Please keep in mind that this is a working document and I will be adding more.
All About That Bling, based on my class of the same name, is a series that looks at Roman Jewelry during the Roman Empire (primarily the 1st century BCE to 2nd century CE). The focus will be on the different styles, materials used, definitions, cross-cultural differences, origins, and the culture of jewelry in Rome. There will be several sections of this series, the links will be at the bottom. This section touches on types of adornment and origins. These sections will be updated as I acquire more knowledge (and my availability to do so allows).
(Content Warning: Gendered language, phallic pendants)
The three types:
II. Non-Jewelry (function)
III. Amulets (Apotropaic)
The standard modern definition of what jewelry is: is anything worn for no other purpose than adornment. Necklaces, earrings, bracelets, bangles, rings, anklets, and brooches all fall into this category. However, this is an oversimplification as it does not take into account factors of the time nor modern day perceptions. Social status, displaying personal and/or family wealth, inheritance, economic realities, cultural perspectives regarding affluence are just some of the factors that go into why someone would wear jewelry. That does not exclude wearing jewelry simply because one likes it or wants to. Jewelry goes back to the beginning of human creativity, surely the meanings are far more complex than the above definition.
Things that we think may fall under the category of jewelry but don’t quite qualify resemble adornment but they have a function, often as a mark of rank, office, or status via accomplishments. It’s like the difference between a brooch and a fibula. One is for looks the other is for function. Signet rings and corona (wreaths or crowns) are examples of such.
Interestingly enough, non-jewelry was the acceptable form of “adornment” for Roman men and were not worn by Roman women, like in the case of the signet ring. Even though jewelry did serve a function it still was categorized and held within the bounds of the strict gender divide.
Signet rings were not unique to Rome and they existed before and long after the Empire. During the Republic and the Empire they were a sign of status and power, likely why Roman women couldn’t wear them. On a side note, Empresses were considered “honorary men” due to their status and thus might make use of it. Signet rings were a persons signature (signare), meant to leave an impression in wax on correspondences either official or not. Cornelian was a favored gem to be made into the recessed image that would be the person’s signature/seal. It was favored as it was said to leave a clearer signature as it did not stick to the wax. However, signet rings are also commonly found made from sardonyx. Intaglio carvings are carved into the stone, or recessed, versus cameos which are raised carvings. The former are quite often signet rings, but there are examples that make me doubt that this was always the case.
Corona (Wreaths/Crowns) were often awarded for military accomplishments, worn for marriage ceremonies, worn by priests, and for certain celebrations. They were also commissioned for and worn by the dead, referred to as “funerary wreaths.” They varied in style and could range from organic material to gold. The ones made of gold resembled a variety of special or sacred vegetation, popular types were oak, ivy, bay, laurel (for generals), myrtle, olive…
To be an amulet an object had to be apotropaic, in other words, it had to have magical properties. The most common was to ward off the evil eye. Amulets were worn mostly by children, animals, and in some cases soldiers for protection. In the case of boys, they were worn especially to ward off ill health and to preserve virility. The most common types were the bulla and fascinum worn by boys and the lunula, worn by girls.
Lunula (Left) & The Bulla (Right)
The Path to Rome: Origins & Influences
A brief Summary of the History of Jewelry in the Ancient World
Egypt is all like, “I got this.” Then the Sumerians are like, “You need a little humility.” And Babylon is like, “Please.” Then the Greeks are like, “hold my beer.” Then Alexander the Great is like, “This is awesome! wait here, I’m going to go tell everyone.” Then the Etruscans are like, “Hey, look what we can do!” And the Egyptians are like, “Have you looked at our Etsy page because seriously.” Then the Romans show up and say, “Screw you all, we’re putting rocks on chains.” And China is like, “We have silk.” And then everyone collectively, says, “How much per yard?” Then the rise of Christianity does a Jedi mind trick, “This is not the jewelry you are looking for” Romans: “This is not the jewelry we are looking for.” You don’t want jewelry.” Romans: “We don’t want jewelry.” And then Byzantium runs on to the stage and shouts, “Dudes!!! I found a bedazzler!” And that is a summary of the history of jewelry in the Mediterranean and surrounding area.
Perhaps the birth of a higher form of jewelry can be contributed to Egypt and the Middle East. Not only was mathematics achieved, the areas are considered to be were civilization was ignited.
The highly influential Hellenistic style was a major influencer on other cultures especially after Alexander the Great. It continued to influence cultures and moved onto influence Ptolemaic Egypt and Rome.
The Herakles knot was a favorite in Greece and even drifted into Rome. It was thought to ward off evil (like most things) it was also the tie that a bride would on her gown of her wedding night. Egyptian motifs, as seen on the pair of earrings on the middle were common in Greece and Rome.
Jewelry finds from the early cultures in the Mediterranean and surrounding area are sometimes difficult to acquire. Partially due to various cultures not burying jewelry with their dead. Luckily, the “barbarians” did. Scythian graves contain some of the most amazing finds of the time. Evidence suggests that their was a great deal of cross-cultural influences with the greeks and it is speculated that the majority of Scythian jewelry could have been made by the greeks. At least a few pieces have been traced back to Grecian workshops.
The Etruscans were the original inhabitants on northern Italy, descended from an early group called the Villanovan. By 82 BCE, the Etruscan culture, their literature, and a large portion of the population are expunged by the Romans. Barely anything remains, what does is Latinized. Remnants of their jewelry live on in Greek jewelry and in grave finds. The Romans, for some reason, kept a few of jewelry items from the Etruscan, the bulla (see above) being an example. It was not even modified by the Romans.
Late Hellenistic/Late Greek
The Greeks had already established themselves as not only skilled jewelers but as major influencers when they were finally annexed by Rome. This marked the end of Greece and the decline of the highly detailed Hellenistic craftsmanship. In its place came a simpler style that we know as “Roman Jewelry.” The Romans, despite their might, could not capture the great artistic and detailed jewelry of the past. And thus ended an unparalleled time for unprecedented jewelry, the likes, it could be argued, was never seen again.
Jewelry and the Roman Empire
With the end of the Roman Republic in 27 BCE and the rise of the Roman Empire a change was on the horizon. Where during the Republic showing affluence was frowned upon, the rise of the Empire saw the importance of flaunting affluence, especially wearing it. This became the status and status was everything. The hold overs of austerity from the Republic were no match for this new zeitgeist. This leads, coincidently, to the rise and popularity of jewelry. From the 1st century BCE to the 2nd century CE we see the birth and height of Roman Jewelry. A different kind of jewelry. A preference for color and expensive stones and materials supplants the elaborate craftsmanship of the Hellenistic influences. It was no longer about the work put into it, it was about how much it cost, and jewelers were needed. Before the 1st century CE the business of being a jeweler was rare, it was non existent before the 3rd century BCE, but now there was demand and this shift transforms jewelry in the Mediterranean area.