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Fine Glassware in the Roman World

“If a man formerly used gold vessels, he must sell them and use silver ones; if he used silver vessels, he must sell them and use bronze ones; if he formerly used bronze vessels, he must sell them and use glass ones.” (Tosephta, Peah IV. 11)

Roman glassworkers were creative, so much so that almost all the techniques of glass manipulation used in the modern industry, such as mold-blowing and faceting, were highly developed by the end of the 1st century A.D. Unlike many of their modern counterparts, however, Roman glassworkers were not independent and entrepreneurial artisans. Reality is that they usually were slaves held in bondage quite deliberately for their craft skills, as part of an Empire-wide industry reckoned to be producing as many as 100 million items of glassware year-in and year-out, for some five centuries and more. 

The quality of any particular item of Roman glassware therefore offers us a fascinating cultural window onto the working class citizenry of its day. Extreme variation in that quality indicates that there was a modest spectrum of wealth in both the Roman cities and in the Roman countryside, and that there was a parallel spectrum of glassworking skills around that could match everyone’s means and taste.

In the view of the Roman glassworkers who made them, these eight glass vessels highlighted here most likely would have been rated as only modest efforts. We describe them as “fine wares”, though, because they captured the imagination of so many visitors to the Museum’s recent exhibition, Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change, some for their aesthetic subtlety, some for their innovative technology.