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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Author: fairydew1

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