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The Glass Revolution of Ancient Rome

Roman glass jar, globular bowl, Israel, circa 2nd century AD.  Height: 7-1/2"

Roman glass jar, globular bowl, Israel, circa 2nd century AD, Palmyra Heritage.

“You will excuse me for what I am about to say: I prefer glass vessels. Certainly, they don’t smell and, if they weren’t so fragile, I would prefer them to gold. These days, however, they are cheap,” a wealthy character tells his guests in the classic Latin work Satyricon. By mid-first century A.D., glassware was ubiquitous in the Roman Empire and popular opinion was sorely divided. According to Archeology magazine, one emperor, Gallienus refused to drink from a glass “because nothing was more common” while the great writer Seneca loved glass vessels and insisted fruit looked more beautiful held in them.

Roman glass plate, Israel, 2nd Century AD.Roman glass plate, Israel, 2nd Century AD, Palmyra Heritage.

Although glass vessel casting began as early as fifteenth century B.C. in Egypt and Mesopotamia, there is no evidence the pieces were imported to the central Roman empire. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the “Roman glass industry sprang from almost nothing” and within a couple of centuries, Romans were using more glass than any other ancient civilization. Likely, Rome’s economic dominance in the Mediterranean coincided with the invention of glassblowing to revolutionize the glass making industry. With glassblowing, craftsmen could make more shapes, and as Satyricon‘s wealthy character, Trimalchio, notes, glass was orderless, unlike metals.

Ancient perfume date flask, glass, Rome, 1st century AD.

Ancient perfume date flask, glass, Rome, 1st century AD, Palmyra Heritage.

As Trimalchio goes on to say, glass was cheap by his day. When casting glass was the only method of production, only the wealthy could afford the novelty vessels, which they used to hold oils and perfumes. Glassblowing changed all that by offering less expensive, mass-producible wares. According to the Art Institute of Chicago, “blown glass became so popular it nearly supplanted ceramic and even bronze wares in the home.” Mass production also enabled playful shapes, like the date above, which was likely cast using an actual date as a mold (most molds were clay). The date was a popular mold as it was was a symbolic gift for the New Year as well as a staple of the Mediterranean diet.

Roman glass bottle, Israel, 2nd century BC.

Roman glass bottle, Israel, 2nd century BC, Palmyra Heritage.

While affluent Romans like Trimalchio remained ambivalent about the dissemination of glass to the masses, for antiquities enthusiasts today, the commonness of Roman glass is one of its most appealing aspects. Glass vessels featured in every aspect of daily life from holding scented waters for ladies’ morning toilette to bearing wine and water at the evening dinner table. And when they died, many Romans took their glassware with them. The majority of intact Roman glass existent today was found in tombs–Romans believed in lining their graves with useful objects. So glass collectors know that when you pick up a Roman glass vessel, you’re holding the entire history of a person’s life and death, the iridescent dust coating it representing the intimate touch of an ancient past.