Roman Jewelry Part 3: Rings

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The Romans appear to have been more extravagant in their rings than any other people. Very few ornamental rings are earlier in date than the time of the Empire, when the passion for gold rings adorned with precious stones and engraved gems seems to have pervaded all classes ; and it reached such extravagance that Martial speaks of a man who wore six on every finger, and recommends another who had one of monstrous size to wear it on his leg instead of his hand.

Some individuals, we learn, had different sets of rings for summer and winter, those for the latter season being too heavy for hot weather. Their weight was sometimes very great, and it is not to be wondered that complaint was made of their liability to slip off when the finger was greasy at a meal.

Even until the latest times the ring retained its original purpose as a means of distinction or of recognition, and was used by its wearer to impress his seal on documents and private property. It continued also to be associated with the idea of power and privilege especially bestowed upon the individual. Thus the Roman paterfamilias wore on his finger a ring with a small key attached.

Every Roman appears to have chosen at pleasure the subject or device for his signet— a portrait of a friend or an ancestor, or some subject from poetry or mythology. Each of these devices became associated with a particular person, and served, like the coat-of-arms of later centuries, as a mark of identification.

The commonest variety of ring is formed of a plain band of gold which widens and thickens towards the bezel, and is set with a small stone. The latter is generally engraved, but is often quite plain. The similarity of the convex sardonyx to an eye often struck the ancients, and may account for this stone being frequently found not engraved in rings, and set in a collet, itself shaped into the form of a human eye. Such rings were no doubt worn as amulets.

Rings containing stones set in this manner have sometimes a flattened hoop and open-work shoulders. Other distinctly ornamental rings, known by the Romans as polypscpiii, are formed of two or more rings united together. A large number of Roman rings are of bronze, and the key rings referred to are, with a very few exceptions, of this material.

Iron and bronze rings were not infrequently gilded. Such rings, according to Pliny, were called Samothracian. Rings in the form of snakes were very popular, as were those shaped like a Herculean knot. Like other articles of jewelry, rings are sometimes set with gold coins of the late Empire.

A few ornamental rings have high pyramidal bezels which were sometimes hollow, and were made to contain poison. Hannibal killed himself with a dose of poison which he carried about with him in his ring; so did the officer in charge of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. ” Being arrested,” says Pliny, ” he broke the stone of his ring between his teeth and expired on the spot.”

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Roman Jewelry Part 2 Necklaces, Pendants, Amulets, Bracelets

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It is especially to be noticed that the shapes of all ancient jewellery and ornaments, particularly those of the Romans, were in a great measure decided by a belief in their magical efficiency. The wearing of amulets was most frequent among the Romans of all classes.

They were generally enclosed in a bulla, and suspended from the neck. A remarkable specimen of a bulla, found at Herculaneum, and presented by the Court of Naples to the Empress Josephine, is now in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. The lentoid-shaped bulla was worn almost entirely by children, but other pendants, shaped like pendent vases, or in the form of a square or cylindrical box, were a not unusual ornament of the necklace of Roman ladies. They probably always possessed a symbolical meaning.

The simple neck-chain, whether supplied with the appendage or not, was called a monile ; the luxury of latter times doubled or trebled the rows of chains. These were often of finely plaited gold or else of links.

Other necklaces were composed of mounted precious stones, the fashion for which appears to date from the Oriental conquests of Pompey in the first century B.C. Vast quantities of precious stones were brought into Rome at that date; for the treasury of Mithridates, captured at Talaura, contained, besides many other precious objects, “jewels for the breast and neck all set with gems.”

The Romans also wore necklaces composed of beads of various materials, both precious stones and glass, of many colors and various shapes. Amber was largely employed for the purpose, and held in high estimation by Roman ladies, who regarded it not only as an ornament, but as a talisman for protection against danger, especially witchcraft.

Amber in which small insects were enclosed was particularly prized : ” the price,” says Pliny, ” of a small figure in it, however diminutive, exceeds that of a living healthy slave.” Both cameos and large intaglios were in frequent use as pendent ornaments, and in the most recent pieces of Roman jewellery imperial gold coins were employed for rings, bracelets, and especially for pendants to necklaces.

For the latter purpose they are not infrequently found set in opus interrasile —the openwork characteristic of late Roman jewellery. The best example of cameos and coins mounted thus is a necklace in the Cabinet des M6dailles at Paris.’ In the case of bracelets, which were favorite ornaments among the Romans, two kinds have to be noticed.

The first, termed dextrocherium, was meant to be worn round the right wrist, and follows the same rules of formation as the necklace, but no pendent motives are introduced. Other bracelets are formed of two rounded halves of solid character, hinged, and closed by a snap. The second kind of bracelet or armlet, worn on the upper arm, was the brachiale or torques bracJiialis; another was the spinther, which kept its place on the arm by its own elasticity. The difference, however, between the different Latin terms for the armlet is somewhat obscure.

Originally of pure gold, bracelets were subsequently set with precious stones and engraved gems, and, like the specimen in the Imperial Cabinet at Vienna, with coins dating from the third century a.d. The serpent form appears to have been a favorite one among Roman ladies, and a fine pair of armlets of this design are in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Continued in Part 3

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Roman Jewelry Part 1: Ornaments for the Head and Earrings

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The foundation of the designs of Roman jewelry is to be found among the ornaments of the ancient Latin and Etruscan races which Rome subdued. That there is considerable resemblance also between Roman and Greek jewelry is natural, for the Romans, having plundered first Sicily and Southern Italy, and then Greece itself, induced Greek workmen with more refined instincts than their own to eke out a precarious living as providers of luxurious ornaments.

It is worthy of remark that, owing to various causes, Greek and Etruscan jewelry has survived in considerably greater quantity than has that from the much more luxurious times of the Roman Empire. It is customary to associate Roman jewelry with a degree of luxury which has not been surpassed in ancient or modern times.

Roman moralists, satirists, and comic poets refer again and again to the extravagance of their own day. The first named, from a sombre point of view, condemn the present to the advantage of the past; and the others, with a distorted view, study exceptional cases, and take social monstrosities as being faithful representations of the whole of society.

Under the Republic nearly all ornaments were worn for official purposes, and the wearing of precious stones was prohibited except in rings, but in imperial times they were worn in lavish profusion, and successive emperors, by a series of sumptuary laws, attempted to check the progress of this extravagance.

Many instances might be quoted of excessive luxury in the use of precious stones, like that of the lady described by Pliny, who at a simple betrothal ceremony was covered with pearls and emeralds from head to foot.

Yet Roman luxury was not without its parallel in later ages. For in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we read how at court the women carried their whole fortunes in a single dress. Further, as far as can be judged, the personal ornaments of the ancients were for the most part subject to much less frequent change of fashion than is inevitable under the social conditions of more modern times.

With regard to ornaments of the head, diadems and fillets were much worn. Ladies of the Roman Empire dressed their hair in the most elaborate manner, and adorned it with pearls, precious stones, and other ornaments.

For fixing their head-dresses, and for arranging the hair, they made use of long hair-pins. A gold specimen preserved in the British Museum is upwards of eight inches in length ; it has an octagonal shaft crowned with a Corinthian capital, on which stands a figure of Aphrodite.

Pearls were in particular favor as ornaments for the ears. Introduced into Rome about the time of Sulla, pearls were imported in large quantities during the Roman domination of Egypt. In Vespasian’s time Pliny, referring to earrings, says: “They seek for pearls at the bottom of the Red Sea, and search the bowels of the earth for emeralds to decorate their ears.”

Perfect spherical pearls of delicate whiteness were termed uniones (i.e. unique), since no two were found exactly alike. Pear-shaped pearls, called clenchi, were prized as suitable for terminating the pendant, and were sometimes placed two or three together for this purpose. Thus worn, they were entitled crotalia (rattles), from the sound produced as they clashed together. ” Two pearls beside each other,” Seneca complains, ” with a third on the top now go to a single pendant. The extravagant fools probably think their husbands are not sufficiently plagued without their having two or three heritages hanging down from their ears.” Earrings with single pendants were called stalagniia.

Continued in Part 2

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