Jewelry in the ancient Rome

Jewelry in the ancient Rome: the allure of gems among myths and legends

Portrait of a woman, from the necropolis of El-Fayuum, 2nd century AD

Rome has an ancient and glorious history. From its foundation, traditionally set at 753 BC, the city was capable of ruling and unifying the ancient world, and its imprint has remained indelible in history in any cultural aspect. The goldsmith’s art also had an impressive growth in the ancient Roman culture, although it showed its majesty starting from the beginning of the imperial age.

In fact, approximately up to the second half of the 1st century BC, the growth of jewelry had been thwarted by a feeling of distrust and contempt for luxury and pomp, considered to be immoral and in contrast with the sobriety of the Roman culture. However, starting from that period, the Romans increasingly indulged themselves with pomp and ostentation, by wearing sophisticated jewellery. Roman jewellery was different from the decorative opulence of the Etruscan and Greek tradition of which it was the heir, rather moving towards a simpler style, with clean and geometric lines. The jewels were made in gold and gems such as emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, amethysts and pearls.

Golden necklace with emeralds, 1st : 2nd century AD

Gems were surrounded by myths and legends. As an example, the origin of the amethyst was linked to the story of the nymph who bore this name. According to the myth, Bacchus, the god of wine and ecstasy, fell madly in love with the beautiful nymph Amethyst but his love was not reciprocated. In the throes of rage and drunkenness, the god decided to unleash a ferocious beast against Amethyst in revenge. The goddess Diana, who rushed to help the nymph when the beast was about to kill her, turned her into a gem in order to save her. Bacchus, repentant of his gesture, decided to pour the best of his wines on Amethyst, thus giving it its characteristic colour. The myth made the amethyst a precious symbol of sobriety. Also the emeralds, which were imported from the mines of Egypt, had fascinating myths. A legend has it that the walls of the so-called “Cleopatra’s mines” were utterly golden, dotted with emeralds, which could only be mined by those who could communicate with the dead. Greek and later Roman mythology also told about the divine origin of the pearls: it was believed that they were originated by the tears of gods.

Precisely the pearls were the great protagonists of the Roman jewellery. During the imperial age, they were considered to be the most precious and alluring among all the gems. The writer Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) expressed in his well-known work Naturalis Historia his disapproval for this trend because of the dangerous circumstances in which fishermen risked their lives or even died to obtain pearls.  There are several legends about these gems. As an instance, according to an anecdote, the extravagant Emperor Caligula, madly in love for his horse, gave it a magnificent pearl necklace. The Emperor Nero, on the other hand, loved rolling over pearls as a pastime. Another interesting leged is about Cleopatra and has it that the queen, to prove Mark Anthony that she could spend 10,000,000 sesterces for a single banquet, the richest ever in his honour, melted one of the two largest pearls she had in vinegar and drank it. The other one was divided in two halves and offered, in the shape of two earrings, as a gift to the goddess Venus in the Pantheon.

Gérard de Lairesse, Cleopatra's banquet, 1680

Among the most popular jewels among the Romans there were also magical amulets, in particular in the form of pendants, which served to defend against evil spirits. One of the most famous amulets was the lunula, shaped like a crescent moon. It was worn by women, since they were little girls, to propitiate fertility. Also very popular were the rings, which could represent a symbol of social status or a token of love. The Romans, in fact, exchanged the current equivalent of the engagement ring, the anulus pronubus, and the vinculum, the wedding ring, and like us, they wore them on the left ring finger because the vena amoris, directly connected to the heart, passes through this finger. Fibulae were also considered a jewel of great importance as, in addition to being a very useful functional jewel, their function became symbolic: it was thought that they preserved the inner virtues of the wearer.

Golden necklace with lunula, 1st / 3rd century AD

If we think of the Roman period, it is impossible not to mention the gold-leafed crown: Julius Caesar first used it to hide his baldness and then it became a tradition for the Roman emperors as a symbol of glory. Also very common were jewels that presented coins with the effigy of the emperors and cameos with celebratory purposes, with masterful representations of elaborate and complex scenes.

The city of Rome with its history is an eternal symbol of art and beauty. Its greatness still has proofs nowadays in painting, in architecture, in literature, as well as in the goldsmith’s art. And then there are the myths, the legends, the symbologies that reveal its most hidden aspects and let the fantasy run free, allowing the imagination to breathe the majestic culture of the Urbe.

Golden fibula, 3rd : 4th century AD
References
Casu, F. (2018). Il gioiello nella storia, nella moda, nell’arte. Europa Edizioni.
Geraci, G., & Marcone, A. (2016). Storia romana. Le Monnier Università.
Malaguzzi, S. (2007). Oro, gemme e gioielli. Mondadori Electa.
Messina, G. L. (1979). Dizionario di mitologia classica. Angelo Signorelli Editore.