Jewelry is a fascinating fashion accessory that has been popular from ancient times. It has played a variety of roles including political, religious and ornamental, and jewelry artifacts have helped modern historians shape pictures of the daily lives of ancient civilizations.
Jewelry in ancient Rome is no exception. There are literary accounts and pictorial depiction such as in the Regina tombstone, plus an abundance of other artifacts available that help us to understand the role jewelry played during this fascinating time.
Jewelry was worn by men and women though it was subject to conventions of the time; particularly with regards to the appearance of men. Male jewelry was typically practical in nature. Men usually wore a single ring. The ring would serve a functional purpose. Typically a signet ring, the male jewelry item was used to seal official documentation. The male signet ring was initially iron but was later produced in gold as it displayed status and wealth more clearly.
Other practical uses of the signet ring included the inlay being a type of key for a strong box. Literary evidence suggests that propriety regarding male jewelry was ignored by a minority of fashion fanatics, as with any other social group. Trends and attitudes also changed from the time of Emperor Augustus. The emperors were established with official state clothing during his reign which included jewelry as a display of status and power.
Jewelry also had a protective function in ancient Rome. Boys wore an item of jewelry known as a bullah. This was worn from being a baby. It was worn around the neck and was a form of chain with a pouch which contained an amulet. This was a jewelry item worn by most classes, but the rich upper class had bullahs made of gold. The amulet was often phallic in design, as boys were considered to be the stronger species and so needed protection. Another jewelry item worn by boys was a small gold ring which was again carved with a phallus for good luck
With regards to women, jewelry was first and foremost a display of wealth and status. Women had no obvious status distinction through their dress like Roman men. Therefore, hairstyles and jewelry were the only distinction possible. The importance of jewelry to the status of women is apparent through certain historical events. When the Oppian law was passed in 195BC curbing the use of jewelry and suggesting it be handed over for war materials, women demonstrated against this in the streets. During the campaigns of Marcus Curellius, women chose to donate their jewelry to get enough gold to send a huge gold vase as an offering to Delphi. Their behavior was rewarded with speeches at funerals which had previously been only for men.
The type and amount of jewelry worn by women varied, but the richest women were the most flamboyant in terms of amount and style. Amber jewelry was only worn by lower class women and was thought vulgar by the wealthy who favored gold jewelry. Other items used to make jewelry include pearls, colored glass beads and polished stones. These would be inset in gold and would vary in size and style, depending upon status. It was possible to tell a lot about a woman in ancient Rome by the jewelry she wore.
The types of jewelry worn include necklaces with adornments such as pendants, amulets. Fibula which are similar to safety pins were used as fasteners and so were often adorned to make them a piece of jewelry that was both function and beautiful. Earrings were popular and came in both hoop and drop styles. Rings were usually inset with stones or carvings.
Particularly popular jewelry items were engraved gems which were referred to as intaglio. These were gems such as carnelian, jasper and chalcedony that had a sunken or engraved image, created with the use of wheels and drills.
Tomb jewelry findings suggest that bracelets were usually worn in pairs with one on each arm. Some tombs have revealed up to 7 items of jewelry on each arm which shows how the conventions for men and women differed. Even gold thread hairnets have been discovered.
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