Rings and Roman Society

Rings and Roman Society

1. The Magi wear bracelets and fibula set with gems, and even their clothing is adorned with precious stones. Mosaic of the Three Magi

Rings and Roman Society

Pliny’s aim was to use the ring as a convenient symbol of social decline rather than to present an accurate history of rings, he is often quite informative about the actual use of rings. Only rings of iron were acceptable. A gold ring was worn only for official purposes by envoys on foreign missions and then returned to the state. Eventually, however, consuls and senators were allowed to wear a gold ring as a mark of civic status, and over time this honor was extended to the upper classes. Pliny, of course, was cynical about such laws and describes the abuses, where many citizens and even freed slaves who did not meet the requirements of the law were able to bend the rules and obtain a ring.

Rings and Roman Society

2. Painted mummy portrait 100-110 A.D. (Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum, inv. 81.AP.42)

Other critics of Roman society of the first century, such as the satirists Petronius and Martial, parodied the displays of wealth of the newly rich and those aspiring to high social status. Fortunata, the wife of the ludicrously ostentatious former slave Trimalchio in Petronius’ Satyricon, makes an appearance at a banquet wearing every imaginable piece of jewelry.
The wealth that poured into Rome with the conquest of neighboring Greece, especially in the first century B.C. Wealthy Roman women living in the newly acquired province of Egypt affected Egyptian tradition in being buried as mummies but had themselves shown as wearing jewelry of the latest style (ill. 2). Similarly, in remote Palmyra in Syria, carved tomb reliefs depicted women covered in jewels (ill. 3).
The large amount of surviving jewelry dating from the first and second centuries discovered throughout the Roman Empire, from Britain to Syria, shows that gold jewelry often served as a mark of social status. Most of these discoveries are chance finds of hidden treasure or merely lost items, which allow only a partial picture of how the jewelry was used. Somewhat more informative are the finds of jewelry from Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the other cities in the region aban doned by residents who fled in haste or worn by those who died trying to escape the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. The citizens there were no doubt very wealthy and owned a good amount of gold jewelry, although there is a general simplicity of style and not a great variety of ring types. The gemstones set in jewelry also tended to be of common varieties, mostly cornelians and agates. However, there were also many rings and earrings set with emeralds, garnets, and pearls, indicating that there was considerable interest in these rarer and no doubt more valuable materials.

Rings and Roman Society

3. Funerary relief, limestone bust of a woman named Herta from Palmyra, Syria 3rd century (London, British Museum, inv. 1885)

It was not the practice of the Romans to bury their wealth with the dead (unfortunately for modern archaeologists), but there are some notable exceptions. In 1993 the remains of a young woman were discovered in a late second- century sarcophagus at Vallerano, northwest of Rome. A rich assortment of jewelry and other objects of extraordinary quality, including two gold necklaces, three brooches set with engraved gems and cameos, a bracelet, six gold rings, a silver mirror, and a gold embroidered robe was buried along with her (ill. 4). It has plausibly been suggested that the furnishings of jewelry and personal belongings in this and several other burials of young women represented the dowry intended for a marriage that was prevented by untimely death. The collection of jewelry from Vallerano has no close parallel, however, and may well be an exceptional selection even among wealthy owners. The rings are remarkable for their unusual shapes and especially for their use of gems of great rarity and quality, including sapphires of deep blue color, emeralds, garnets, and even a diamond, which is very rarely encountered in Roman jewelry. The young girl’s parents evidently took a special interest in gemstones of high quality and had them set in unconventional rings and jewelry. These new varieties of jewelry anticipate the marked changes of taste that would occur in the third and fourth centuries at the time the empire itself was undergoing radical transformation.

Rings and Roman Society

4. Gold rings from Vallerano late 2nd century (Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano

The Roman Empire in the third century was in a near constant state of political turmoil, with a succession of short-lived soldier-emperors and usurpers, but there was still great wealth in private hands, as well as the usual desire for its display. Society itself was changing greatly, with many new citizens becoming prosperous. Service in the army brought citizenship to many, and the privilege of wearing a gold ring was granted to all soldiers in a decree of A.D. 197. Rings still functioned as a mark of social status but that status had broadened greatly.
Fashion in jewelry continued to change and many new ring types appeared in the late second and third centuries. Rings with openwork or sculpted hoops are especially notable for their design and careful workmanship. Key rings in gold and silver inspired by functioning bronze examples served as signs of social status, too, suggesting that the wearer, did, in fact, have valuable property locked up at home (cat. nos. 1 and 2). Heavy rings set with gold coins were also popular, especially with soldiers, and demon strated both an allegiance to the emperor depicted on the coin and the taste for gold. There was a short-lived vogue for gems engraved with personal monograms in the first half of the third century in the eastern, Greek-speaking part of the empire, which anticipated the great love for monograms as decorative devices that would emerge in Byzantium in the fifth and sixth centuries (cat. no. 4). Despite engraved gems falling out of fashion over the course of the third century, the interest in fine quality, unengraved gemstones appears to have increased over time. Already in the first century especially attractive gems were set in rings with openwork bezels so that, as Pliny explains, “they may remain exposed on both faces, with only their edges clasped by the gold.” In the later second and third centuries, this fashion continued, and large rings with chiseled decoration on the hoop and openwork bezels were set with stones of unusual quality, including sapphires, emeralds, and diamonds. One such ring in the present collection is set with a large rock crystal, convex on both sides, so that the shape is easily visible. The identities of the owners of such rings are unknown, but they were likely connoisseurs of fine gems. This taste for exotic gemstones would continue for the next few centuries.