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Looking Through Roman Glass September 8, 1997
by David Whitehouse


A mid-first century A.D. wall painting from Oplontis,
near Pompeii, depicts a glass bowl filled with fruit.
(Courtesy of the Superintendent for Archaeology, Naples)

The peoples of the Roman Empire used more glass than any other ancient civilization. Thanks to the discovery of glassblowing in the Syro-Palestinian region during the first century B.C., glass vessels became commonplace throughout the empire by the first century A.D. and from time to time were exported to places as far afield as Scandinavia and the Far East. An exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia presents more than 200 glass vessels from the museum's collection that were made between the first century B.C. and the seventh century A.D. Unlike most presentations of ancient glass, which focus on the finest or rarest objects and treat them as works of art, this exhibition is as much about people as it is about things. "We should never lose sight of the fact that each of these objects was once handled by someone like you or me," says Stuart Fleming, the show's curator.

Titled Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change, the exhibition has two principal themes: the development of the Roman glass industry and the many uses of glass in daily life. The development of the industry, the show suggests, was influenced by technical innovations, historical events, and changes in taste. The most far-reaching technical innovation was the discovery of glassblowing--arguably the most important discovery in the entire preindustrial history of glassmaking after that of glass itself. Before this discovery, glass vessels were made by labor-intensive techniques such as the creation of shapes by casting or slumping in molds and the finishing of surfaces by grinding and polishing, or by the formation of shapes around a removable core of lightly baked clay. The processes of casting and polishing were relatively slow, restricting the scale of production. Coreforming limited the size and shape of what could be made. Glassblowing provided a solution to all of these problems. Shaping a mass of molten glass by attaching it to a blow pipe and inflating it was faster than casting, and glassblowers soon learned that the biggest limitation on the size of an object was the strength of their arms.

[image] Opalescence on this four-sided juglet (left) [LARGER IMAGE] was caused by centuries of exposure to moisture. Produced in the eastern provinces, this pitcher (right) [LARGER IMAGE] was modeled on Roman silverware. (University of Pennsylvania Museum) [image]

The exhibition suggests that the historical events that gave glassworkers the opportunity to exploit the new technology were the victory of the future emperor, Augustus, at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., and its aftermath. The battle effectively ended a civil war, after which Rome became the capital of an empire that included most of the eastern Mediterranean. Augustan Rome was a rich city with a population that probably approached one million. Italy had other large cities, too, and the demand for manufactured items, including glass, was enormous. Glassmaking quickly became established, and blowing came into its own as the only technique that made large-scale glass production practicable.

At the same time, glass became fashionable. Although lacking the intrinsic value of rock crystal and precious metal, it is attractive and, while some looked down on glass because it was cheap, others admired it. Thus, one emperor, Gallienus (reigned A.D. 260-268), refused to drink from a glass "because nothing was more common," but another, Tacitus (reigned A.D. 275-276), "took great pleasure in the diversity and elaborate workmanship of glass." The Romans' ambivalence about glass is neatly summed up in Petronius' Satyricon, where Trimalchio, the quintessential parvenu, remarks to his guests at dinner, "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." Glass had several practical advantages over other materials. As Trimalchio observed, glass vessels do not impart a taste or smell to substances they contain, and for this reason they were frequently used for food, perfumes, and medicines; indeed, the physician Scribonius Largus (active about A.D. 50) insisted that certain medical preparations should only be kept in glass containers.

[image] Every morning, a well-to-do Roman lady would have herself bathed and made-up by her maids before visiting or being visited by her friends. The favorite scents of the day were toilet waters prepared with French lavender, saffron, and crushed rose petals: in the evening, heavier perfumes based on cinnamon and myrrh might be worn. (Courtesy of the Terme Museum, Rome)

A mid-first-century-A.D. bottle (left) would have been used for perfumed oils and cosmetic lotions. A Roman maid, right, prepares perfume. (University of Pennsylvania Museum)

Glass was used at all stages in the preparation and consumption of food. Although the very rich would eat from gold and silver plates, many more used glass vessels for serving food, for drinking, and for washing hands between courses. Indeed, Propertius (died ca. 2 B.C.) reported that glass services were used instead of metal ones for drinking or dining in summer, and Seneca (died ca. A.D. 65) maintained that fruit appears more beautiful when it is in a glass vessel. At his absurdly lavish dinner party, Trimalchio served rare, vintage wines in glass amphorae. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, various foods and condiments, such as garum, a popular fish sauce, were stored in glass bottles and jars. In his treatise on agriculture (written ca. A.D. 60-65), Columella recommended using glass jars for preserving pickles. The jars should have vertical sides, he wrote, so that the contents can be compressed. Glass containers not only preserved the flavor, but also had the advantage (in a society with a high level of illiteracy) of allowing one to see the contents without removing the cover.

The use of glass extended from daily life to the grave. In times and places where cremation was customary, mourners would pour libations and sprinkle perfumes on the pyre. Excavators of Roman cemeteries occasionally find the distorted, fire-damaged remains of glass bottles used in the these rituals. Sometimes the ashes of the deceased were collected in glass urns. These might be special cinerary urns, occasionally with a perforated, funnel-shaped lid that allowed one to pour libations over the ashes; but often a large storage jar was used for the purpose. Many people in the Roman world believed in a conscious existence after death and useful objects, including glass vessels and their contents, frequently accompanied the deceased to their tombs. In fact, tombs are the source of the great majority of the Roman glass objects that have survived intact.

[image] This glass bottle, left, would have been used for perishables such as olive oil and the popular fish sauce garum. [LARGER IMAGE] Jars, such as the one to the right, were used for storing salt and favored spices--pepper, rue, and cumin. [LARGER IMAGE]
(University of Pennsylvania Museum)

The wide availability of glass and its association with so many different activities suggest an impressive level of production and distribution. In some (perhaps many) parts of the Roman world, a clear distinction existed between the glassmaker, who melted the raw materials, and the glassworker, who acquired chunks of glass in much the same way that a coppersmith might acquire ingots of copper, remelt it, and fashion it into objects. In the Syro-Palestinian region, excavations have shown that late Roman glassmakers were able to produce several tons of glass (sufficient to make tens of thousands of small to medium-size vessels!) in a single operation, and archaeologists have begun to question how widely the raw glass was marketed. Most glassworkers, on the other hand, probably made their vessels in small workshops that supplied local consumers, who included both the general public and vendors of merchandise that was traded in small quantities. At this local level, recycling may have provided glassworkers with a useful supplement to the unworked material acquired from glassmakers. Both Statius (died ca. A.D. 96) and Martial (died ca. A.D. 104) described street traders bartering sulfur for broken glass, and the most likely explanation for the demand for broken glass is that glassworkers recycled it, just as coppersmiths recycled scrap metal.

Clearly, glass was an integral part of the economic, social, and cultural life of the Roman world, and this exhibition, open through November 1998, provides us with fascinating glimpses of how, when, and why it was used so widely.

David Whitehouse is the director of the Corning Museum of Glass.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America