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Ever since the first glassmakers melted silica and sodium carbonate together, glass has been a beautiful and practical element of our lives. Glass is very old, and there are a lot of surviving artifacts made from glass in museums around the world. The Roman Empire used glassworking as a cornerstone of its economy, having conquered enough of the Mediterranean to be in possession of all of the glass-making territories of the era. With the exception of stained-glass windows, the Romans pioneered the majority of the techniques we still use in glassmaking today.

Origins of Glass

The oldest glass in the world is from Mesopotamia and dates to 2500 B.C. From that moment onward, it became a commodity, featured in jewelry, decor, and spiritual paraphernalia. Eventually, vessels were developed, and these provided alternate methods for storing goods such as oils and perfumes. The earliest glassmaking methods involved a central clay core on a stick that was then dipped in melted glass; when the glass cooled, the core was scraped out. The main ingredients were silica (sand) and sodium carbonate (soda), but other minerals could be added to make colored glass: copper produced pale greens and reds, cobalt was added for dark blue, manganese made violet hues, and antimony contributed yellow and white. Around 50 B.C., a major innovation was developed along the eastern Mediterranean: blown glass. This method made glass production faster and also allowed for artisan crafting to emerge alongside practical use. This combination of beauty and practicality made glass craftmanship a highly sought commodity for the Roman Empire.

Glass of the Roman Empire

The most famous type of Roman glass is cameo glass. This was a type of glass that featured carved portraits or scenes from mythology. While the Romans had many colors of glass, clear glass was most highly valued and ornamental, so the most valuable glass engraving was on clear glass. Another rare and valuable type of Roman glass is the famous "cage cups," which are glass cups set inside a glass lattice. These were highly prized by Roman patricians and nobility as a sign of wealth. Gold glass featured decorative gold inlays that could be seen through the glass; this technique was often used in tondi, which were similar to signets and used to represent families and individuals, usually patricians or merchants. However, luxury glass was not the only type of glass produced in Rome. Glass competed with pottery and wood as a material used for storage of perishable materials and liquids, and many people of all social classes enjoyed its convenience. It was such an important trade commodity that Roman glass has been found as far east as China.

Decorative Techniques of Roman Glass

Until the advent of blown glass, glass was mass-produced using a mold and creatively produced using the core technique. Blown glass enhanced both techniques. Mold-blowing meant the glass was blown into a carved mold, which was removed when the glass dried and hardened. Since this saved a lot of time, it made production faster. Free-blowing would forgo the mold and allow the glass to take shape on its own or be shaped by the artisan. Blown glass also made it easier to create the glass strands that made the cage cups so valuable. Glassworkers could shape blown glass with tongs and other tools to make products in different shapes, add feet, leaves, and other features, and wrap their work with glass embellishments. The millefiori technique created beautiful mosaic patterns by binding rods of colored glass into a single rod while molten, then cutting the rod in cross-sections to produce multicolored tiles.

Special Uses for Glass

When people think of glass today, they might think of a window or a drinking glass first. The Romans did use glass for windows, but it was mainly to keep the elements out rather than for the view. Glass had other more prominent uses in Roman culture. As much as the Romans did not care about looking out, they were very intrigued by looking in: Glass could be used to contain live fish, and it was also used to make mirrors. Decorative beads and other glass jewelry predate the Romans, but they made these luxuries a specialty. They decorated their homes with glass, on the walls and ceilings and adorning the furniture, and they lit their rooms with glass lamps. Glass was also an important part of everyday life. Liquids such as olive oil and wine were stored in glass, and glass was also used to consume them. Glass was also used to eat from; pieces of many glass bowls and plates have been unearthed wherever Romans lived. Roman women even used glass vials to store perfume and other cosmetics.

Further Reading

Article written by Lexi Westingate
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