Roman glass - eastern invention meets empire

Updated: Nov 10

Romans in the Roman Republic apparently made relatively little use of glass, but the nexus of the invention of glass blowing, the annexation of Syria and the formation of the Roman Empire provided a background for the flourishing of the production and desirability of glass objects across the Roman world and beyond, with techniques still used today. Roman glass artifacts are some of the most beautiful and affordable available to collectors of antiquities.

A close up view of the discus of a Roman oil lamp with gladiators fighting from Met Museum
Roman blue marbled glass flask; 1st half of 1st century AD

A history of how glass came to Rome

Pre-Roman

Invention, annexation and empire

Romans get a taste for glass

Catering for all Roman tastes

Luxury glass

Tableware

Utilitarian glass

Focus on unguentaria / balsamarii

Collecting Roman glass

References & further information


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A history of how glass came to Rome


Pre-Roman


Glass making was invented probably in the Early Bronze Age in the Near East. The earliest known objects were beads.


During the Hellenistic Period techniques were developed at the main centres of production at Phoenicia and Alexandria. Core-formed glass involved canes of molten glass trailed and shaped onto a solid core mould, often decorated with a comb-like tool dragged to form zig-zag patterns.


Mosaic effects could be achieved by fusing pre-formed multi-coloured glass rod sections to the outside or inside of a mould. Cast glass was poured into an open mould. The sandwich-gold technique involved gold leaf being 'sandwiched' between two layers of glass.


Glass artifacts remained as luxury items, the production of which required wealthy patronage as it was slow and expensive.


Invention, annexation and empire


Syrian craftsmen from Babylon and Sidon pioneered new techniques in established workshops, and glass blowing was invented somewhere along the Syro-Palestinian coast in the 1st century BC. The development of this cheaper and quicker technology more-or-less coincided with the Roman annexation of Syria by Pompey the Great in 64 BC. Soon after, the Roman Republic fell and transformed into the Roman Empire, when Syria became a Roman province. While the Roman Republicans had apparently had little interest in glass, the first emperor Augustus established the relatively peaceful and prosperous period known as the Pax Romana, when the growth of trade, travel and migration of skilled craftsmen from the eastern provinces to Italy was enabled and encouraged.

It would seem that only after the annexation of Syria ... did craftsmen from the East move to Rome and take the first steps towards setting up a glass industry in Italy.
... It also meant that they could now cater for a whole new market, and the Romans were quick to adapt to using tablewares and utilitarian vessels made in glass.

CS Lightfoot, Ancient Glass in National Museums Scotland, NMSE, 2007, p16


Romans get a taste for glass


The early empire Romans enjoyed glass made from older methods such as cast glass and mosaic glass, 'millefiori' or 'a thousand flowers', a method of glass-making still used at the famous Murano factory in Venice.


Blown glass, both free blown and mould blown, became widespread in the 1st century AD. The technique of blowing into a mould was particularly useful for larger containers mass-produced to a fixed size or shape. The popularity of glass grew quickly from small perfume bottles to an array of affordable mass-produced glassware catering for all tastes - practical, utilitarian, decorative and luxury.

Goods wers shipped and stored in glass bottles ... Wine was poured from glass jugs ... Cremation burials were even placed in large glass urns ... Whereas earlier techniques stressed bright colors and patterns, blowing emphasized the translucency and thinness of glass.

SH Auth, Ancient Glass at the Newark Museum, 1976, p17





Catering for all Roman tastes


Luxury glass


Luxury glass for the wealthiest Romans could be highly decorative eg. incorporating gold leaf or imitating semi-precious stones, carving through layers of different glass in cameo glass, of which probably the most famous example is the Portland Vase in the British Museum. Decorative glass was used for vessels, plaques, medallions, jewellery, sculptures, wall decorations and mirrors. Engraved colourless glass, resembling rock crystal, was also highly prized.


Tableware

Finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum show that glass was made in sets for tableware.

SH Auth, Ancient Glass at the Newark Museum, 1976, p17

Non-porous, odourless and with an inherent beauty, glass quickly overtook pottery to become the most popular material for drinking vessels. By the reign of Augustus (27 BC-14 AD), the production of some styles of clay cup had stopped completely.

Christie's online Roman glass collecting guide


Utilitarian glass

Unlike in the modern world, very few ancient glass vessels were made as decorative objects. The great majority were functional and utilitarian.

CS Lightfoot, Ancient Glass in National Museums Scotland, NMSE, 2007, p19


The array of everyday glass bottles, flasks, jugs and perfume bottles is the most familiar to modern collectors, many of which have remained intact as grave goods. They can be both affordable and beautiful, no less so for being utilitarian. These artifacts were of blown glass, ubiquitous, disposable and cheap for the ordinary Roman.



Focus on - unguentarium / balsamarium


Many of the Roman glass objects affordable to today's collectors are bottles and flasks that were used to hold oils and perfumes that would have been traded from all corners of the Roman world. These are known as unguentaria or balsamarii.


'Pirus' means pear in Latin. Unguentaria were often pear-shaped with a narrow neck to restrict flow of the contents and to make them easier to seal.




Collectors often admire the iridescence that comes with age on ancient glass.


Tall iridescent glass candlestick unguentarium
'Tall bottle' unguentarium, 16.8 cms tall, eastern Mediterranean, circa 3rd century AD



The 'cotton reel' shape of this unguentarium is characteristic of Roman Egypt. The thick walls create a durable container with a very small capacity.




This example is formed as a pair of conjoined tubes with thickened rims and a high arched basket handle, decorated with glass trail. There are areas of iridescence and silvery crust in places and earthy deposits.




 

Collecting Roman glass


Condition - it is perhaps remarkable that glass can survive 2000 years, but it is preferable to look for items that are intact.


Iridescence - collectors often like to see patina on glass, which is proof of age and beautiful in itself. The more there is, the less the item has been handled.