NEW YORK – Rare and desirable, ancient Roman jewelry has not only transcended time, but still seems so timely. Its beauty beckons.
During the Roman Republic (circa 508-27 B.C.), when gold largely financed military campaigns, displays of personal wealth were considered inappropriate. From then on, however, when Imperial Rome encompassed Western Europe and the Mediterranean basin, Egyptian, Etruscan, and Hellenistic-inspired pieces of jewelry were the height of fashion. Most featured decorative piercing, embossing, stamping, twisted wires, or granulation – embellishment with tiny grains of gold.
Although goldwork was initially emphasized, colored gemstones set in gold, became increasingly popular. Pearls, amethysts, emeralds, diamonds and sapphires were favorites, along with eye-catching hardstones like carnelian, sardonyx, agate, garnets and lapis lazuli. Since these were so costly – and ostentation was highly valued, skilled artisans soon created colorful glass “gems” that rivaled genuine gemstones.
Excavations at Pompeii, destroyed in the A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius, reveal that privileged Roman men and women of the day owned arrays of lavish jewels. Scores, in their panic, left their treasures behind. Others, along with coins and amulets, scooped up their bronze, ornamental fibulas (brooches resembling safety pins), golden bracelets, earrings dripping with gems, spheres linked in double-domed bands, braided chains, sapphires and grape-like, clustered emeralds, as they fled.
Others donned their finest. “In a small room at an inn on the southern outskirts of Pompeii,” noted Smithsonian Magazine in 2006, “a woman of about 30 died wearing two heavy gold armbands, a ring and a gold chain. In a handbag were more bracelets and rings, another gold chain, a necklace and a long catena [chain] of thick, braided gold.”
Fine jewels also entranced upper-class women of Rome, relates Pliny the Elder (another Vesuvius casualty). “I have seen Lollia Paulina, who became the consort of Gaius [popularly known as Caligula],” he wrote, “not at some considerable or solemn ceremonial celebration but actually at an ordinary betrothal banquet, covered with emeralds and pearls interlaced alternately and shining all over her head, hair, ears, neck and fingers …”
Everyone, from children to freed slaves, wore rings. Wealthy men favored hardstone finger-rings or signet-rings, used for sealing business deals. Some women favored luxurious, natural gemstone rings. Others favored “negative” carved intaglios depicting deities or high-relief cameos depicting figures or mythological scenes. Some, observed Pliny, wore all their rings on their little fingers or, making a parade of their weight, wore them on all fingers, exempting their thumbs. “Others,” he observed, “are in the habit of inclosing poisons beneath the stones of their rings, and so wear them as instruments of death.”
Since Roman women could purchase, own, sell, bequeath and barter jewels independently, regardless of their husband’s position, their worth transcended their monetary value. That may explain why many wore all they owned at once – and why these were favorite betrothal, dowry and marriage gifts.
Stashes of Roman jewelry, perhaps used as votives or cached for safekeeping during civil unrest, have survived in considerable numbers. So have small beads, hairpins and loose gems that slipped down drains of Roman bathhouses.
Although most of these jewels were fashioned in Rome, Antioch or Alexandria, similar ones, carried along the Empire’s extensive road network, have also been found as far away as Roman Britain, Gaul, Algeria, Aleppo and Asia Minor. In time, these not only influenced local tastes, but also incorporated regional gems, like Baltic amber and Celtic jet.
Fayum portraits, startlingly realistic, torso-length paintings attached to upper-class mummies in Roman-occupied Egypt (first to third century A.D.), in addition to provincial dress and hairstyles, reveal popular ornamental trends. Several males, possibly dignitaries, military leaders, or civil servants, boast golden “leafy” wreaths, possibly celebrating their life achievements. Fayum portrait women are adorned with massive gold link-chains, rings, hairpins, hairnets, diadems, gold-and gem-set necklaces, as well as delicate pearled, beaded or bar-drop earrings.
“When purchasing pieces of ancient Roman jewelry, always choose a reputable dealer or auction house that has good experience and consultants. Always buy pieces you find appealing,” said Dr. Ivan Bonchev, founder/director of Pax Romana, a specialist gallery and auction house in London known for its high-quality ancient art and numismatics.
If especially well preserved, ancient artifacts may indeed be worn, he reveals. Alternately, restoration can stabilize them, making them suitable for contemporary wear.
“If you intend to wear ancient Roman pieces on a daily basis,” Bonchev adds, “my recommendation is go for gold, which does not oxidize. Silver, on the other hand, needs to be cleaned occasionally. The best way to clean it is quite old-fashioned but very quick and efficient – rubbing baking soda under running water. Bronze oxidizes the most,” he cautions, “so you should not take a shower wearing bronze artifacts.”
Click to view some of the exciting pieces of Ancient Roman jewellery coming up in Pax Romana’s Feb. 1, 2020 auction.
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