During the late Republic, wealth poured into Rome on an unprecedented scale in the form of tribute, taxes, and profits from commerce and banking. Not all of the riches were honestly or legitimately acquired, for some came in the form of booty and spoils, including defeated enemies of Rome that were enslaved. It did mean, however, that a few leading men, such the general and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus (ca. 115–53 B.C.), became enormously rich. Such wealth was used principally to secure success in the intense political rivalry that afflicted Rome at that time, but it also stimulated patronage of the arts, the formation of libraries and art collections, and the construction of palaces and gardens.
Although Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, attempted to curb these extravagances and excessive displays of personal wealth, well-to-do Romans increasingly indulged their taste for luxury during the Julio-Claudian period (27 B.C.–68 A.D.). In addition to spending fortunes on sumptuous villas, lavish entertainment, fashionable clothes, and entourages of slaves and hangers-on, men and women in high Roman society furnished themselves with a range of expensive personal items. Along with gold jewelry such as earrings, necklaces, and finger rings, the Romans loved expensive silver mirrors, ivory combs and hairpins, and an assortment of boxes and containers for perfumes and cosmetics. These precious items give an indication of the variety and quality of the craftsmanship that was required to provide for the needs of wealthy Roman clients. Other accessories, known only from literary sources, were in more perishable materials, such as costly silks imported from China or flamboyant wigs made from the hair of German or British slaves. Ivory was also imported to Rome mainly from Africa via the Nile.
Roman ladies also developed a taste for elaborate jewelry decorated with colorful, exotic stones. Amber and pearl were two of the most popular and sought after materials; the former was brought from the Baltic Sea, and the finest pearls were imported from the Persian Gulf, although one reason given to justify the conquest of Britain during the reign of emperor Claudius (41–54 A.D.) was that it was a rich source of pearls. Other rare and expensive gems included amethysts, sapphires, and uncut diamonds, all from various parts of southern Asia. These were prized for their brilliancy and transparency. Emeralds from the eastern desert of Upper Egypt were also very popular; they were usually left in their natural form as prisms, which were drilled and strung on gold necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. Many funerary portraits of women—particularly the painted mummy portraits from Roman Egypt (examples of which are on display in the Egyptian galleries) and the sculpted stone portraits from the caravan city of Palmyra in Syria (examples are exhibited in the Ancient Near East galleries)—show the deceased wearing such jewelry as a lasting indication of their social status and personal wealth.
Some luxury materials were so rare or costly that they gave rise to cheaper, manmade imitations in both pottery and glass, but even in these we can recognize a technical and artistic skill of the highest caliber. Such is the case with mosaic glass and marbled ceramic tablewares, made to reproduce the striking patterns of banded agate. Cameo glass, the most difficult and costly of all Roman glass, was also inspired by layered semiprecious stones. There are, for example, many Roman gems in cameo glass that were made as less expensive alternatives to real cameos in banded agate or sardonyx. In addition, it must be remembered that much has been irretrievably lost, especially objects in gold and silver, which could easily be melted down and reused. Others became heirlooms and relics that were later incorporated into medieval and Renaissance works, such as some of the semiprecious stone vessels in the Treasury of San Marco in Venice.
In the third century A.D., the Roman empire was beset by barbarian invasions in Europe, a renascent Sasanian Persian empire in the East, internal disorder, and rampant inflation. Nevertheless, the empire’s accumulated resources meant that the privileged elite in Roman society continued to enjoy a life of untold wealth and luxury. One result of the increased dangers was that people buried their precious possessions and failed more often to return to collect them. Hoards of silver and jewelry have consequently been found in considerable numbers throughout the Roman world. There was certainly no diminution of skill and inventiveness of the craftsmen who produced these luxuries, but new styles in design and fashion developed. In particular, jewelry and ornaments became more colorful and garish, and they included the use of gold coins (an attractive but practical way to beat inflation). Such tastes led ultimately to the adoption by the emperors of ceremonial silk robes and regal-looking gold crowns, decorated with pearls and precious stones. It was to be a fashion that greatly influenced later Byzantine art, and even in the West the rulers of the successor kingdoms never completely forgot the wealth and splendor of ancient Rome.
Lightfoot, Christopher. “Luxury Arts of Rome.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/luxu/hd_luxu.htm (February 2009)
Henig, Martin. "The Luxury Arts: Decorative Metalwork, Engraved Gems and Jewellery." In A Handbook of Roman Art, edited by Martin Henig, pp. 139–65. Oxford: Phaidon, 1983.
Richter, Gisela M. A. Catalogue of Engraved Gems: Greek, Etruscan, and Roman. 2d ed. Rome: L'Erma di Bretschneider, 2006.
Walker, Susan, ed. Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt. New York: MMA/Routledge, 2000.