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Worth The Weight: The Socio-Political Significance of The Roman Gold Ring


The study of Roman rings has traditionally been viewed as quite a niche bit of Classical Archaeology. This is a shame as, while many other ancient cultures produced and used finger rings, for the ancient Romans they took on a complex and important role. In studying these objects, scholars tend to focus mainly on signet rings, centring on the iconography of the intaglio with precious little attention paid to the band itself. [1] While these considerations are important, the significance of the band, specifically the gold band, merits further discussion. To illuminate the significance of the Roman gold ring, we will first look at its origins and pre-existing cultural influences. Then, we will explore how this timeless class of jewellery was woven into the social, political, and symbolic fabric of the Roman Republic, and how these values changed throughout the time of the Empire.





Why Gold?

 

Gold was highly prized in the ancient world for its incorruptibility and rarity in comparison to metals such as silver or bronze. [2] Gold rings were made in a myriad of different ways, reflective of the artistic trends of the time or perhaps the economic situation of the commissioner. They were often made hollow and filled with mastic or sulphur but in some cases, mostly confined to the days of the Later Roman Empire, were cast solidly. [3] Gold was also used throughout antiquity to plate or gild rings, disguising the lesser metals beneath. Indeed, the discovery in the 1960s of a metallurgical workshop in Sardis demonstrates that the ancient Lydians had figured out how to refine and part gold to create higher-quality jewellery as early as the 6th Century BC! [4]





Such a range of production techniques speaks to the importance of gold rings in the ancient world, not only for their ornamental function but also for their range of practical uses. Some of our earliest examples of signet rings were gold swivel rings dating to the 12th Dynasty of Egypt (Ca. 1991 BC – 1802 BC) (Fig. 2).[5] Used throughout antiquity, some of the most famous examples of this type include Julius Caesar’s signet ring, which features an armed engraving of his ancestress Venus, and Hadrian’s signet ring, which bore his portrait. [6] Aside from this, gold rings were dedicated as gifts at temples, used to ward off the evil eye, passed down as family heirlooms, and even fit with mechanisms to store small amounts of poison. [7] 


History and Influences

 

Before delving into our argument, we must briefly consider how gold rings developed before the rise of Rome, and how stylistic influence from other cultures bled into the Roman corpus.


We have spoken of Egyptian jewellery, but there is also some early evidence of gold rings in Mycenaean culture (Ca. 1600-1100 BC). These bore fixed metal bezels that were often engraved in the reverse direction with cult scenes, suggesting a purely ornamental function. [8] They died out during the Bronze Age collapse of Ca. 1000 BC and gold rings did not resurface in Greece until the Archaic period, when colonisation and increasing contact with other cultures revitalised workshops by the end of the 7th Century BC. [9] Production continued throughout the Classical period, where gold rings and their associated stones became fabulously large but suffered in quality, often made without engravings and thus suggesting a more ornamental function. [10]





A revolution in gold jewellery production occurred after the conquests of Alexander the Great, which saw the wealth and mishmash of cultural influences of the Persian Empire pour into the Greek world, leading to a surge in demand for flashy and elaborate gold jewellery (Fig. 3). [11] The designs pioneered by Hellenistic goldsmiths had far-reaching influence in Rome, for example, the knot of Heracles motif, which depicts an unbreakable knot with no ends, continues well into the Roman Imperial period (Fig. 4). [12] 




 

Gold Rings in The Roman Republic (Ca. 509-31 BC) [13]

 

Gold rings from the Republican era of Rome are difficult to come by, largely due to the limitations imposed on wearing them. The excessive wearing of jewellery was barred during the Republic, with Isidorus suggesting that it was considered unusual for a respectable man to wear more than one ring in the 1st Century BC. [14] This is a radically different view on the gold ring to the cultures that we have previously discussed, and it is tied up with the unique and deep socio-political importance the gold ring was imbued with during the Roman Republic.


Gold rings were a mark of rank and in the early days of the Republic, confined to a special class of individuals under very specific circumstances. They were honours bestowed by the state, and elaborately decorated per one’s socio-political position. [15] For example, Pliny tells us that envoys sent on matters of state importance wore gold rings, but following their service and return to Rome resumed the typical iron rings of the Early Republic. [16]





As time went on, the privilege of wearing gold rings gradually filtered into the upper echelons of society. Magistrates and their descendants were granted the honour by the time of the Battle of the Claudine Forks (312 BC). By the battle of Cannae (216 BC), the entire senatorial class could sport a gold ring. By the Late Hellenistic period, this honour had broadened out to include those of equestrian status. [17] The gold ring could also be awarded as a mark of military distinction, a visual marker of an honour system running parallel to the political world. By the 3rd Punic War the right had spread through the ranks of the army down to that of the military tribune. [18]


It is clear therefore that the gold ring means much more to Republican Rome than one would originally think. Actively distanced from its previous use as expensive ornament, the gold ring was a visual marker of excellence, power and esteem in Republican society.





Gold Rings in The Roman Empire


Gold Rings, in fact jewellery in general, became much more readily available during the Roman Empire. This change was catalysed in the 1st Century AD through a combination of relaxed sumptuary laws, the broadening of the criteria for who could wear the esteemed adornment, and an influx of wealth and resources flooding into Italy under Augustus. This change was a long time coming, however, as evidence from the 1st Century BC shows that the scandalous behaviour of some Roman politicians was causing the gold ring to become more publicly available.


We have an example from Cicero, a letter from his friend Asinius Pollio complaining that the questor Balbus had orchestrated a set of games and bestowed the gold ring upon the actor Herennius Gallus, allowing him to set amongst the equestrians at the theatre. [19] This is shocking given the low esteem with which the profession of acting was held at the time. Building on this trend, Augustus granted the right of the gold ring to all physicians and emperors thereafter were known to bestow the right onto anyone they so chose until by the late 2nd Century AD it merely came to signal one’s free birth. [20]



A roman gold ring with carnelian centaur intaglio
Figure 7. Roman Gold Ring with Centaur Intaglio. Ca. AD 200. £4000. Note the increasing elaboration in band design.


The democratisation of gold created a culture of ostentation in the Empire that harked back to the days of the Hellenistic world. The moralising literature of the 1st Century AD attests to this, with Seneca noting how every joint of the hand was utilised for ring-wearing during this time. [21] A satirical example of this trend is exemplified by Petronius’ iconic yet odious freedman Trimalchio, who demonstrates his wealth by sending for scales at dinner, allowing him to weigh his and his wife’s gold adornments in front of his guests. [22] Fitting with this ethos, the designs of gold rings became more elaborate. Protruding bezels, delicate filigree decoration, and highly decorated shoulders attest to the increasing tastes for luxury in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries AD (Fig. 8). [23] 




What does persist from the Republican period is the use of the gold ring as a military honour. This sentiment also lost its sense of exclusivity when Septimius Severus in AD 197 granted permission for all soldiers to wear the gold ring. [24] However, gold rings of unusual size and weight were still used by the emperors to mark exceptional military service. [25] Rings of this nature are usually characterised by an intaglio with military themes like Mars, Victory or sacrificing soldiers. [26]


Conclusion


The gold ring is therefore a piece of jewellery of great importance and manifold significance in the ancient world. They do however have a particularly complex and public function for the Romans. It must be said that the exquisite beauty of Roman gold rings would not have been achieved without the work of the Hellenistic and Etruscan craftsmen that went before and that these items do function as a marker of wealth, practical tool for administration, and personal emblem for many other ancient cultures. What is unique about the Roman relationship to gold is the extent to which it is embedded into the political landscape. Gold rings are a mark of status and one’s place in society, a symbol of military might, and a barometer for one's moral values. The changing attitudes and uses of such a charged item of jewellery thus provide us with a wonderful insight into the socio-political and moral landscape of the Roman world.



Written by Ella Wakefield


 

Looking to strike gold? Browse our collection of ancient jewellery here!



 

Bibliography


Berger, D., Brauns, M., Brügmann, G. et al., 2021, “Revealing Ancient Gold Parting with Silver and Copper Isotopes: Implications From Cementation Experiments and for The Analysis of Gold Artefacts.” Archaeol Anthropol Sci 13, 143.


Hemingway, C. and Hemingway, S., 2007, “Hellenistic Jewelry”, in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York.


King, C. W., 1872, Antique Gems and Rings, London.


Marshall, F. H., 1907, Catalogue of the Finger Rings, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman, in the Departments of Antiquities, British Museum. London.


Marshman, I. J., 2017, “All that glitters: Roman signet rings, the senses and the self” in Betts, E. (ed), Senses of the Empire: Multisensory Approaches to Roman Culture. London. Chapter 9.


Oliver, A. 1966, “Greek, Roman, and Etruscan Jewelry.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 24, no. 9. 269–84.


Weingarten, J., 2021, “Seals, Sealstones, and Signet Rings” Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford.


Notes


[1] Marshman 2017, 137.

[2] Oliver 1966, 269.

[3] Marshall 1907, xxxi.

[4] Berger, Brauns & Brügmann 2021.

[5] Marshall 1907, xv.

[6] Dio Cassius, XLIII. 43; Ael, Spart. Hadr. 26; Marshall 1907, xvii.

[7] Marshall 1907, xxii; Hemingway 2007. Silver, bronze, and iron rings also performed many of these functions, and generally survive in larger volumes.

[8] Marshall 1907, xvi.

[9] Oliver 1966, 270; Weingarten 2021.

[10] Marshall 1907, xxvi.

[11] Oliver 1966, 272; Hemingway 2007.

[12] Oliver 1966, 274

[13] Dating based on Octavian/Augustus’ victory at Actium rather than his ascension to Emperor (27 BC).

[14] Isodorus, Etym. XIX. 32; Marshall 1907, xix, xxv; Oliver 1966, 282. This is not a universal truth, for example, evidence from sarcophagi in Romanised Etruria in the 2nd Century BC shows that women’s fingers were loaded with rings in death.

[15] Isid., Etym. XIX. 32. 3.

[16] NH. XXXIII. 4; Marshall 1907, xvii.

[17] Livy, 9. 7, 23. 12; NH. 33.6-8; Marshman 2017, 139.

[18] Appian, VIII. 104; Marshall 1907, xix.

[19] Cic, Fam. X. 32. 2.

[20] Dio Cassius, LIII. 30; Marshall 1907, xx.

[21] Sen, QNat. VII. 31.

[22] Pet, Sat. 67.

[23] Marshman 2017, 140.

[24] Herodian, III. 8. 4.

[25] Marshall 1907, xxi; King 1872, 345.

[26] Marshall 1907, xx.

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