SOMETIME AROUND 70 B.C., in Jerusalem, someone realized that, if you took a glass tube -- then the stock for mass production of beads -- sealed one end and blew into the other, you could create a glass bulb. Blow hard enough and long enough, and you could make a small bottle. This was glassblowing at its most primitive. It is quite possible that, without further refinement, this moment of experimentation might have passed unnoticed. A couple of decades later, however, the introduction of a separate blowpipe, together with a tool-kit of variously-sized pincers and paddles, made it possible to blow and shape glass with much greater control, and with much greater novelty.
But the potential of a technological idea will only come to fruition if its seed is planted in an encouraging cultural environment. During Rome's Republican Era, in the dictatorial times of Sulla and Julius Caesar, such encouragement seems to have been lacking. In the Hellenistic world, the firmly established traditions of working glass -- either by blending threads of it into closed vessel forms or by slumping glass over a pre-shaped model for open ones -- were producing fine wares with which the infant technique of free-blowing could not yet compete. In the Roman world, however, pottery was still the material of choice for everything domestic, from fish platters to perfume bottles, and no one seemed to be in any hurry to change that situation.
Enter the Emperor Augustus. It is said that he had no love of foreigners; he viewed the appreciable numbers of them living in Rome around 10 B.C. as a potential source for the corruption of traditional Roman values. If I interpret his subsequent actions correctly, he wanted the Italian mainland to be far more self-sufficient wherever possible. So it was that Italian businesses in certain crafts -- most obviously, pottery- and cloth-making -- were encouraged to expand. The craft of glassworking now was adopted from the Hellenistic world with much energy and skill. An ancient Industrial Revolution was underway.
To get things moving, the Romans simply enslaved hundreds of skilled craftsmen in the eastern provinces, uprooting them from their homes and resettling them in the outskirts of rapidly-growing Roman cities. Pottery-makers were imported from Asia Minor, particularly from around Pergamum, and put to work at Arretium; Greek craftsmen were moved from Athens to Lyons and other cities in central Gaul; glassworkers were brought in from the provinces of Syria, Judaea, and Aegyptus -- most likely from the cities of Sidon, Jerusalem, and Alexandria -- and put to work in shops at Naples, Aquileia, and just outside Rome itself.
There was an immediate market niche for glassware in Augustan times. Like many ancient peoples, the Romans believed in an afterlife that was an idealized form of their worldly experience. According to its means, the family of each dead Roman was obliged to provide furnishings for the grave. Such furnishings always included regular domestic items -- plates of food, flasks of wine, and so on -- but it was also a tradition to include offerings of perfume. The Roman wealthy would put these offerings in bottles (unguentaria) made of silver or alabaster. The eastern craftsmen who brought with them the skill of glassblowing now offered the rest of the population an alternative in glass; to be sure, not something as elegant or colorful as might have been wished, but which everyone could afford. The free-blown unguentarium was one of the immediate and long-term successes of the newly emerging industry. Modern excavations have revealed many instances where a grave contains not just one or two but a couple of dozen of these, all mass-produced, each in a matter of minutes at most.
At the same time, glass captured the popular imagination by virtue of its translucency. You could see the color of wine in a beaker, or how well a bottle was filled even if it was sealed -- which could not be said for items made of pottery, or indeed of bronze, silver, or gold. The production of wine glasses soared in the Augustan era, actually causing the demise of some of the pottery workshops that specialized in traditional beaker types. It was glass's distinctive property of transparency that stimulated the Emperor Nero's tutor, Lucius Seneca to observe that " ... Apples seem more beautiful if they are floating in a glass." (Investigations in Natural Science I.6). And, from the middle of the first century A.D. onward, squared-sided glass bottles -- typically with capacities in the half- to one-liter range -- were used for a great deal of the short-range movement of liquids such as olive oil and the popular fish sauce known as garum.
Thus the industrialization of glassworking in the Augustan era came about through the influence of three distinct forces: First, by virtue of certain historical events (Augustus's rise to power and his promotion of craft-centralization on the Italian mainland); second, because of a technical innovation (the invention of glassblowing in one of Rome's eastern provinces); and third, the social pressure related to fashion or taste (a traditional link between perfumery and Roman funerary ritual). Change in the Roman glassworking industry was always most dramatic whenever all three of these forces came together at one time.
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 4/14/98