Summary and Keywords
Glass came of age during the Roman period. Within the ancient world it had been used from the mid-second millennium bce onwards, but only for jewellery and luxury items like small perfume bottles. This started to change in the late 2nd century bce, when the Hellenistic industries started to produce simple glass drinking vessels. In the early Imperial period there was an explosion in the vessel forms available, in part made possible by the discovery of how to blow glass. The new types included both the luxurious, such as exquisite cameo vessels, and the utilitarian, such as disposable packaging for cosmetics. A similar expansion was seen in its role in buildings, where glass went from luxurious interior decoration to structurally important window glass. References in literary works and depictions in wall paintings at the time attest to the considerable attention this new phenomenon attracted in the early to mid-1st century ce.
Vessels, windows and other items spread widely throughout the empire and beyond, and to all levels of society. Over the next 400 years, how the material was used changed with time and place as the various regional industries responded to the needs and preferences of their communities.
This was a major high-temperature industry which would have made considerable demands on resources such as fuel, but there are still many things that are unknown about it. Where, for example, was the glass itself made? Waste from secondary workshops producing vessels is regularly encountered, but evidence for the primary production is extremely rare. This has led to considerable debate, with competing models being proposed. Glass is not a material where scientific techniques such as those used to provenance pottery have proved very helpful. The composition of Roman glass is extremely uniform throughout the empire, and again there has been much debate about why this might be. Of late, some useful advances have started to be made in approaching these questions, and this may eventually disentangle what was going on.
The study of Roman glass provides a unique window into the past. Through it the impact of new technologies and materials can be seen, as well as the choices people made about what was useful in their lives—all against the background of some of the most beautiful and skilful vessels ever made.
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