Findings From the Past:
From different periods throughout Roman history, artifacts and pieces from antiquity have been found all over the globe. Aside from these artifacts, most of what historians know regarding Roman jewelry comes from ancient texts and literature.
From the Republic
-Only a small amount of gold and silver has survived from Republican and Pre-Republican Rome, and most bronze pieces have been found in tombs. Because of the limited number of artifacts, most of what historians know about Roman jewelry before and during the Republic comes from ancient texts.
-For the most part, “it appears that from 700 to 250 BC, Roman Jewelry was for all practical purposes Etruscan” (Higgins, 173). Roman jewelry tended to use methods that originated in Etruria and Greece, though often the quality was considered to be lesser. Romans relied on stones and color to make a necklace stand out, while the Etruscans and Greeks focused more on the basic structure and metal-working of a piece (Richter, 35).
-During the Republic, there are records of jewelry being regulated by laws. The “law of 12 tables” was implemented in the 5th century BC and limited how much gold could be buried with the dead. The Lex Oppia, which came into effect in the third century BC, stated that a Roman woman could only wear half an ounce of gold (Higgins, 173).
From the Empire-
-Most artifacts historians possess date back to the Roman Empire, primarily between 27BC and 400AD.
-Due to the vast amount of land under Roman control during the Empire, artifacts have been found in several different places. Pompeii and Hernaculem are “paramount sources” for Roman Jewelry from the 1st century AD, and British sites are important for pieces dating back to the 2nd century AD. For the 3rd century AD, historians made crucial discoveries at the sites of Gaul, Tarsus, Aleppo, and Doura Europos (Higgins, 174).
-Interestingly enough, mummy portraits from Roman Egypt depict women wearing “earrings, rings, necklaces, and when wrists are shown, bracelets” (Kunst, 131). These portraits gave historians insight into the ways in which jewelry was casually worn during the Empire.
“The development of Roman Jewelry is not easy to trace” (Higgins, 174).
The Significance of Different Pieces:
Earrings were especially important in Ancient Rome, for they were considered to be the “first badge of Matrons” (Kunst, 136). Due to the fact that the matron was typically covered up by a long stola, showing only her head, the earrings were “the most easily noticeable piece.” Earrings were also praised by women, for they did not “hinder any productive activity;” they did not get in the way of a woman’s childcare duties or household chores. Typically, young girls had their ears pierced as a way to “sexually mark them” and to show femininity (Kunst, 136). Since only women wore earrings, it was a sure sign of womanhood.
Rings were worn by both sexes in Ancient Rome, though for different purposes. Females wore rings of all metals, often for pure adornment and to show off their wealth and status; these rings often included different types of stones and gyms. Rings were also sometimes shaped in motifs; like a crescent moon or a snake.
During the Roman Republic, men’s gold rings were reserved for military honors and the socially elite. Though, by the start of the Empire, the gold ring was no longer regulated (though still often given for military distinction) (Higgins, 182). Male rings were used as “marks of dignity, as ornaments and for seals” as well as “tokens of betrothal” (Higgins, 183). Up until the 1st century BC, it was uncommon for a man to wear more than one ring; then gem collecting became trendy, and it was not out of the ordinary for men to wear multiple rings on all fingers. Some Emperors, like Claudius, even encouraged citizens to wear a ring with his portrait etched into the metal (Higgins, 183).
Pendants were particularly popular throughout Roman history. Often, these pendants were made out of metal chains with charms and stones attached.
Beginning with the reign of Emperor Severus (193-211 AD), coin necklaces became very popular. These coins were typically engraved with portraits of Emperors, so most Roman rulers encouraged citizens to wear them in order to promote their superiority within the Empire ( Deppert-Lippitz, 32).
The bulla was an amulet necklace worn by young Roman boys until they transitioned into manhood. The bulla was normally made of bronze, if a member of the middle class, or gold if it could be afforded.
The fibula was essentially a pin that held together togas and stoles. The fibula was “chiefly made of bronze, though gold and silver ones existed.” A fibula in the shape of a crossbow was the most popular (Higgins, 185).
Bracelets were mostly either comprised of gems linked together, or metals twisted in an intricate pattern. During the the there century AD, massive gold bracelets and cuffs became stylish.
Matrons desired all types of fineries, and their heads were not excluded from lavish decoration. “Roman ladies wore pins, sometimes of gold, in their hair” (Higgins, 177). Sometimes, these pins included precious stones and gems.
To find out more about the methods used by merchants and artisans to create this pieces, click here.
Kunst, Christiane. 2005. Ornamenta Uxoria. Badges of Rank or Jewellery of Roman Wives? The Medieval History Journal 8 (1): 127-42.
Higgins, Reynold Alleyne. 1980. Greek and Roman Jewellery. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press. (**this includes original sketches of pieces from the book)
Johns, Catherine, and Timothy Potter. 1983. The Thetford Treasure: Roman Jewellery and Silver. London: Published for The Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Publications Ltd. (**this includes original sketches of pieces from the book)
Deppert-Lippitz, Barbara. 1996. “Late Roman Splendor: Jewelry from the Age of Constantine”. Cleveland Studies in the History of Art 1. Cleveland Museum of Art: 30–71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20079681.
Gisela M. A. Richter. 1924. “Greek and Roman Jewelry Recent Accessions”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 19 (2). The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 34–38. doi:10.2307/3254725.