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date: 28 November 2020

glass, Romanfree

  • H.E.M. Cool


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.

History and Development of the Study of Roman Glass

Glass became common at the beginning of the Imperial period, and for the first time was a regular part of daily life over a wide part of the empire. People were clearly very interested in what was, effectively, a new material to them. Authors made reference to it, and painters were fascinated by the effects that could be achieved by depicting its transparency. Roman glass vessels have continued to exert a fascination amongst various audiences in the modern period, and scholarly approaches to these vessels have been influenced by the different communities who have owned and studied them over the centuries.

Some of the most spectacular glass vessels owe their survival to having entered the collections of the aristocracy, where their display demonstrated their owners’ wealth and position. The Blue Vase from Pompeii is an excellent example of this.1 Herculaneum and Pompeii were originally excavated to recover suitable works of art to grace the royal palaces. The discovery of this vessel, a spectacular blue-and-white cameo amphorisk, was carefully stage-managed in 1837 so that the king himself could be present when the tomb that contained it was opened. The Portland Vase, a similar cameo amphorisk, has an even longer history.2 First recorded in 1600/1601, it was owned by powerful families in Rome before passing to a ducal family in England two centuries later. Vessels such as these attracted considerable attention and were studied as works of art in the same way as the study of Roman intaglios was for a long time the preserve of connoisseurs of fine arts.

Collecting glass has continued to the present day. Sometimes the motives seem to have been the sheer joy of collecting, as in the case of Evan Gorga at Rome3 or Julien Gréau in France (a page from the latter’s catalogue appears in Fig. 1).4 Sometimes it has been investment, as in the celebrated case of the British Rail Pension Fund.5 Increasingly, though, the focus shifted to considering the place of this material in the ancient world. The 19th century saw very large numbers of vessels recovered as a result of both urban development and deliberate investigation of archaeological sites, with many coming from graves. The modern cities expanded over the cemeteries of the underlying Roman ones, with the result that many museums owe their glass collections to the building works for railways and railway stations.6

Figure 1. A page from the catalogue of the glass collection of Julien Gréau published in 1903, showing millefiori vessels belonging to the end of the 1st century bce and early 1st century ce. The Metropolitan Museum of Art 143.6 S92. The Collection of Books on Classical Archaeology Bequeathed by Edward Robinson to The Metropolitan Museum of Art MCMXXXI for Use in the Classical Department.

As the volume of glass increased, there were naturally attempts to interpret it by reference to literary sources. One of the commonest types found was a small perfume flask (Fig. 2), as these had frequently been placed in graves. A much-favoured interpretation was that they had been used to gather the tears of the mourners. As early as 1830, Bernardo Quaranta critically reviewed the literature, ancient and modern, to help understand the glass vessels from the Pompeian tombs.7 He rightly rejected the tear-bottle idea, but it continued to exercise fascination and can still be found faithfully repeated on modern websites.8 The early scholars were clearly dissatisfied with the mismatch between the vessels they were encountering and references to glass in the classical sources. As a result, there was a tendency to invent pseudo-Latin names. Names such as “unguentarium” and “lachrymatory” are still sometimes used for these flasks, the latter clearly derived from the tear-bottle idea. Such words occur nowhere in the Latin literature to describe glass vessels9, and are generally of late 18th- or 19th-century coinage.

Figure 2. Perfume bottles of the mid to late 1st century ce from Grave 1230, 120-122 London Road, Gloucester (Andrew Simmonds, Nicholas Marquez-Grant and Louise Loe, Life and Death in a Roman City [Oxford: Oxford Archaeology, 2008]). The one on the left is 102mm high. Vessels like these were interpreted, erroneously, as containers for tears.

Photo by author.

A more useful line of study was the attempt to describe and date the various forms known, leading to publications such as those of Anton Kisa in Germany and Morin-Jean in France.10 With the development of stratigraphic excavation, the broken glass fragments from domestic occupation started to play a larger role. Harden’s report in 1936 on the glass from Karanis in the Fayûm, Egypt, is generally considered a landmark.11 He presented the data systematically, considering form, colour, method of manufacture, and stratified context, with detailed catalogue entries and careful line drawings. This approach became standard thereafter.

Establishing when particular forms were in use was greatly aided by the excavation of military sites, which frequently had relatively short-lived occupations. This was especially useful in the 1st century ce, when the industry was developing and changing rapidly. This had been recognised early by Emil Ritterling during his excavations at the fort at Hofheim (occupied c. 40–50 ce).12 Harden’s report style unlocked the full potential of these assemblages, as he demonstrated with the Camulodunum glass, from a site destroyed during the Boudiccan rising of 60/61 ce.13

All of this enabled Clasina Isings to produce her book Roman Glass from Dated Finds in 1957.14 Dealing mainly with the material from the western empire, it lays out the forms used in chronological order. This is a fundamental text for glass specialists. Naturally both the dating and the forms can now be refined, but it remains a useful foundation on which to build.

The scientific analysis of Roman glass has almost as long a history as its study from art historical and typological standpoints. Turner’s review of the literature considered the earliest analysis to be in 1815, when the eminent scientist Sir Humphry Davy analysed a number of blue glasses to establish their colourant.15 By 1961 it had been established that Roman glass had a very stable composition throughout the empire,16 and the ensuing half-century or so of analytical effort can be seen as an attempt to discover if there is any way in which science can help to discover where the glass was being made, and how the industry was organised. As this is a major and disputed topic, it is considered in its own section below.

Manufacturing Methods in Ancient Glass

To understand why the Roman glass industries were so successful, it is necessary to step back and look at earlier manufacturing methods. Prior to the late Hellenistic period, vessels had been made by either the core forming techniques that were suitable for making small perfume containers, or by using lapidary techniques to grind and polish the desired shape from solid blocks or hollow blanks.17 Neither lent itself to mass production, and glass remained a material suitable only for the luxury end of the vessel market.

In the late 2nd century bce, simple hemispherical and conical bowls began to be made by sagging a disc of hot glass over a former, and then finishing with simple wheel-cut lines when cold. They were generally made in the natural shades that result from the iron impurities in the raw material (yellow/brown to green). Usually no attempt was made either to decolourise them or to add ingredients that would result in strongly coloured glass. In the early 1st century bce, bowls with ribs on their exterior were added to the repertoire. Both types are called “Syro-Palestinian bowls” (Fig. 3) because of the many found in that area. They have a predominantly eastern Mediterranean distribution, with small numbers reaching Italy. Very few are known in the western empire more generally.18

Figure 3. An example of a Syro-Palestinian sagged grooved bowl of the late 2nd to 1st century bce. The yellowish-green colour comes from the iron impurities in the sand the glass was made from. Rim diameter 128mm. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2004.18.

Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

This technique was quicker and simpler than anything that had been tried before, and for the first time allowed the production of open vessels in large numbers. The bulk of the production has a rim diameter of between c. 120–160mm, so these could have acted as drinking vessels held in two hands, possibly intended for communal use.

Figure 4. A millefiori sagged bowl (rim diameter 137mm) of the late 1st century bce to early 1st century ce Roman industry. It is made from slices of cane with a length of a reticella cane forming the rim. The Metropolitan Museum of Art 81.10.35. Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1881.

The technique was adopted by the new Roman glass industries, which introduced an augmented colour palette including strong colours such as deep blue, dark yellow/brown, and purple. Another feature is the more regular use of polychrome effects achieved by the use of cane slices or strips to make the initial disc of hot glass (Fig. 4). The plain bowls decorated only with grooves have a slightly different range of profiles, and are often called “linear-cut bowls” to distinguish them from the earlier grooved bowl tradition. The ribbed bowls have much more regular ribs, and in the Anglophone literature are generally referred to as “pillar moulded bowls” (Fig. 5). The bulk of the production has a slightly smaller rim diameter than the earlier bowls, but again these are large vessels for two hands.

Figure 5. A pillar-moulded bowl (rim diameter 180mm) from Thonon-les-Bains, France. It is made of slices of cane with an opaque white spiral in a yellow/brown ground. This was a very common colour combination for these bowls, which were in use from the late 1st century bce to the mid-1st century ce. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 72.AF.37.

Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

These Roman vessels have a strongly western distribution and must have been made in far greater numbers than the Syro-Palestinian bowls. The linear-cut bowls flourished during the period c. 25 bce–30 ce. Pillar moulded bowls had a longer lifespan, surviving until late in the 1st century. They are found on all sorts of sites, even down to relatively small native sites in Britain. In modern parlance, they had very deep market penetration almost everywhere.

Contemporaneously, the Roman industries developed a new way of making vessels with new shapes. These normally had more angular profiles, often shared with contemporary pottery and metal vessels. They were made in monochrome and polychrome (millefiori, mosaic) glass in the same range of strong colours, though with the additions of shades such as translucent emerald green and opaque red that are not found in the sagged bowls. Opaque monochrome vessels are a new development at this time, and include pale shades such as duck-egg blue and pink. This family of vessels is often referred to as “cast,” though the precise mechanism for making the blanks is not known (Fig. 6). The finished vessels were ground and polished over all surfaces, thus removing any clues to original fabrication. There was a much wider range of open forms in the small cup and large dish range, and also forms such as handled stemmed cups (skyphoi) and lidded boxes (pyxides). Generally these had disappeared by the end of the 1st century ce, with the polychrome and opaque examples disappearing decades earlier. These vessels were primarily in use in the western empire, where they were again widespread. They did not have the market penetration that pillar moulded bowls had, as they are not commonly found on sites low in the settlement hierarchy. Possibly they were more expensive, as the surface grinding needed would certainly have increased the length of time taken to produce them and might have resulted in a higher wastage rate. Possibly also, though, the range of shapes served no useful purpose on those sites.

Figure 6. An example of a small cast cup (rim diameter 73mm) in opaque red glass, late 1st century bce to mid-1st century ce. Similar cups were also made in terra sigillata pottery. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2003.232.

Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Finally, the major technological breakthrough of blowing can be considered. The discovery that hot glass could be inflated by blowing is generally placed in the middle of the 1st century bce. The earliest glass-blowing waste comes from Jerusalem in a context with a terminus ante quem of 37–34 bce.19 This was clearly from an experimental stage inflating the ends of glass tubes. Using a blowing iron probably came somewhat later. When the main production of blown vessels started is an interesting question. Blown glass fragments are very distinctive, being glossy on both surfaces and frequently thinner than the sagged and cast families. When found they should be identifiable. Fragments have been found in early Augustan contexts but cannot be said to be common. It does not appear to be until the later Augustan/Tiberian period that blown glass is found in quantity in the archaeological record (Fig. 7).

Blown glass was made in all the same translucent shades as the cast and sagged ranges, but with an increasing emphasis on the naturally coloured blue/green shade, which was especially popular for the more utilitarian containers. Polychrome effects were achieved by applying different colours to the main bubble during the blowing process. From the 60s on there was a growing preference for lightly tinted shades, true decolourised colourless glass started to appear, and polychrome effects fell out of fashion.

Figure 7. A blown amphorisk (height 127mm) of the mid-1st century ce, formed from a gather of purple glass that was then rolled across chips of opaque white, yellow, and blue glass. This marvering technique flattened and softened the chips into the body of the gather, which was then blown to the desired shape. As the bubble expanded, the coloured chips expanded to form coloured patches over the ground colour The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2003.291.

Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Blowing was important because it was much quicker to make vessels and they could be a wider range of shapes. For the first time it was possible to make closed vessel forms such as bottles, flasks, and jugs easily. The techniques of sagging and casting had widened the market in terms of geographical spread and the range of people who could afford glass vessels. The invention of blowing revolutionised the industry, massively increasing the volume of vessels in use and widening the range of uses to which they were put.

The changes in glass vessel use were matched by innovations in structural use. Increasingly, coloured glass was used to make decorative elements for ceilings, walls, and floors.20 Of far greater importance, though, was the development of window glass. Window glass of the 1st to 3rd centuries had a pitted undersurface and a glossy upper face. Tooling marks can sometimes be seen at the edges, as though it had been manipulated to shape. For a long time it was suggested that it was made by pouring molten glass into trays. Experimental work has now suggested that these panes could have been made by manipulating hot sheets of glass, similar to the way the sagged bowls were made.21 This might have made the production a less specialist pursuit and would have reduced the amount of fuel needed, as the required temperatures would have been lower than those for molten glass.

These glass panes were normally made with blue/green glass and could be quite thick. They were translucent rather than transparent. They would have admitted a diffused light, rather than allowing people to look at the outside world clearly as modern windows do. They were obviously important for bath-houses (Fig. 8) as they admitted light while keeping heat in, but fragments from them are often found on sites that did not have bath-houses, indicating widespread domestic use.

Figure 8. The remains of a circular glass windowpane in the ceiling of the tepidarium of the women’s baths at Herculaneum (photo courtesy M. J. Baxter), with a fragment of cast window glass showing the lack of transparency

(photo by author).

Glass had always been used for jewellery, most notably beads, but the increased amount of the material in circulation lead to increases in the numbers in use and in some cases the development of new forms. There had been a late Iron Age tradition of glass bracelets on the Continent, for example, but in Britain these are very rarely found. In the later 1st and 2nd centuries ce British forms start being made for the first time, clearly exploiting broken pieces of vessel glass for their raw materials.22

The Reception of Glass

By the mid-1st century ce there are various references in the classical sources that show how deeply the Roman glass industries had penetrated people’s consciousness. This provides a possibly unique opportunity to observe reactions to new technology and materials in the ancient world.

A regular remark is how cheap the vessels are. In the 20s ce at the latest, Strabo is remarking that it is possible to buy a glass cup for a small coin in Rome (Strabo, Geography, 16.758). The timing of this would be consistent with the appearance of blown glass. By the middle of the century, Petronius has Trimalchio expressing his belief that glass vessels are better to drink out of because they don’t taint the contents, before lamenting they are cheap (Petronius, Trimalchio, 50) (Fig. 9). This is a classic example of the dilemma of the rich, who always have to manipulate material culture to display their wealth, and continually find new objects of desire to maintain their elite status as the originals become more easily available to the masses. The fact that glass continued to be cheap can be traced in the following centuries, sometimes through chance references to the rich despising it for this reason.23

Figure 9. The typical blown-glass cup of the mid-1st century—the sort Trimalchio may have been thinking about (rim diameter 79mm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art 74.51.252.

The Cesnola Collection, Purchased by subscription, 1874–76.

Another regular observation was the pleasing effect of looking through glass vessels at what they contained to appreciate of the colours observed, and how glass magnified objects. Both Seneca (Naturales quaestiones1.3.9; 1.6.5; 3.18.4) and Pliny (Nat. Hist. 9.30) comment on this. Glass vessels containing fruit and liquids are also a feature of wall paintings (Fig. 10), so artists were clearly interested in this effect too. Here, though, a problem arises, as it is Second Style paintings that have these features, and that style is conventionally assigned to the 1st century bce.24 The glass vessels, by contrast, appear blown and are of the pale shades which were coming to be favoured in the mid-1st century ce. They also do not closely match the forms available earlier. If these scenes were indeed being painted in the 1st century bce, then presumably, as Friederike Naumann-Steckner has suggested,25 the artists were not slavishly copying what was available, but rather allowing their imaginations to run free with the potential of glass and taking the shapes from other media such as silver.

Figure 10. The wall paintings of the cubiculum of the villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale show a pale green transparent and apparently blown bowl holding a selection of fruit which can clearly be seen through the glass (see detail). The Metropolitan Museum of Art 03.14.13a–g. Rogers Fund, 1903.

It is intriguing to consider whether the shift away from bright colours and polychrome effects in the 60s marked the point at which this aesthetic appreciation overtook the novelty of being able to drink out of a material that did not add bad tastes or odours to the wine. Certainly the latter consideration would apply whatever the colour, but transparency is best appreciated in colourless or lightly tinted glass.

The fact that glass did not taint the contents was clearly an important feature of the expansion of glass vessel use from the dining room to the kitchen and store-room. Columella (De re rustica 12.4–5) advises that the bailiff’s wife should have suitable storage vessels in glass as well as pottery for putting down her preserves. This is interesting for two reasons. First, written in the mid-1st century ce, it attests to the fact that the utilitarian potential of glass was already appreciated. Second, at about the time Columella was writing, new vessel forms in glass were starting to develop that could almost be seen as custom-made to fulfil his requirement that the preserving jars should have wide mouths and sides that go straight down until meeting the base (Fig. 11). The family of square bottles and jars with angular sides is very common at Pompeii in the eruption levels of 79 ce, but extremely rare from stratified contexts pre-dating the earthquake there c. 62 ce, suggesting that they were coming into common use in the period between the two events. They are not the only utilitarian and specialised glass vessels that have this development pattern; another is the ubiquitous globular bath flask designed to be taken on an outing to the baths does too. During the 60s, glass became an everyday material with vessels for a wide range of functions available.

Figure 11. A collared jar with square body for storage (height 205mm), matching the shape Columella advised was best for preserves. The Metropolitan Museum of Art 81.10.5. Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1881.

The Organisation of the Industry

Glass is a material that can be remelted, which means there can be a separation between where the glass itself was made and where glass objects were made, so a distinction is made between primary glass making and secondary glass working. The two phases can take place in the same location, but most of the evidence suggests that in the Roman world they may not have done. The use of broken pieces of older objects (cullet) as a raw material in the secondary glasshouses is well attested by both the literary sources and material recovered from glass-working sites. In the later 1st century, the traders who exchanged sulphur matches for broken glass in Rome must have been familiar: they are used as a disreputable simile in the poems of both Martial (Epigrams I.41) and Statius (Silvae I.6.74).

We still know little about the organisation of the industries making the sagged and cast glass vessels. The problem is that this sort of industry leaves few traces in the archaeological record. Unlike a pottery kiln site which may have failed pots in its rubbish heaps, the failed glass vessel of today’s production naturally becomes cullet in tomorrow’s batch. From the distribution patterns of the vessels belonging to the Roman industries, it can be assumed that production of both the sagged and cast vessels was probably taking place in Italy as well as the east. Strabo (Geography 16.758) talks of the many discoveries that were being made in Rome concerning the production of colour and manufacture, which would certainly describe the change that can be seen in the archaeological record.

Glass blowing was clearly well established across the empire by the mid-1st century ce. This activity can be traced archaeologically because of the waste from the end of the blowing iron, known as moiles (Fig. 12).26 These started to be recognised in the 1980s, and this has transformed our picture of the industry. For example, more than fifty sites showing evidence of glass working are known in Gaul,27 and in London alone there are twenty-one sites with blowing evidence.28 Similar intense production at many small-scale installations is likely across the empire, given the number of vessels in existence.

Figure 12. Waste from the end of blowing irons (moiles) found at Mancetter (Jennifer Price and H. E. M. Cool, “The Evidence for the Production of Glass in Roman Britain,” in Danièle Foy and Geneviève Sennequier, eds., Ateliers de verriers de l’antiquité à la période pré-industrielle [Rouen: AFAV, 1991], 25).

Courtesy Romano-British Glass Project, University of Leeds.

As well as the widespread development of local industries, the vessels themselves could travel large distances both within the empire and far beyond its boundaries. Shipwrecks such as those off the southern coast of France provide snapshots of the sort of vessels being transported at different times.29 The spread of vessels outside the empire is well demonstrated by facet-cut beakers of the late 1st to 2nd centuries, which are found as far apart as Gotland in Sweden and Begram in Afghanistan.30 Glass vessels were clearly travelling along the Silk Road routes to the Far East and are credited, for example, as being influential in the development of Korean glass industries in the 4th century ce.31

Where the primary glass-making sites were located is a matter of considerable debate. Roman glass is a soda-lime-silicate, with the major elements being silica (SiO2) to provide the network former, soda (Na2O) to provide the flux, and lime (CaO) to act as the stabiliser. The silica came from beach sand, the soda used was the inorganic natron, and the lime could have been present in the sand as shell fragments or deliberately added as either shell or limestone. Minor elements were either naturally occurring impurities in the sand such as iron, or deliberately added ones to produce particular colours or to decolourise the glass by masking the effects of the iron that leads to blue and green shades.32 The composition of Roman glass is very stable with respect to the major elements. Recent analytical work has thus focussed on the variability of the minor and trace elements to explore whether it is possible to use these to provenance the original sand.

One model sees the Syro-Palestinian area as being the source of all the raw glass, which was then traded to the secondary sites. This could account for the uniformity of the major element composition. It is based in part on references in the ancient literature33 which note that the sands at the mouth of the River Belus (now the Na’aman stream), which enters the Mediterranean south of ’Akko, Israel,34 were an important source for glassmakers. Other reasons include the fact that natron is an evaporite found in the Middle East (e.g. the Wadi Natrum in Egypt), the Hellenistic origins of the industry, and the fact that large tank furnaces capable of producing tons of raw glass at a firing are known in the area.35 Those furnaces, though, are much later, belonging to the 6th century or beyond. Equivalent installations for the Roman period have not been found.

The identification of distinctive sub-compositions within the broad soda-lime-silicate one appeared to support this model. One glass has relatively high levels of iron, manganese, and titanium (HIMT glass), suggesting an impure sand source which subsequent isotopic analysis has suggested was Egyptian. Another (Levantine) has features that could be associated with coastal sands in the Syro-Palestinian area, probably near the mouth of the River Belus.36 These compositions start to appear in the 4th century and are found used for vessels as far away as Britain (Fig. 13). This supports the idea of long-distance trade in raw glass, with it originating in a limited number of places in the Middle East. It provides evidence only for the later Roman period, leaving open the question of what was happening in the centuries that preceded it.

Figure 13. The 4th-century compositions produce glass that is light green and full of bubbles. This jug (height 168mm) from Colchester (Cool and Price, Colchester, 147 no. 1160) is typical of the appearance of 4th-century vessels.

Courtesy Romano-British Glass Project, University of Leeds.

The other model favours dispersed manufacture across the empire by more local industries exploiting local sand sources. The compositional uniformity here would be the result of constant recycling. There is literary support for dispersed manufacture: Pliny says that sands from the River Volturnus near Cumae were exploited for glass, as were those in the Spanish and Gallic provinces (Nat. Hist. 36. 66).

Again archaeological evidence for primary production is generally lacking, though glass does appear to have been being made in the Hambach forest in Germany in the 4th century.37 The analysis of colourless glass, whose manufacture would have had to be carefully controlled, shows variation in the minor elements, which would suggest that a range of sands was being exploited. This can be followed from the earliest 1st-century colourless blown vessels38 (Fig. 14) to those of the 4th century.39 This suggests that a single regional source is less likely.

Figure 14. Truly colourless glass such as this later 1st to early 2nd century facet-cut beaker requires very careful control of the ingredients. The analyses reported in Baxter et al. 2005 showed that the composition of the glass for these beakers formed a distinct subgroup if the variability in the minor elements was considered. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 96.AF.320.

Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Recently a different approach to the problem has been explored. Systematic sampling of possible sources of sand around the Mediterranean coast has been undertaken, and their isotopic fingerprints and trace elements established. The results were then modelled to see if it would be possible to make a natron glass of the accepted Roman composition from them. The modelled compositions were then compared to a large sample of glasses dating from the 8th century bce to the 8th century ce. While the analytical signatures of an eastern origin could be identified in the bulk of the glass samples throughout the timespan, over 20 percent had signatures indicative of a western origin, and these could be dated to the 1st to 4th centuries ce.40

In summary, it seems that while long-distance trade in raw glass from the eastern Mediterranean may have lasted throughout the period under consideration, from the 1st century ce it would have been supplemented by other sources in the west. A change does appear to take place in the 4th century, when poor-quality naturally coloured glass traded from the east appears to have become more important. Possibly this lowering in quality reflects pressure on fuel supplies. Good-quality glass of the 1st to 3rd centuries required a high temperature for a long time to drive off the gases that produce the bubbles. The 4th-century glass would have used less fuel. Alternately, people might just have liked the new visual effect that the bubbles produced.

What was Found Useful?

By the mid-1st century ce, glass blowers were fully exploiting the new range of shapes blowing enabled. The range in use during the late Neronian and Flavian periods was probably the widest ever achieved in the ancient world. Some of the products were tried and then fell out of use rapidly. Glass inkwells,41 for example, have a brief floruit at this period, as do items such as funnels for wine service.42 Other forms settled down as staples of material culture assemblages over the following centuries.

What modern scholars have devoted the most attention to is not always what the users found most useful. Mould-blown glass, for example, has a large literature.43 The technique was mainly in use during the middle fifty years of the 1st century ce, and intermittently thereafter. It produces vessels with high relief decoration that can have figured designs. The 1st-century types include hexagonal bottles with masks and other motifs on their sides,44 and sports cups with scenes of gladiators and chariot races (Fig. 15).45 The former have been found in some quantity in graves in the eastern empire and have always been attractive to collectors. The few whole sports cups have been equally coveted. Broken fragments of the latter occur regularly, though not commonly, especially on military sites in the north-western provinces, and have always attracted archaeologists’ attention. Vessels made using the same mould are identical, and so fragments belonging to ones from a particular production can be identified, leading to hopes of studying trading connections or the travels of a glass blower with their moulds.

Figure 15. This mould-blown circus cup of the mid-1st century ce from Montagnole, France depicts a scene of gladiators fighting and gives their names as a frieze below the rim—Gamus, Merops, Calamus, Hermes, Tetraites, Prudes, Spiculus, and Columbus. An inspection of the number of references where it has been discussed indicates the interest such vessels evoke. The Metropolitan Museum of Art 81.10.245. Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1881.

These vessels were undoubtedly attractive to their original users as well as to modern connoisseurs and archaeologists, but other forms that were used in considerably larger numbers have the potential to tell us more about the people who used them. One of these forms was the humble perfume bottle. Blown examples were first made with either bulbous or tubular reservoirs, with the latter being extremely common.46 Their contents were used in funeral rites, where the bottles themselves were burnt on the funerary pyres (Fig. 16), placed in the graves, and used in festivals when graves were visited.47 They were also a regular part of daily life; in addition to being part of grooming regimes, their contents were used while dining and were also an appropriate offering to deities.48 The perfume bottles found in the Garden of Hercules (II.8.6) at Pompeii,49 for example, can probably be explained by the fact that it was the site of an outdoor dining room and had a lararium where offerings would have been made.

Figure 16. Melted remains of tubular perfume bottles are regularly recovered from 1st-century ce cremation burials. Their contents had clearly been used either to prepare the body for cremation or to pour on the pyre, before the bottles themselves were burnt with the body and the other offerings. These came from the same cemetery that produced those in Fig. 2.

Photo by author.

The recent publication of all the glass vessels stored on site at Pompeii provides an insight into how ubiquitous all these uses must have been.50 This corpus does not include all the vessel glass from the eruption levels at Pompeii, but it does include most found since the material ceased to be regularly sent to Naples in 1886, and so can be taken as a good sample of what was regularly in use. Figure 17 shows the distribution between broad functional types of the blown glass, from which it can be seen that perfume flasks outnumber the other types combined. This is also a picture that emerges from subsurface excavation in the town when the functional types in use from the late Augustan period are considered.51

Figure 17. Bar chart of the numbers of different vessel types found in the eruption levels at Pompeii. Chart by author based on data drawn from Scatozza Höricht, 2012.

It is interesting to ask why there were so many. There are types of glass vessels which acted as packaging for perfumes and cosmetics that were heat-sealed and so had to be broken to access the contents. The delightful bird-shaped containers that were particularly popular in the north-west of Italy and Switzerland during the 1st century are good examples of this.52 The types at Pompeii, though, would have had stoppers and could have been reused; while these could have been single use-vessels, which would have inflated the numbers compared to drinking vessels, they need not have been. One thing the numbers might be telling us is that a significant increase in perfume use may have been going on. There does not appear to have been this level of use on domestic sites previously, judged by the occurrence of the equivalents in pottery. Ceramic containers for perfumes had been a regular part of grave-goods assemblages in the Mediterranean area for many centuries,53 but form only a small part of domestic assemblages. It could be speculated that the new form of cheap packaging that blown glass represented enabled the perfume manufacturers to develop markets for their products in daily life, where previously there had been a smaller demand. Certainly a purchaser would have been in a much better position to judge how much of an expensive commodity she was paying for. When broken, ceramic fusiform flasks54 often reveal a surprisingly small reservoir for the contents, which would have been difficult to see when they were whole. With glass you can see what you are buying.

Regional Preferences

In the middle of the 1st century the same vessel types were in use across the empire. From the Flavian period onwards distinctive regional styles started to develop, aided by the pattern of widespread local manufacture. In part the differences that emerge are the result of differing craft practices. In the west, for example, a bottle or bath flask rim will generally be produced by folding the glass out, up, and in, which produces a horizontal rim. In the east, while the horizontal rim form is produced, the glass blowers also bent the rims out, down, and up, producing a collared effect. Details such as this, though very useful to modern glass specialists, probably did not matter so much to the users. What was more important was that there were glass vessels that were fit for the purposes for which they wanted to use them. It is almost certainly this that drives the diverging patterns of vessels seen in the various regions.

As an example, the collared-rim square jar that so admirably matched Columella’s description of the right shape of glass preserving jar can be considered. At Pompeii these form half of all the glass jar forms present in Scatozza Höricht’s corpus (see Fig. 12). In the north-western provinces they are found, but far more numerous is the collared jar form with a bulbous body, frequently decorated with ribs (Fig. 18).55 These form part of a suite of ribbed tablewares that the northern glass-houses were making during the later 1st century and the first half of the 2nd century. Another part of this suite was a large, deep tubular-rimmed bowl.56 Again an interesting difference can be seen with what was normal at Pompeii. There tubular-rimmed bowls were in common use, but what was wanted was a shallow dish form or a small cup shape.57 Studying these differences can give us insights into the people who were using them. On rural native sites in Britain it is possible to see a very selective adoption of vessels from the range available. The deep tubular-rimmed bowls were favoured, as were pillar-moulded bowls, which provides a vessel of similar shape and size. This can be seen alongside a choice from the new Romanised ceramic repertoire of deep terra sigillata Dr. 36 bowls and mortaria, again in preference to a much wider range of forms that were available.58 Clearly the inhabitants of these sites found this shape useful, probably for functions that would have been thought strange in the Mediterranean world.

Figure 18. Ribbed collared jar said to be from Seurre, France (height 133mm). Such vessels are common tableware items in the north-western empire, whereas in Italy collared jars more commonly have square bodies and are for storage. The Metropolitan Museum of Art 81.10.16. Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1881.

Different regions developed very different trajectories of use over time. In Britain from the late 2nd century a progressive narrowing of the range of functions that glass vessels served can be observed. Increasingly, glass appears to have been appropriate only for drinking vessels. This starts with the period when cylindrical colourless cups become widespread and numerous on all sorts of sites.59 This was the first time that glass drinking vessels for an individual’s use can be seen being accepted as useful on the rural sites. By the late 4th century, fragments from vessels other than those associated with drinking are relatively scarce on any type of British site.60 Something similar is happening in other northern provinces, and certainly by the time the migration period is reached, the 5th to 6th centuries, glass assemblages are predominantly of drinking vessels (Fig. 19).

Figure 19. Colourless cylindrical cups dominate many assemblages from the north-western provinces in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries. They also found a market beyond the frontiers. This example (rim diameter 74 mm) comes from a grave at Airlie in Scotland, far beyond the northern border of Britannia. National Museums Scotland X.EQ.150.

By contrast, the eastern empire sees an expansion of the sorts of things glass is used for in the late Roman period. Glass lamps start to appear in the late 4th century and go on to form an important part of Byzantine glass assemblages.61 Sites in the western Mediterranean area adopted them,62 but the northern provinces did not. Raw glass from the east was travelling to the north at the time, but the late eastern innovations in vessel use were not. This is a good example that what the local industries produced was very much dictated by what people in that area felt was appropriate.

This essay has been at best a general introduction to the topic, but it is hoped that it has shown that, as well as being something intrinsically beautiful, glass provides an excellent tool to explore the Roman period and its people.


I would like to thank my fellow glass specialists Jennifer Price, Caroline Jackson, Sarah Paynter, Denise Allen, Sally Cottam, John Shepherd, and Angela Wardle, who very kindly helped me choose the works that would be most useful for further reading out of the vast literature that is available.

Links to Digital Materials

Roman Glassmakers. This website recording the work of the glassworkers Mark Taylor and David Hill is a mine of information about likely working techniques. It records their experiments and furnace projects.

The following sites of special interest groups will also be found useful. They generally cover glass of more periods than just the Roman one, but will tell you about new research, conferences, and so on. They also provide a wealth of further links.

The Association Internationale pour l’Histoire du Verre (AIHV) is the main international association with members in many countries.

There are also national organisations that are affiliated with the AIHV:


  • Arveiller-Dulong, Véronique and Marie-Dominique Nenna. Les verres antiques du Musée du Louvre II. Paris: Musée du Louvre Éditions, 2006.
  • Cool, H. E. M., and Jennifer Price. Roman Vessel Glass from Excavations in Colchester, 1971–85. Colchester: Colchester Archaeological Trust, 1995.
  • Degryse, Patrick, ed. Glass Making in the Greco-Roman World. Leiden, The Netherlands: Leiden University Press, 2014.
  • Fleming, Stuart J. Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1999.
  • Foy, Danielle, and Marie-Dominique Nenna. Tout feu tout sable. Marseilles: Musées de Marseille/Éditions Édisud, 2001.
  • Foy, Danielle, and Marie-Dominique Nenna, eds. Échanges et commerce du verre dans le monde antique. Monographies Instrumentum 24. Montagnac: Éditions Monique Mergoil, 2003.
  • Grose, David Frederick. The Toledo Museum of Art Early Ancient Glass. New York: Hudson Hills, 1989.
  • Harden, Donald B., Hansgerd Hellenkemper, Kenneth Painter, and David Whitehouse. Glass of the Caesars. Milan: Olivetti, 1987.
  • Nenna, Marie-Dominique, ed. La route du verre. Lyon: Travaux de la Maison de l’Orient Méditerranéen, 2000.
  • Newby, Marine, and Kenneth Painter, eds. Roman Glass: Two Centuries of Art and Invention. London: Society of Antiquaries of London, 1991.
  • Saldern, Axel von. Antikes Glas. Munich: Beck, 2004.
  • Shepherd, John, and Angela Wardle. The Glass Workers of Roman London. London: Museum of London Archaeology, 2009.
  • Stern, E. Marianne. Roman Mold-blown Glass. Toledo, OH: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider and Toledo Museum of Art, 1995.
  • Whitehouse, David. Roman Glass in the Corning Museum of Glass. 3 vols. Corning, NY: Corning Museum of Glass, 1997.


  • 1. Donald B. Harden et al., Glass of the Caesars (Milan: Olivetti, 1987), 75–78.

  • 2. Paul Roberts et al., Roman Cameo Glass in the British Museum (London: The British Museum Press, 2010), 34–43, provides a useful summary of the history and literature associated with this vessel.

  • 3. Lucia Saguì, ed., Storie al caleidoscopio: I vetri della Collezione Gorga: Un patrimonio ritrovato (Museo dell’arte Classica Gipsoteca, Roma 19 gennaio–20 febbraio 1998) (Florence: All’Insegna del Giglio, 1998).

  • 4.

  • 5. Important Ancient Glass from the Collection formed by the British Rail Pension Fund London Monday 24th November 1997 (London: Sotheby’s, 1997).

  • 6. For example, Strasbourg. See A. Straub, Le Cimetière Gallo-Romain de Strasbourg (Strasbourg: Librarie Charles J. Trübner, 1881), 11.

  • 7. Bernardo Quaranta, “Vasi di vetri,” Museo Borbonico 6 (1830): tav. xlvi, 1–2.

  • 8. Use the search term “tear bottle” in Google.

  • 9. Mary Luella Trowbridge, Philological Studies in Ancient Glass (University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 13, nos. 3–4, 1928; Urbana: University of Illinois, 1930), 150–178, provides a useful review of the words that do describe glass vessels in Latin and Greek literature.

  • 10. Anton Kisa, Das Glas im Altertume (Leipzig: Verlag von Karl W. Hiersemann, 1908). Morin-Jean, La verrerie en Gaule sous l’empire romain (Paris: Henri Laurens, 1913).

  • 11. Donald B. Harden, Roman Glass from Karanis found by the University of Michigan Archaeological Expedition in Egypt, 1924–29 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1936).

  • 12. Emil Ritterling, Das Frühromische Lager bei Hofheim im Taunus (Wiesbaden: R. Bechtold, 1913), 363–377.

  • 13. Donald B. Harden, “The Glass,” in Camulodunum First Report on the Excavations at Colchester 1930–1939, by C. F. C. Hawkes and M. R. Hull (London: The Society of Antiquaries, 1947), 287–307.

  • 14. Clasina Isings, Roman Glass from Dated Finds (Gronigen/Djakarta: J. B. Wolters, 1957).

  • 15. W. E. S. Turner, “Studies cesses, Part IV: The Chemical Composition of Ancient Glasses,” Journal of the Society of Glass Technology 40 (1956): 163T.

  • 16. E. V. Sayre and R. W. Smith, “Compositional Categories of Ancient Glass,” Science 133 (1961): 1824–1826.

  • 17. David Frederick Grose, The Toledo Museum of Art Early Ancient Glass (New York: Hudson Hills, 1989), 45–56, 73–81, 185–193; E. Marianne Stern and Birgit Schlick-Nolte, Early Glass of the Ancient World 1600 B.C.–A.D. 50 (Ostfildern: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1994), 27–70.

  • 18. Marie-Dominique Nenna, Les Verres (Exploration Archéologique de Délos 37; Athens: École Française d’Athènes, 1999), provides the best introduction.

  • 19. Yael Israeli, “The Invention of Blowing,” in Roman Glass: Two Centuries of Art and Invention, eds. Martine Newby and Kenneth Painter (London: The Society of Antiquaries of London, 1991), 46–55.

  • 20. Christina Boschetti, “Vitreous Materials in Early Mosaics in Italy: Faience, Egyptian Blue and Glass,” Journal of Glass Studies 53 (2011): 59–91.

  • 21. Denise Allen, “Roman Window Glass,” in Artefacts and Archaeology: Aspects of the Celtic and Roman World, eds. Miranda Aldhouse-Green and Peter Webster (Cardiff: Cardiff University Press, 2002), 103–106.

  • 22. H. E. Kilbride-Jones, “Glass Armlets in Britain,” Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 72 (1938): 366–395; Jennifer Price, “Romano-British Glass Bangles from East Yorkshire,” in Recent Research in Roman Yorkshire, eds. Jennifer Price and Peter R. Wilson (British Archaeological Report British Series 193; Oxford: BAR, 1988), 339–366.

  • 23. Trowbridge, Philological Studies, 154–155.

  • 24. Roger Ling, Roman Painting (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 23.

  • 25. Friederike Naumann-Steckner, “Depictions of Glass in Roman Wall Paintings,” in Roman Glass: Two Centuries of Art and Invention, eds. Martine Newby and Kenneth Painter (London: The Society of Antiquaries of London, 1991), 86–98.

  • 26. Heidi Amrein, L’Atelier de verriers d’Avenches (Lausanne: Aventicum XI, 2001), 22–30.

  • 27. Danielle Foy and Marie-Dominique Nenna, Tout feu tout sable (Marseilles: Musées de Marseille/Éditions Édisud, 2001), 43.

  • 28. Angela Wardle, “The Roman Glass,” in Roman and Medieval Development South of Cheapside: Excavations at Bow Bells House, City of London, 2005–6, eds. Isca Howell et al. (London: London Museum Archaeological Services, 2013), 53.

  • 29. Foy and Nenna, Tout feu tout sable, 101–112.

  • 30. Andrew Oliver, “Early Roman Faceted Glass,” Journal of Glass Studies 26 (1984): 48–54, nos. 19–29, 55–63.

  • 31. In-Sook Lee, “Ancient Glass in Korea,” Annales du 11e Congrès de l’Association Internationale pour l’Histoire du Verre Bâle 1988 (1990): 281–290.

  • 32. Harriet E. Foster and Caroline M. Jackson, “The Composition of ‘Naturally Coloured’ Late Roman Vessel Glass from Britain and the Implications for Models of Glass Production and Supply,” Journal of Archaeological Science 36 (2009): 190, table 1 provides the standard composition of Roman glass; see Julian Henderson, The Science and Archaeology of Materials (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 24–39, for an introduction to the chemistry of ancient glass.

  • 33. Trowbridge, Philological Studies, 97–98.

  • 34. Yael Gorin-Rosen, “The Ancient Glass Industry in Israel,” in La Route du verre, ed. Marie-Dominique Nenna (Lyon: Travaux de la Maison de l’Orient Méditerranéen, 2000), 49, fig. 1.

  • 35. Gorin-Rosen, “Ancient Glass Industry,” 52–56.

  • 36. Foster and Jackson, “Naturally Coloured Late Roman Vessel Glass,” 189–191, provides a succinct summary of these developments with details of compositions and full references.

  • 37. K. Hans Wedepohl, Wolfgang Gaitzsch, and Anna Barbara Follmann-Schulz, “Glassmaking and Glassworking in Six Roman Factories in the Hambach Forest, Germany,” Annales du 15e Congrès de l’Association Internationale pour l’Histoire du Verre, New York Corning 2001 (2003): 56–59.

  • 38. M. J. Baxter, H. E. M. Cool, and C. M. Jackson, “Further Studies in the Compositional Variability of Colourless Romano-British Vessel Glass,” Archaeometry 47 (2005): 58–60.

  • 39. Harriet E. Foster and Caroline M. Jackson, “The Composition of Late Romano-British Colourless Vessel Glass: Glass Production and Consumption,” Journal of Archaeological Science 37 (2010): 3070–3074.

  • 40. Patrick Degryse et al., “Primary Glass Factories around the Mediterranean,” in Glass Making in the Greco-Roman World, ed. Patrick Degryse (Leiden, The Netherlands: Leiden University Press, 2014), 106–107. That some of these glasses may have had a North African origin cannot be ruled out, as the political situation in that area at the time of the project precluded systematic sampling.

  • 41. Isings, Dated Finds, 93 Form 77; H. E. M. Cool and Jennifer Price, Roman Vessel Glass from Excavations in Colchester, 1971–85 (Colchester: Colchester Archaeological Trust, 1995), 116–117.

  • 42. Isings, Dated Finds, 92 Form 74; Cool and Price, Roman Vessel Glass, 174.

  • 43. E. Marianne Stern, Roman Mold-blown Glass (Toledo, OH: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider and Toledo Museum of Art, 1995), provides a comprehensive overview.

  • 44. Stern, Roman Mold-blown Glass, 74–86.

  • 45. Harden et al., Glass of the Caesars, 167–169, nos. 88–90; Cool and Price Roman Vessel Glass, 43–50; Foy and Nenna, Tout feu tout sable, 179–181, nos. 28698.

  • 46. Isings, Dated Finds, 22 Form 6 (bulbous), 24 Form 8 (tubular).

  • 47. See those from Porta Nocera cemetery, Pompeii for an unrivalled account of use in funerary ceremonies: Souen Fontaine, “Du parfum pour les morts,” in Mourir à Pompéi, eds. William van Andringa, Henri Duday, and Sébastien Lepetz (Rome: École Française de Rome), 1169–1199.

  • 48. Andrew Dalby, Empire of Pleasures (London: Routledge, 2000), 244–246.

  • 49. Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, “The Garden of Hercules at Pompeii (II.viii.6): The Discovery of a Commercial Flower Garden,” American Journal of Archaeology 83 (1979): 407, fig. 7.

  • 50. Lucia Amalia Scatozza Höricht, l’instrumentum vitreum di Pompei (Rome: Aracne, 2012).

  • 51. Cool, H. E. M., The Small Finds and Vessel Glass from Insula VI.1 Pompeii: Excavations 1995–2006 (Oxford: Archaeopress, in press).

  • 52. Isings, Dated Finds, 27 Form 11; Simonetta Biaggio Simona, I vetri romani provienti dalle terre dell’attuale Cantone Ticino (Locarno: Armando Dadò Editore, 1991), 125–129.

  • 53. Andrea Camilli, Ampullae: Balsamari ceramici di età ellenistica e romana (Rome: Fratelli Palombi Editori, 1999), provides a comprehensive overview. See also Virginia R. Anderson-Stojanović, “The Chronology and Function of Ceramic Unguentaria,” American Journal of Archaeology 91 (1987): 105–122.

  • 54. Camilli, Ampullae, 70 Forma B.

  • 55. Isings, Dated Finds, 88 Form 67c e.g. Cool and Price, Roman Glass Vessels, 106–109.

  • 56. Isings, Dated Finds, 59 Form 44b, e.g. Cool and Price, Roman Glass Vessels, 94–99.

  • 57. Isings, Dated Finds, Form 45, e.g. Scattozza Höricht, Instrumentum, 149 Tav. XXXIII nos. 11429A-B.

  • 58. H. E. M. Cool, “Some Notes on Spoons and Mortaria,” in TRAC 2003: Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference Leicester 2003, eds. Ben Croxford et al. (Oxford: Oxbow, 2004), 32.

  • 59. Isings, Dated Finds, 102 Form 85b, see Cool and Price, Roman Glass Vessels, 82–85.

  • 60. H. E. M. Cool and M. J. Baxter, “Peeling the Onion: An Approach to Comparing Vessel Glass Assemblages,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 12 (1999): 91–92.

  • 61. Sarah Jennings, Vessel Glass from Beirut (Beirut: American University of Beirut, 2005), 134–154.

  • 62. Danièle Foy, “La Verre de la fin du IVe au VIIIé siècle en France Mediterranèenne,” in Le Verre de l’antiquite tardive et du haut moyen age, ed. Danièle Foy (Guiry-en-Vexin: Musee Archeologique Departemental du Val d’Oise, 1995), 197.