Jewellery was a staple of both classical Greek and Roman civilisation, both as a marker of political status and as an expression of social and economic capital.
Luxury goods waxed and waned in popularity, responding to wider political circumstance and levels of affluence in the classical period. Consider, for example, Plato’s fervent warning in Republic (c. 380 BCE) of the weakness of the luxurious state – writing of the “enemy” that would “creep into the city”, creating social friction and “not one but two states…always conspiring against one another”. This sentiment became law in Greece in the 7th century BC, when the Locranian code forbid the wearing of gold jewellery by women. Conversely, in other times of great prosperity and expansion, such as the latter days of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian empire, jewellery flourished in popularity.
Expansion of territory also influenced the stylistic popularity of certain jewellery pieces: following the Macedonians infamous push into the Persian empire in 331 BC, increasing amounts of gold were made available to Grecian jewellers as well as their techniques and fashions. The expansion of empire also allowed classical Greek and Roman styles to be exchanged in kind, influencing the global style of jewellery and setting the foundation for designs still popular today.
As such, there is much to be said about the stylistic evolution of jewellery across the classical period – here, we examine some of the most popular techniques and styles from the classical period, and their wider significance within their societies.
Whilst gold is the most popular type of Greek jewellery in our collection, classical jewellery was also commonly forged of materials such as silver and bronze alloys. Precious and semi-precious stones were also frequently inset to jewellery pieces, including emeralds, garnets, carnelian and agate.
What Precious Materials and Metals did they Work with?
Intaglio was a popular choice for pieces with high levels of detail work, as it could be easily marked to create patterns and designs. Common design motifs included those relating to the natural world, such as the acanthus leaf, or religious scenes – in particular, those relating to Aphrodite and her son eros, due to her connection with beauty and adornment.
What Techniques were Popular?
Perhaps the most astounding technique mastered in the classical period was that of filigree. Filigree work dates back to the earliest civilisations – examples have been found in jewellery created by the Mesopotamian civilisation. Filigree involves working with incredibly fine gold or silver wire, twisting the thread with minute detail and precision, and was especially time consuming to create. It was in the 6th – 3rd centuries BCE that the technique was refined by Grecian and Etruscan craftsmen, creating geometric and floral patterns often adorned with glass or precious beads.
Cameo was another technique that gained popularity to depict the aforementioned popular scenes and figures, where a material was carved to create a dimensional relief. In our own collection, take this pair of gold cameo earrings from Ca 100 – 400 AD, carved with the head of Medusa. Whilst Medusa might initially seem an odd choice for jewellery, her representation invoked her own ‘evil’ as a way to deflect any mal-intent directed at the wearer.
Who Owned Jewellery, and How Did They Wear It?
Jewellery was often acquired through inheritance: as incredibly expensive objects, they were left for one’s descendents to inherit and accumulate throughout generations. These were often in sets: it is not uncommon to find matching rings, earrings, necklaces, and head adornments together as part of one such familial collection.
From an archaeological perspective, another common source of jewellery is that which was donated to sanctums as votive offerings. As an expensive good, jewellery was part of the larger category of items deemed acceptable for religious offering. In preserved inventories from the Acropolis in Athens, Alexander the Great’s wife Roxane is recorded as having offered gold necklaces, a gold headband, and a rhyton vessel: a statement of her wealth, as well as of her piety.
Rings were worn by those wealthy enough to possess them, and were an excellent symbol of political status as well as that of an individual’s wealth. Indeed, in Rome the gold ring remained the exclusive right of senators, magistrates, and equites, whilst others were permitted to wear those made of materials such as iron. The gold ring was a privilege that could also be bestowed by people in such high offices to those ‘beneath’ them that they particularly esteemed – Roman magistrate Gauis Verres presented his secretary with a gold ring at the assembly at Syracuse, and it is said soldiers would sometimes be rewarded for their valour with the right to wear such a ring.