11. Roman Glass

Ancient Glass:Roman Innovation and Beauty

Roman glass collection at Three Hills Roman Heritage Museum – Melrose, Scotland 2016

Spending time in museums throughout Europe, and a few in North America, you frequently see examples of ancient glass. When I started to look through my photos, I noticed that I am consistently drawn to the delicacy and incredible skill of glass objects. Egyptians, Greeks and Romans achieved incredible feats through their splendidly colourful, highly decorated and inventive glassware. As broadly as we might imagine using glass objects today, there were items for specific purposes (perfumes) or more banal uses (water). From the most utilitarian to the highest prestige item, the presence of Roman glassware is one of the most enduring, yet delicate, symbols of empire that remain.

The Portland Vase – 1st Century AD Cameo Glass – British Museum. 2016

Early glass production was an elite (read: desperately expensive) tradition from the Hellenistic period, inherited from the Egyptians, which involved densely coloured glass. The small faces below give you an indication of the opaque colors, often used in beads and small functional objects d’art.

Small glass theatre mask ornaments – Museum of Egyptology, Turin 2016

The consumption of glass items before the 1st century AD, would have been limited by cost and access to skilled artisans. The Romans incorporated previous techniques and over time made it’s production truly their own. Interestingly, however,  at this point there was still no Latin word associated with it.
Through changes to techniques of manufacturing glass, new styles and skills were developed in Italy.

Roman Vessel – British Museum 2016

Glass blowing techniques opened up new styles of vessels, and perhaps today we take for granted that glass jugs and beakers were once new technology.

Roman Vessel – British Museum 2016

So ubiquitous was the eventual production of glass during the 1st century AD, that the ‘Aqua’ and clear coloured glasses produced within the empire were priced into common consumption. Glass was no longer simply a decorative series of beads on elite necklaces, or thick-walled vessels of the Hellenistic period into the late 1st century,. With Roman inventiveness, soaring thin-walled vessels which used pigments and lines display the skill of the craftsmen to show pearl hues, and movement on the vessels’ surface.

Roman Vessel – National Museum of Scotland, 2016

The dexterity, grace and occasional silliness in the manufacture of Roman glass products is a overlooked aspect of the study of Roman material culture. Not ignored, but next to a beautiful statue or sword, a tiny perfume bottle might not seem that interesting.

Roman Vessel – Museo di Antichità Turin 2016

These small vials contained perfumes and precious oils, chalices for fine mixed wines, and other vessels for elite good. Sometimes I wonder if they were show-pieces or of a more personal nature perhaps?

Portrait on glass – Naples National Archaeology Museum 2015

The cost of the items would suggest they were probably kept on display, but it is hard to know. Serving items would imply a public-use, and thus on show, but perfume bottles for a woman’s toilet could have been a more private piece of consumption.

Painted Roman Vessel – Museo di Antichità Turin 2016


Three Hills Roman Heritage Centre- Melrose, Scotland 2016

These gorgeous glasses were made of combinations of these elements pictured below, with added including colourants:

1.Sand; 2.Potash; 3. Seaweed ash; 4.Lime- National Museum of Scotland

The Cage-Cup
On a recent visit to Milan in April, I had the incredible fortune to not only meet up a burgeoning academic in the fields of religion and slavery in the Ancient World, but also a local expert of Milan’s historic sites! Ambra Ghiringhelli, an PhD student with the University of Edinburgh, showed me some of the wonderful archaeological sites in Milan with fantastic local details. One such item she drew my attention to was the cage-cup of Milan.

The cage cup of Milan – Museo Archeologico Milano 2016

The cage cup of Milan is an excellent example of what ‘living the good life’ in the Late Roman Empire would look like. Just another example of the 1% finding a way to make something that was now in the financial reach of many citizens of the empire, into a higher higher-level prestige item, again out of their reach.

The cage cup of Milan, 2016

The striking combination of glass colours and types; geometrical patterns, in contrasting colours from the inner cup, sit on top with lettering. The skill required in putting together something like this would have been quite sophisticated. There are multiple techniques involved, which scholars are still not in total agreement on how this was precisely done.

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Silver base cage-cup in Edinburgh 2016

The National Museum of Edinburgh has its own small example of what a Roman cage cup looked like in the northern province of Britannia. However, the Edinburgh example is made from metal but follows the same principles.
There have been about 50 examples of cage-cups found to varying degrees of preservation.

Thank you for checking out my blog, and feel free leave questions or comments!


Author: Zofia

I am a student of Classical Archaeology and an Artist living in Scotland. My passion for travel and Ancient History takes me to incredible archaeological sites which inspire and influence my art.

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