The curator of a show of Roman glass now at
the University Museum tells how the ancient
glassworking industry reveals as much about
the Romans as their architecture, thirst for conquest, or tendency to murder their emperors.
I was born and raised in South Wales. My brother and I often would spend weekend afternoons clambering over the remains
of Roman camps as my father, an amateur artist, captured the charm of nearby villages in and around the Wye valley. I loved reading tales of how the woad-painteThe curator of a show
of Roman glass now at the University Museum tells how the ancient glassworking industry reveals as much about the Romans as their architecture, thirst for conquest, or tendency to murder their emperors.d native people, the Silures, fiercely defended their -- and my -- homeland, holding at bay the better- armed Roman legions (though I also spent hours copying drawings of those Roman soldiers in their fighting gear, standing stoically beneath their eagle-headed standard).
It is Roman militarism, and a centuries-long tendency to solve political problems by murder rather than manipulation (thus, Caligula was stabbed to death by one of his Praetorian guard, and Claudius was poisoned by his fourth wife, Agrippina), that today most strongly color the popular image of the ancient Romans. Remnants of forts, city walls, and roads throughout the Mediterranean cannot fail to impress on any traveler how far afield war and political ambitions took the Romans over the centuries: Westward to Hadrian's Wall in northern Britain, a place where you can be chilled to the bone by the wind even at the height of an English summer; Northward deep into the dark and mist-enshrouded German forests; Eastward across the baking heat of the Syrian Desert to the banks of the Euphrates river; and Southward to the deserts beyond the Atlas Mountains of North Africa and along the fertile course of Egypt's Nile.
But there is another side of the Romans that we tend to overlook -- their flair for good business. If ancient accounts are true to life, the streets of Rome itself hummed with activity in a way only matched today by the garment district of New York or the noisiest bazaars of Beirut. In Roman society, you were what you owned, so almost everyone was looking for some commercial opportunity that would improve their lot. During the late first century B.C., the industrialization of the glassworking craft offered just such an opportunity -- a near-ideal one because, in modern parlance, the R&D had already been done for them, in the Hellenistic world of the eastern Mediterranean.
It has been fascinating for me, after a 30-year career that has mixed radiation physics and archaeology, to create the exhibition Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change and take a fresh look at the Romans via an aspect of their material culture rather than revive my youthful memories of their militancy. The exhibition, which opened this past September and continues through November at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, includes more than 200 glass vessels -- bottles, bowls, cups, and jugs -- dating from the late second century B.C. to the early seventh century A.D. and all drawn from the Museum's Hellenistic and Roman collections. Most have never been displayed publicly before.
Back in 1991, as I began my research into the Museum's Roman glass collections, I was struck by how certain shapes and decorative motifs cropped up all over the Roman World. This was my first inkling that I was dealing with the products of a full-blown industry, not a minor craft. I knew then that, in part, the exhibition would be a social study of the Roman middle classes and the poor in a way that would carry me far from many of the conventional textbooks on Roman lifestyles.
Meanwhile, I felt that strange tingling sensation on the back of the neck that all of us get when something tantalizing refuses to quite come into focus -- in this instance, the fact that the Romans simply did not have a word for glass before about 60 B.C. Yet, through war and trade, they were in full contact with the Hellenistic World, where glassworking was flourishing as never before. I realized I could not move forward with any plan to explain Roman glassworking to the public without first jumping back a few decades in antiquity. Here is what I learned.
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 4/14/98