I USE THE WORD industry to characterize Roman glassworking almost from its inception with due caution, mindful of the fact that it now conjures up an image of the relentless grinding of machinery and the turning-out of countless identical widgets. Roman glassworking was never as mechanical as that. Yet the scale of production does have a distinctly modern ring to it, as to some extent does the uniformity of its products. Let me move crabwise towards a quantitative view of this point by moving forward the ancient clock to the later Roman era and describing the new direction that Roman glassworking took in the eastern Mediterranean during the mid-fourth century A.D.
In A.D. 326, following a major political rift with the Senate in Rome, the Emperor Constantine moved the administrative heart of the Empire to the site of ancient Byzantium, and named his new city Constantinople. That move, as an historical event, was in itself sufficient to strongly influence the course of glassworking, simply by revitalizing the economies of the neighboring eastern provinces. But Constantine did far more than that. He specifically granted exemption from public service to many kinds of craftsmen, glassworkers among them, so that " É they might become more skilled in their craft and see to the training of their sons" (The Theodosian Code XIII.4).
What an enlightened decision that was! No sooner was Constantinople dedicated in A.D. 330 than the process began of filling it with fine basilicas. By the middle of the fifth century A.D., there were at least 14 of them, all mixed in with 11 massive palaces of emperors and empresses. Most revered of all amid this new architecture was the Church of Holy Wisdom. Constantine's version of it was destroyed during riots in A.D. 532. But it was rebuilt and reconsecrated just five years later, its newfound magnificence prompting the Emperor Justinian to declare, "Solomon, I have surpassed you!"
The aggressive imperial building campaign of the fourth century A.D. was sufficient to bring the force of wealth into play with some intensity. As the Roman nobility rushed to gain favor with Constantine's successors, they donated huge sums towards the construction of more massive basilicas in other cities, including Jerusalem and Rome. Provincial goverment officials, not to be outdone by their urban counterparts and for much the same political reasons, followed suit in towns and villages throughout the Roman world.
As for technical innovation, that came in the form of the cone-shaped lamp. This had become part of the Roman glassworker's repertoire sometime late in the third century A.D., the earliest of them being made of common green glass and probably used simply to light up domestic storage areas. The practical demands of the ecclesiastical building spree of the fourth century A.D. now encouraged the mass production of such lamps in colorless glass. We can get some sense of the scale of lamp production from an engraving of the inside of the Church of Holy Wisdom that was made by Giovanni Fossati late in the 18th century. All of the white "specks" that he rendered so carefully along the limbs of the eight-sided candelabra are individual glass lamps -- close to a thousand of them, if I'm not mistaken, just to illuminate this one church alone.
I would not want this talk of emperors, be it either of Augustus or Constantine, to create a false image of glass's place in Roman society. There was a quite strict hierarchy in Roman material. If you were in the imperial or senatorial league of wealth, you would eat everything -- even your hard-boiled eggs -- off only gold or silver; on the next rung down, among the more successful of merchants and government officials, your tableware usually would be made of bronze. For most everyone else, your dishes, water jugs, and wine cups were of pottery or glass. The same material distinction would be made for most domestic items, whatever their purpose.
A typical middle-class Roman household therefore would have glassware scattered throughout its rooms, from the dressing area where, each morning, the lady of the house would have her hair styled and her make-up applied by a personal maid, to the kitchen that came to life late in the day during the preparation of the evening meal. In a remote part of the house there would be an all-purpose room for the storage of farm produce and preserved foodstuffs such as grain and salted fish, and somewhere else there would be a cache of globular flasks that contained massage oils for use in the local public baths. In some instances, there wouldn't be just one unguentarium or one pickling jar but several of them, each of different size and/or purpose. Conservatively, there were probably about 80 items of glassware used on a daily basis in any sizable rural household and perhaps half that number in any cramped city apartment.
As I drew these ideas together, my physicist's instincts urged me one step further. How many rural households and city apartments were there, Empire-wide? There will always be debates about such matters, but the consensus view at present is that, around A.D. 116, Rome's subjects numbered close to 54 million. Perhaps as many as a third of them were slaves, and so not owners of property. That still left a free-born citizenry, however, that probably owned or rented about six million homes. If we allow that just three vessels were broken every year, then glassworkers were turning out a staggering 18 million items of glassware every year -- production on an industrial scale indeed.
Every time I make that calculation, I check to be sure I've not added a couple of extra zeros; but no, 18 million it is. Small wonder then, that by the middle of the first century A.D. the Latin phrase vitrea fracti had taken on the proverbial meaning of rubbish. A comment attributed to the Augustan geographer Strabo, that " ... a glass drinking cup could be bought for a copper coin" (Geography XVI.2) also indicates that, although a kitchen slave might suffer a whipping for his or her carelessness, the buying of new glassware was not going to strain the household budget much.
If so much glass was being made every year, where is it all now? From modern excavations in urban areas and at the sites of Roman military camps, we know that a lot of it finished up as trash that would then have been crushed and churned over during later construction work. Probably just as much trashed glass was recycled, however -- gathered up and bought for pennies to peddlers who then sold it by the sack-load to local glass workshops where it could be re-melted and re-shaped. In fact, broken and discarded glass -- what we call cullet today -- may have been the only stock available for glassworkers in the more distant provinces, since the importation of pre-made ingots or the raw ingredients for glassmaking from scratch would have been prohibitively expensive for them.
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 4/14/98