clothes pins were, equally so were their jeweled hair pins. Of course, some of the jewelry was worn by the superstitious – and there were many of them – to ward off what they called the ‘evil eye’.
Many of the Roman designs and ideas were spread through their conquests of places near and far and many just spread and got mixed with the neighboring cultures after the decline of the Roman Empire. Soon, one saw a change from a more barbaric and resplendent taste in jewelry in the conquered regions to a more understated, elegant one.
So even though the ‘grandeur that was Rome’, sung about by poets and philosophers waned, their contribution to the world of jewelry design did not. It grew, changed and flourished all over the world.