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The History of Roman Blown Glass

Roman glassware of the Late Republic and Early Imperial period was strongly influenced in its types and styles by luxurious metal tableware, imitating the lathe-cut and punched designs of the Hellenistic world. This old order was soon revolutionised by the invention of glassblowing, a technique that transformed the ancient glass industry and put the Roman Empire at its forefront.


The earliest evidence for glassblowing was found on the Syro-Palestinian coast in the early 1st century AD, with Pliny the Elder marking out the ancient city of Sidon as a key centre for the practice.[1] The favourable economic conditions created by Augustus, who had brought peace to Italy and its provinces following the civil wars of the 1st century BC, encouraged many of these artisans to Italy, where both foreign and local workshops began to flourish.[2]


Why was this new technique so popular? Glassblowing had many practical advantages over previous methods such as sand-core and cast glass. It used less raw material, was less labour intensive, and allowed artisans to create a plethora of varied designs, such as this beautiful bottle (Fig. 1). It even allowed glassblowers to recycle their unused fragments by simply melting them down again! This fact was discovered in the Flavian period (AD 69-96) and lauded by contemporary poets such as Martial, Juvenal and Statius.[3]




During the course of the 1st century AD, the Romans became glassblowers par excellence, producing stylistically distinct vessels in vast quantities and to a very high standard. Petronius relates this anecdote about the skill of Roman artisans:


There was a craftsman that once made a glass bowl that didn’t break. So, he got an audience with the emperor, taking his present with him. Then he made Caesar hand it back to him and dropped it on the floor. The emperor couldn’t have been more shaken. The man picked the bowl of the ground – it had been dented like a bronze dish – took a hammer from his pocket and easily got the bowl good as new. (Petronius. Satyricon. 51)

It is unlikely that the Romans truly did invent unbreakable glass, but scholars have surmised that the story of such hammered vessels relates to mould-blown glass, which was intricately decorated in relief. [4]


The Romans were master innovators, improving on tools such as the clay-blowing pipe through the invention of its iron counterpart which facilitated the production of larger glass vessels.[5] They also produced various coloured glass vessels through the addition of metal oxides, adding iron to create a lovely emerald colour or cadmium to create the vibrant yellow hue seen on this jar (Fig. 2). However, the last years of the 1st century AD marked a change in stylistic preferences, with these strong colours overtaken by “aqua” and colourless vessels, which dominated the market for centuries, possibly for their resemblance to rock crystal (Fig. 3)[6]





In any case, glass blown vessels became ubiquitous across the empire, with eminent workshops in Spain, Italy, Gaul and the Syro-Palestinian coast.[7] Glass balsamaria, such as this vibrant example, were ideal for the storage of perfumes, oils and cosmetics due to their odourless and non-porous nature (Fig. 4). The ease and low start-up cost of the glassblowing process also made the vessels relatively accessible, and they came to be used by nearly all members of Imperial society.[8]



The 3rd to 4th century AD saw a shift in the glassblowing industry. Diocletian’s price edict of AD 301 set maximum prices for various blown vessels that were thought by some to be too low, driving artisans out of the Roman market. In addition, Constantine granted a tax exemption for all glassworkers who moved to his new capital Constantinople, attracting many artisans and rejuvenating the eastern glass industry.[9] Despite these changes, Roman glass production continued and became increasingly elaborate, with many blown vessels adorned with trailing patterns (Fig. 5). The pinnacle of this was the “Lycurgus Cup” a magnificent cage cup adorned with an elaborate myth featuring Dionysus. The cup is remarkable as it changes colour from green to red in different light qualities.





Bibliography


Allen, D., 1998, Roman Glass in Britain. Princes Risborough.

Fleming, S. J., 1999. Roman Glass; reflections on cultural change. Philadelphia.

Israeli, Y., 1991, “The Invention of Blowing” in Newby, M. and Painter, K. (eds.), Roman Glass: Two Centuries of Art and Invention, London, 46-53.

Stern, E. M., 1999, “Roman Glassblowing in a Cultural Context.” American Journal of Archaeology, 103(3), 441–484.

[1] HN 36.193; Israeli 1991, 46-53. [2] Stern 1999, 443. [3] Martial. Epigr. 1.41.3-5, 10.3.3-4; Statius. Silv. 1.6.73-4; Juvenal 5.47-8. [4] Stern 1999, 444. [5] Stern 1999, 446. [6] HN 36.198; Allen 1998. [7] HN 36.190. [8] Strabo. Geog. 16.2. [9] Fleming 1999.



Written By Ella Wakefield

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