According to the ancient Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), Phoenician merchants moored on the river Belus discovered glass accidentally in Syria around 5,000 BC. However the first glass objects, mainly beads, date back to around 3,500 BC in Mesopotamia. Phoenician merchants and sailors later spread the glass making techniques throughout the Mediterranean.
Cast glass was produced in two basic ways—through the lost-wax method and with various open and plunger molds. The most common method used by Roman glassmakers for most of the open-form cups and bowls in the first century B.C. was the Hellenistic technique of sagging glass over a convex “former” mold. However, various casting and cutting methods were continuously utilized as style and popular preference demanded. The Romans also adopted and adapted various color and design schemes from the Hellenistic glass traditions, applying such designs as network glass and gold bland glass to novel shapes and forms. Distinctly Roman innovations in fabric styles and colors include marbled mosaic glass, short-strip mosaic glass, and the crisp, lathe-cut profiles of a new breed of fine monochrome and colorless tableware's of the early empire, introduced around 20 A.D. This class of glassware became one of the most prized styles because it closely resembled luxury items such as the highly valued rock crystal objects, Augustan Arretine ceramics and bronze and silver tableware's so favored by the aristocratic and prosperous classes of Roman society. In fact, these fine wares were the only glass objects continually formed via casting, even up to the late Flavian, Trajanic, and Hadrianic periods (96–138 A.D.), after glassblowing superceded casting as the dominant method of glassware manufacture in the early first century A.D.
Glassblowing was invented in the Syro-Palestinian region by craftsmen from Sidon and Babylon between 27 BC and 14 AD. The technique consisted of blowing air into molten glass with a blowpipe. This blown glass was thin and easier to model. It came to Rome in the 1st century AD with craftsmen and slaves after the area's annexation to the Roman world in 64 B.C. The new technology revolutionized glass production, stimulating an enormous increase in the forms and designs that could be produced. Glassworker's were no longer bound by the technical restrictions of the casting process. Blowing allowed for unparalleled versatility and speed of manufacture. These advantages spurred an evolution of style, form and experimentation, leading craftsmen to create unique shapes; examples of which include flasks and bottles shaped like human heads, fruits and animals.
Roman glass is a soda-lime type; its main ingredient, silica being fluxed by sodium and calcium oxides, together with potassium, magnesium and aluminium oxides. Most Roman glass vessels of the first century AD are characteristically modelled in bluish-green translucent glass with a high level of purity, the only impurity being in the sand, namely iron oxide. Later, other metal oxides were added to glass to give it a variety of different colours: antimony for an opaque white; antimony, together with lead for an opaque yellow; cobalt for a deep blue; copper for greenish blues and opaque reds haematinum and manganese for pinks and purples. Manganese, in conjunction with iron oxide gave yellows and browns, but was also used as a decolouriser, since in small quantities it has the effect of neutralising the blue-greens of the iron oxide.
During the later Roman period, particularly In the Eastern Mediterranean, we see the widespread use of trailing glass as decoration, this was often coloured to contrast with the body of the vessel. The iridescence on much Roman glass is unintentional, a result of chemical processes after the vessel was buried.
The most common form of Roman glass vessel was the unguentarium. Unguentaria were extremely popular throughout the Roman world and used to contain perfumes and oils, both in private life and in ceremonies. Examples are frequent finds in Roman burials. The Romans believed that beauty routines, for which such beautiful vessels were required, would continue into the afterlife.
These vessels were used for storing perfumed oils and other expensive cosmetic liquids and are often associated with Roman bathing and cleansing practices, where their use was widespread. They were made in a variety of materials including bronze and fired clay, but glass is the most common variety found. Similarly to unguentaria, they were found in burials with the deceased, where evidence suggests that not only perfumes were held in them, but oils and wine, acting as a last toast to the deceased.
Roman glass beakers often mimic their pottery cousins, particularly the indented forms. Free-blown and mould-blown forms are found including the unusual and attractively decorated ‘circus’ beakers of the 1st century AD. Glass beakers were probably much more widespread than the archaeological record indicates, but as essentially domestic items, most haven’t survived the rigors of time.
Roman glass bowls were high-status items almost certainly the preserve of the wealthy elite. They come in a number of forms and sizes. The first and most prized by collectors are the large, pillar-moulded bowls like the fine example shown on the Minerva Ancients homepage. These date from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD. Most bowls were made specifically as tableware to hold all kinds of Roman food including fruits, vegetables, dates, snails and oysters. Later bowls tend to have little or no decoration.
Roman square glass bottles were designed for the storage and transport of liquids and other foodstuffs across the Roman Empire. The square profile allowed for many to be packed closely together for transport. For a detailed discussion see F. D. Charlesworth, 'Roman square bottles', Journal of Glass Studies 8, p.26-40. These square glass bottles are hard to find roman antiquities for sale.
Roman glass bracelets are beautiful objects and highly sought after by collectors. Unlike the majority of Roman glass, their concentric shape makes them unusually robust, so many have survived in the archaeological record. They come in the same colours as glass vessels, but unlike these larger items, their smaller size makes them more affordable, particularly in the popular colours of blue, red and yellow. In terms of style, like many items from the early empire, bracelets tend to be of simple design, the colour or material providing the bling effect. Later and into the post Roman Islamic period, glass bracelets show a return to bands of colours and inlaid patterns. The large number of smaller bracelets found were widely worn by Roman children or as hair toggles.
Glass beads were first created about 3,500 years ago in Egypt and Mesopotamia, with scholars believing that many bead types found in Egypt were made there. These beads were made from drawn tubes of glass. Instead of pressing these into moulds and then cutting them into individual beads or segmented sections of bead – as would be the norm for Roman production – the tubes have been cut into individual beads - like Roman turquoise blue cylinder beads.
Doughnut shaped and oblong are the most common forms with shades of blue a predominant choice. Faience ‘Melon’ beads which originate in Egypt were highly prized and come in a variety of shades from white to cobalt blue. The most common being a bright aqua blue.
Roman glass beads are ubiquitous and common grave goods, the deceased often being buried with their jewellery.
Roman glassmaking reached the farthest corners of the Empire and flourished until about 400AD, when the Roman Empire started to disintegrate until it finally fell in the late 5th Century AD.
As a general rule of thumb: the higher the purity of the glass, the earlier. Pale bluish-green glass is often from the first or second centuries AD. By the late third and fourth centuries the purity drops significantly as much glass is recycled and glass making skills diminish. Much later Roman glass has a distinctly murky green colour. Finally, if you’re lucky to find some marbled glass then it is almost certainly early, dating from the Roman republic or the first century AD. However, there are many attractive forms from the eastern mediterranean with intricate trailed glass decoration dating to the fourth century.
Roman glass antiquities are some of the most collectable Roman artefacts available and look spectacular when displayed in a lit cabinet.
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