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Ancient Roman Jewelry History & Facts

Ancient Roman Jewelry History & Facts


History Overview

Ancient Romans are renown for the complex jewelry designs and use of a wide range of materials, especially colorful gems and glass beads. This craft was extensively favoured by the influence and know-how of the different cultures they embraced and variety of natural resources available in all the Mediterranean territories under control. Additionally, an extensive trade network of imports provided access to exotic materials, semiprecious and precious stones that could travel for months along the ancient Silk Road of Persia, India and the Far East.

Ancient Roman Jewelry For Men

While wealthy men would collect fine art such as sculptures or silver wares, wearing one or several rings was tipically enough, especially during times subject to censorship. However, Roman men could also wear bracelets, collars with pendant and torcs. An interesting example is Roman dictator Titus Manlius, who in 361 BC challenged a Gaul to single combat, killed him and took his torc to wear it ever since, hence the nickname received as Titus Manlius Imperiosus "Torquatus" (who wears a torc). Since then and during the conquests of new territories in Republican times, soldiers were awarded with torcs / torques after their brave acts in battle and became a distinctive decoration of elite units.

Roman Men Jewelry

Mens Lion Jewelry Collection

Roman Women Jewelry

In contrast, Roman women would have collections of different jewelry sets and adorn their bodies with abundant luxurious rings, earrings, bracelets and necklaces all worn at the same time. The situation was such, there are many testimonies of husbands complaining about how much jewelry their wives demanded. Even Roman functional accessories like brooches or fibulas used to just fasten garments, were richly decorated with intaglios, precious stones and metals.

Romans came, saw, and made jewelry greater

Although much of the remaining ancient Roman jewelry resembles Greek and Etruscan creations, new forms were developed and borrowed from other cultures. Initially, Roman jewelry was somewhat more conservative and austere, in comparison to other Mediterranean cultures, but the continuous flow of goods from invasions and conquests, soon led to a more ostentatious lifestyle.

A gret deal of Roman jewelry were still made by Greek artisans, or imported from Egypt, with exactly the same distinctive symbols from these ancient cultures. Actually there are many examples of scarabs found in Roman areas far from Egypt like Hispania or jewelry with Isis figures worn during the Roman era. Other popular symbols of ancient Roman jewelry were snakes, an animal symbolizing health, fertility and immortality, most commonly in the form of bracelets.

snake jewelry set video thumbnail

Watch the video above from our snake jewelry collection

Roman Jewelry Materials

Semiprecious stones were imported from Egypt like lapis lazuli, emeralds, peridots, jasper, carnelian, onyx from Persia, amber from Gdansk and pearls from the Persian Gulf. Oddly enough, one of the best-known expeditions for the acquisition of amber, known at the time "the gold of the north", occurred during the reign of Emperor Nero, when a Roman Equite (a member of the Roman equestrian order) reports that they brought enough amber to build an entire stadium of gladiatorial combat (58 AD).

Lapis Lazuli Roman Bracelet

Gems forming cameos with portraits were also used as rings and pendants. Precious stones and pearls were particularly appreciated by the ancient Romans, like the jewelry found in the ruins of Pompeii, generously adorned with emeralds and pearls.

By the fall of the Roman Empire, exotic gems from India and the Far East were plentiful, including blue sapphire and topaz from India or Sri Lanka. 

Gold Roman body chain from the Hoxne Hoard

Gold body chain from the Hoxne Hoard

In order to cope with the demand from every Roman social class, there was a whole industry of stone replicas (glass beads) and a diverse casting of alloys which reduced jewelry manufacturing cost considerably. A proof of how much Romans cared about their image and showing their social status.

Ancient Roman Jewelry Facts

Perhaps one of the first collectors of precious stones was the Roman named Marcus Aemilio Escaurus (1st century BC) who started a frenzy fashion of collections. A madness that was documented when Mark Antony offered a Roman senator named Marcus Nonius a huge sum to purchase a large opal in his collection, which Antony wanted to gift to Cleopatra. When Nonius refused the offer he was told to sell the stone or leave Rome, and chose the second one.

There was a lot of pressure in terms of fashion, to adjust to the style accepted at that time, and a Roman Censor (Censorius) called Marcus Porcius Cato, or "Cato the Elder" (234-149 BC), created many rules and regulations against rampant luxury and hellenization. Cato imposed a heavy tax on certain forms of garments and personal adornments, especially for women. The word "censorship" is derived from Cato. So strict was Cato that even a Roman senator would be reluctant to use his gold ring privately.

Gold ring with carnelian intaglio portrait of Tiberius

Gold ring with carnelian intaglio portrait of Tiberius from ca. A.D. 14–37

While Roman women would wear a great variety of jewelry, the man used to wear at least one ring. The rings were commonly made of gold or electrum, and sometimes their stone shows an intaglio that was used to seal important documents with hot wax.

Gold ring with onyx intaglio

Gold ring with onyx intaglio from late 2nd–early 3rd century A.D.

Much information about how Roman-Egyptian jewelry was worn has been found at sites where the wealthy Roman women were buried in Egypt. Paintings, usually called "Mummy Portraits", were portraits showing the deceased at a younger age, dressed with the best clothes and jewelry.

Depiction of a woman wearing an orange chiton with black bands and rod-shaped earrings

Depiction of a woman wearing an orange chiton with black bands and rod-shaped earrings

Should you be inspired by our article, visit our collection of Roman jewelry for sale.

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