Pliny on Glass ‘Gems’

I’m back to research this glorious first Monday of the world’s latest spring break.  My campus follows the Jewish calendar and passover is remarkably late this year.  I am so happy to have this week though as I’m giving a paper at the AAH in less than two weeks on the intersection of glass pastes and coinage in the Roman republican period.  (I’m also on a lunch time diversity panel talking about making AH accessible to different audiences, esp. P.O.C.).

Flexing my research muscle, I started with a little light reading on what we know about glass in the ancient world and how science-y/achaeological types read Pliny.  Then I thought I better have a quick march through Pliny myself, in translation to start.  Here’s some passage I think may become relevant.

36.67 … There is, furthermore, opaque white glass and others that reproduce the appearance of fluorspar, blue sapphires or lapis lazuli, and, indeed, glass exists in any colour….However, the most highly valued glass is colourless and transparent, as closely as possible resembling rock-crystal. …the making of the glass pebbles that are sometimes nicknamed ‘eyeballs’.

37.10 Glass-ware has now come to resemble rock-crystal in a remarkable manner, but the effect has been to flout the laws of Nature and actually to increase the value of the former without diminishing that of the latter.

37.22 There is no stone which is harder to distinguish from the original when it is counterfeited, in glass by a cunning craftsman. The only test is by sunlight. … [technique described]

37.26 ‘Carbunculi’ are counterfeited very realistically in glass, but, as with other gems, the false ones can be detected on a grindstone, for their substance is softer and brittle. Artificial stones containing cores are detected by using grindstones and scales, stones made of glass paste being less heavy. On occasion, moreover, they contain small globules which shine like silver.

37.33 No gemstone is more easily counterfeited by means of imitations in glass. [i.e. callainae]

37.37 They too can be counterfeited in glass, and the deception becomes obvious when the brightness of a stone is scattered abroad instead of being concentrated within. [i.e. iaspis] The remaining varieties are called ‘sphragides,’ or ‘signets,’ the common Greek name for a gemstone being thus bestowed on these alone because they are excellent for sealing documents. However, all the peoples of the East are said to wear them as amulets.

37.44 There occur also ‘leucochrysi,’ or ‘golden-white’ stones, which are traversed by a bright white vein; and there is also the ‘capnias,’ or ‘smoky stone’ belonging to this class. There are, moreover, stones closely resembling those made of glass-paste, their colour being a kind of bright saffron-yellow. They can be so convincingly counterfeited in glass that the difference cannot be observed, although it may be detected by touch, since the glass-paste feels warmer.

And for context passages of potential interest in Pliny on signet rings

33.4 Indeed I do not find that any rings were worn in the Trojan period; at all events Homer nowhere mentions them, although he shows that tablets used to be sent to and fro in place of letters, and that clothes and gold and silver vessels were stored away in chests and were tied up with signet-knots, not sealed with signet-rings. Also he records the chiefs as casting lots about meeting a challenge from the enemy without using signet-rings; and he also says that the god of handicraft in the original period frequently made brooches and other articles of feminine finery like earrings—without mentioning finger-rings. And whoever first introduced them did so with hesitation, and put them on the left hand, which is generally hidden by the clothes, whereas it would have been shown off on the right hand if it had been an assured distinction. And if this might possibly have been thought to involve some interference with the use of the right hand, there is the proof of more modern custom; it would have also been more inconvenient to wear it on the left hand, which holds the shield. Indeed it is also stated, by Homer again, that men wore gold plaited in their hair and consequently I cannot say whether the use of gold originated from women.

33.6 It does not appear that rings were in more common use before the time of Gnaeus Flavius son of Annius. It was he who first published the dates for legal proceedings, which it had been customary for tbe general public to ascertain by daily enquiry from a few of the leading citizens; and this won him such great popularity with the common people—he was also the son of a liberated slave and himself a clerk to Appius Caecus, at whose request he had by dint of natural shrewdness through continual observation picked out those days and published them—that he was appointed a curule aedile as a colleague of Quintus Anicius of Palestrina, who a few years previously had been an enemy at war with Rome, while Gaius Poetilius and Domitius, whose fathers had been consuls, were passed over. Flavius had the additional advantage of being tribune of the plebs at the same time. This caused such an outburst of blazing indignation that we find in the oldest annals ‘rings were laid aside.’ The common belief that the Order of Knighthood also did the same on this occasion is erroneous, inasmuch as the following words were also added: ‘but also harness-bosses were put aside as well’; and it is because of this clause that the name of the Knights has been added; and the entry in the annals is that the rings were laid aside by the nobility, not by the entire Senate. This occurrence took place in the consulship of Publius Sempronius [305 BC] and Lucius Sulpicius. Flavius made a vow to erect a temple to Concord if he succeeded in effecting a reconciliation between the privileged orders and the people; and as money was not allotted for this purpose from public funds, he drew on the fine-money collected from persons convicted of practising usury to erect a small shrine made of bronze on the Graecostasis which at that date stood above the Assembly-place, and put on it an inscription engraved on a bronze tablet that the shrine had  been constructed 204 years after the consecration of the Capitoline temple. This event took place in the 449th year from the foundation of the city, and [305 B.C.] is the earliest evidence to be found of the use of rings. There is however a second piece of evidence for their being commonly worn at the time of the Second Punic War, as had this not been the ease it would not have been possible for the three peeks of rings as recorded to have been sent by Hannibal to Carthage. Also it was from a ring put up for sale by auction that the quarrel between Caepio and Drusus began which was the primary cause of the war with the allies and the disasters that sprang from it. Not even at that period did all members of the senate possess gold rings, seeing that in the memory of our grandfathers many men who had even held the office of prietor wore an iron ring to the end of their lives—for instance, as recorded by Fenestella, Calpurnius and Manilius, the latter having been lieutenant-general under Gaius Marius in the war [112-106 BC] with Jugurtha, and, according to many authorities, the Lucius Fufidius to whom Scaurus dedicated his Autobiography—while another piece of evidence is that in the family of the Quintii it was not even customary for the women to have a gold ring, and that the greater part of the races of mankind, and even of the people who live under our empire and at the present day, possess no gold rings at all. The East and Egypt do not seal documents even now, but are content with a written signature.

This fashion like everything else luxury has diversified in numerous ways, by adding to rings gems of exquisite brilliance, and by loading the fingers with a wealthy revenue (as we shall mention in our book on gems) and then by engraving on them a variety of devices, so that in one case the craftsmanship and in another the material constitutes the value. Then again with other gems luxury has deemed it sacrilege for them to undergo violation, and has caused them to be worn whole, to prevent anybody’s imagining that people’s finger-rings were intended for sealing documents! Some gems indeed luxury has left showing in the gold even of the side of the ring that is hidden by the finger, and has cheapened the gold with collars of little pebbles. But on the contrary many people do not allow any gems in a signet-ring, and seal with the gold itself; this was a fashion invented when Claudius Caesar was emperor. [AD. 41-5] Moreover even slaves nowadays encircle the iron of their rings with gold (other articles all over them they decorate with pure gold), an extravagance the origin of which is shown by its actual name to have been instituted in Samothrace.

But on the contrary many people do not allow any gems in a signet-ring, and seal with the gold itself; this was a fashion invented when Claudius Caesar was emperor. [AD. 41-5] Moreover even slaves nowadays encircle the iron of their rings with gold (other articles all over them they decorate with pure gold), an extravagance the origin of which is shown by its actual name to have been instituted in Samothrace. … Some people put all their rings on their little finger only, while others wear only one ring even on that finger, and use it to seal up their signet ring, which is kept stored away as a rarity not deserving the insult of common use, and is brought out from its cabinet as from a sanctuary; thus even wearing a single ring on the little finger may advertise the possession of a costlier piece of apparatus put away in store. … Still the employment of a signet-ring must have begun to be much more frequent with the introduction of usury. This is proved by the custom of the lower classes, among whom even at the present day a ring is whipped out when a contract is being made; the habit comes down from the time when there was as yet no speedier method of guaranteeing a bargain, so we can safely assert that with us money began first and signet-rings came in afterwards. About money we shall speak rather later.

37.1 Here Nature’s grandeur is gathered together within the narrowest limits; and in no domain of hers evokes more wonder in the minds of many who set such store by the variety, the colours, the texture and the elegance of gems that they think it a crime to tamper with certain kinds by engraving them as signets, although this is the prime reason for their use; while some they consider to be beyond price and to deft evaluation in terms of human wealth.

37.4 … an edict of Alexander the Great forbidding his likeness to be engraved on this stone by anyone except Pyrgoteles, who was undoubtedly the most brilliant artist in this field. Next to him in fame have been Apollonides, Cronius and the man who made the excellent likeness of Augustus of Revered Memory which his successors have used as their seal, namely Dioscurides. Sulla as dictator always used a signet representing the surrender of Jugurtha. We learn from our authorities also that the native of Intercatia, whose father had been slain by Scipio Aemilianus after challenging him to single combat, used a. signet representing this fight. Hence the familiar witticism made by Stilo Praeconinus, who remarked, ‘What would he have done if Scipio had been killed by his father?’ Augustus of Revered Memory at the beginning of his career used a signet engraved with a sphinx, having found among his mother’s rings two such signets which were so alike as to be indistinguishable. During the Civil Wars, one of these was used by his personal advisers, whenever he himself was absent, for signing any letters and proclamations which the circumstances required to be despatched in his name. The recipients used to make a neat joke saying ‘the Sphinx brings its problems.’ Of course, the frog signet belonging to Maecenas was also greatly feared because of the contributions of money that it demanded. In later years Augustus, wishing to avoid insulting comments about the sphinx, signed his documents with a likeness of Alexander the Great.

37.23 [Zenothemis] states that in our part of the world, however, the sardonyx was popular from the beginning because it was almost the only gemstone which, when engraved as a signet, did not carry away the sealing wax with it.

37.25 [Achelaus] mentions also that [Carthaginian stones] appear purple indoors in shadow, and flame-red in the open air; that they sparkle when they are held against the sun, and that, when they are used as signets, they melt the wax, even in a very dark place.

37.30 All these varieties, however, obstinately resist engraving and, when used as signets, retain a portion of the wax. [i.e. varieties of Carthaginian stone]

37.36 Malachite is an opaque stone of a rather deep green shade and owes its name to its colour, which is that of the mallow. It is warmly recommended because it makes an accurate impression as a signet, protects children, and has a natural property that is a prophylactic against danger.


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