In Focus

Roman Jewelry

The following is an excerpt from the 1996 publication Ancient Gold Jewelry at the Dallas Museum of Art.

No exact dates can be given for the end of the Hellenistic period and the beginning of a genuine Roman art. By about 200 BCE. Rome had established itself as the strongest political and military power in the ancient world. The final decline of the Hellenistic centers and the end of Greek political independence began with the Roman victory over the Macedonians in the battle of Pydna in 168 BCE. The downfall was completed by the annexation of Egypt after Cleopatra's death in 31 BCE.

Roman influence in the eastern Mediterranean region was not restricted to political questions; the self-assured Roman taste started to prevail. Many Greek craftsmen moved to Rome, attracted by the wealth of the capital. For a while, Hellenistic motifs continued to be used, and there was certainly no decline in craftsmanship, although Roman jewelry in general is much simpler in appearance than Greek goldwork. This contrast, however, is not the result of a lack of skill, but of a completely different aesthetic In the last two centuries BCE the overall tendency in jewelry found in all parts of the Roman empire was a new taste for elegant abstract shapes, an unbroken surface, and the combination of gold and precious stones.

Several grave finds and hoards dating to the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE illustrate the transition from late Hellenistic to Roman jewelry, when Hellenistic principles and ideas merged with Roman ones. Our main source of knowledge about Roman jewelry of the 1st century CE is the finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE. Roman jewelry of this period, with its strong tendency toward abstract design, surprisingly, seems closer to modern concepts of jewelry than to Greek designs.

The 2nd century CE is poorly represented as far as jewelry is concerned. Except for a few finds, mainly from provincial areas of the Roman world, we depend on depictions of jewelry on mummy portraits from Egypt and on funerary sculpture from Palmyra in Syria (2001.332) to fill the gap.

Numerous hoards, which were hidden in periods of unrest, reflect the vicissitudes of Roman history during the 3rd century BCE. In no other century is jewelry so well represented. Despite the constant political changes of the times, the applied arts in general, and jewelry in particular, were more magnificent than before.

Adapted from

Barbara Deppert-Lippitz, Ancient Gold Jewelry at the Dallas Museum of Art (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art in association with the University of Washington Press, 1996), 107.

Related Multimedia

Symposium in conjunction with Golden Treasures of the Ancient World, May 30–September 5, 1999; "God is Zeus’ Child: Precious Metalwork in the Ancient World", Dr. Bromberg, Anne R., Curator of Ancient and South Asian Art, DMA; "Ur of the Chaldees: Inside Woolley’s Excavations at the Birthplace of the Biblical Patriarch Abraham", Dr. Richard Zettler, curator of the Ur exhibition; Curator in charge of Near Eastern Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; "The Gold of Ur: The Socioeconomic Significance", Dr. Denise Schmandt-Besserat, Professor of Art and Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas at Austin; "Eriphyle’s Necklace: The Power of Ornament in Ancient Greece", Mary Louise Hart, Assistant Curator of Antiquities, The J. Paul Getty Museum; "Etruscan Jewelry: New Discoveries, Ancient Functions", Dr. Richard De Puma, Professor of Art History , University of Iowa