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Jewelry in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman gold jewelry found in Serbia
Roman gold jewelry found in Serbia

In ancient Rome, fashion developed more than in Greece. The main reason for this was the difference in the perception of the role of women. Roman women had other privileges, rights, and above all, they had many more freedoms and could participate in public life. Leading a rich social life, the perception of the external image of those interested changed, therefore fashion began to play an increasingly important role in their lives, and jewelry became a fantastic complement to the image of a fashionable Roman woman1.

In the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, the Romans had vast areas around the Mediterranean Sea, thanks to which they had access to many natural resources. This factor, as well as the very well-developed commercial network at that time, made it possible to acquire new materials and patterns for creating jewelry. Thanks to them, exotic and rare decorations were created. Trade routes led, among others, to Persia, India and the Far East. Earlier (not only in terms of jewelry, but also other aspects of culture), Greek and Etruscan art were modelled on2.

In Rome, precious stones were very popular; the most popular were emeralds. A big surprise for modern women may be the fact that diamonds appeared in these areas for the first time. In addition, jewelery was made of such stones as: agate, garnet, yarrow, and aquamarine. Although (and in the modern world) there were also fakes made of two-colour glass. Amber was also popular. The greatest expedition for this stone was organized during the reign of Nero.

The necklaces were made of blue-green glass beads and various chains with decorative links or pendants, for example, made of gold coins. It is much easier for us to imagine the necklaces because they were mainly dangling pearls, large golden circles or glass beads. On the other hand, rings enjoyed a considerable interest in both sexes. Wearing them by men initiated the handing over of them to the citizen by the emperor as a token of recognition. The average man could be content only with those made of iron because the gold ones were intended only for senators and dignitaries3.

Jewelry in the transition period between the republic and the empire did not have much value, because it was mainly focused on using it as a decorative element. Necklaces and tiaras served as bindings for coloured stones. Only during the empire, you can notice the enormous splendour and the growing importance of all trinkets.

Among the women of the higher rank, necklaces similar to their Persian counterparts were fashionable, made of a single or double string of pearls, in the shape of a collar trimmed with stones, with a pearl border. Gold bracelets and sixteen rings were also fashionable – two for each finger of both hands, except for the middle finger.

Roman bracelet from the late empire period and Roman brooches.

During the period of expansive apogee in Rome, it became fashionable to wear as much jewelry as possible. The empire then competed with the largest production centres, i.e. Antioch and Alexandria. Also from these areas, the Romans learned the art of ornamentation and the use of precious stones, as well as the technique of filigree and granulation. The first of these consisted in decorating the object with thin wires (mainly gold, but there were also silver ones) in a thin openwork mesh or making it entirely from such material. The second method was characterized by decorating the object with gold or silver balls. Over time, this intensified and was reflected in the wearing of heavy ornaments. Necklaces made of massive precious stones, earrings with three or four pearls in the form of heavy pendants or spirally twisted bracelets were fashionable. This custom we know was taken from Syria. The morning rituals of Roman matrons were not so different from the habits of some modern women. They used to put on as much jewelry as there was enough space for them. Necklaces were sometimes replaced with chains with key rings or simple pendants. Bracelets were worn both around the shoulders and ankles, which has recently also been seen in the way jewelry is placed in modern women. The love of women for all accessories developed to such an extent that it began to cause competition, and rings were even worn on the toes4.

Empress’s head.

A perfect example of a fashionable and luxury-loving Roman woman is Theodora, wife of Emperor Justinian. Apart from the rich covering of the body, the greatest attention was paid to the ornaments that the empress was wearing – a crown and an ornamented collar, which looked more like a necklace. The crown had the shape of a golden rim and was set with precious stones. Strings of pearls hung at the sides, and the collar was a mixture of gemstones and pearls. In a word, the empress became a role model for other women, although none of them equalled her in glamour.

Under the influence of other cultures – Greek played a special role here – many motifs used in the creation of jewelry have been preserved. An example is the knot of Heracles, which was an amulet to protect against evil, or the crown of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility – her image was visible on the earrings. The image of a coiled serpent, which symbolized immortality, was also popular. This motif was used for bracelets and was presented in one of the photos5.

It should be remembered, however, that apart from a decorative function, jewelry also had utility. The best example of this is the brooch with which the clothes were secured and fastened. A similar task was performed by a fibula, a metal clasp fastening the garments and resembling a modern safety pin. Due to the decoration of clothes, the fibula was often used as a gift. Rings that served as seals were also found many times6.

Roman rock crystal with a golden halo. The object is very small – 4.4 cm long. Dated on the 1st-3rd century CE.

By showing the image of a fashionable and luxurious Roman woman, we can see many similarities between her and a modern woman who follows constantly changing trends. In addition to competition and the inability to decide which trinket to wear on a given day, we can also see that the current jewelry is often inspired by ancient fashion. Thanks to obtaining civil liberties in Rome, the woman came to the fore and overshadowed the image of a man walking next to her. By drawing on culture and changing customs, jewelry became a class determinant (example of the aforementioned Empress Theodora).

Author: Magdalena Zdunek | (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  1. Therefore, it should not necessarily be considered that Romulus founded the city on seven hills.
  2. P. Guiraud, Rzym - życie prywatne i publiczne Rzymian, Warszawa 1896, s. 108.
  3. Ibidem, s. 108; [dostęp: 24 June 2014 r.]; [dostęp: 24 June 2014 r.].
  4. [dostęp: 24 June 2014 r.]; [dostęp: 24 June 2014 r.]; [dostęp: 24 June 2014 r.]; F. Boucher, Historia mody, Warszawa 2003, 2004, s. 102.
  5. Ibidem, s. 327; M. Gutkowska-Rychlewska, Historia ubiorów, Wrocław - Warszawa - Kraków 1968, s. 106-107; J. Corcopino, Życie codzienne w Rzymie w okresie rozkwitu, Warszawa 1960, s. 153; [dostęp: 24 June 2014 r.]; A. Sieradzka, Żony modne. Historia mody kobiecej od starożytności do współczesności, Warszawa 1993, s. 21.
  6. [dostęp: 24 June 2014 r.].
  7. Ibidem.
  • Boucher F., Historia mody, Warszawa 2003
  • Carcopino Jeorome, Życie codzienne w Rzymie w okresie rozkwitu cesarstwa, 1960
  • Guiraud P., Rzym - życie prywatne i publiczne Rzymian, Warszawa 1896
  • Gutkowska-Rychlewska M., Historia ubiorów, Wrocław - Warszawa - Kraków 1968
  • Sieradzka A., Żony modne. Historia mody kobiecej od starożytności do współczesności, Warszawa 1993

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