Early Imperial Roman Glass at the University of Pennsylvania Museum

By: Stuart J. Fleming

Originally Published in 1996

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Five years ago, when the ideas underlying the forthcoming exhibition Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change were still in embryo, I did the logical academic thing—I set aside some time to put together a bibliography of where the Museum’s glass collections had been previously published. General exploration of the Mediterranean Section’s storage areas had alerted me to the fact that the Museum’s holdings of Roman glass might be considerable. There seemed to be tray upon tray of bottles and jars, dishes and cups of every shape and size. In the Near East Section’s storerooms, dozens of glass vessels were spread throughout the trays of pottery and other grave goods excavated from the massive cemeteries of Beth Shean (Scythopolis in Roman times) in Israel (Fig. 1), together with a small amount of glassware from Kourion in Cyprus.

I assumed that the literature on this material would be extensive. I was wrong. Record cards in the Registrar’s Office guided me to two articles in issues of The Museum Journal—Expedition’s forerunner—Vol. IV, No. 4 (1903) and Vol. X, No. 3 (1909). The first of these articles noted that the Museum had “acquired from Jerusalem two collections of glass, comprising 394 pieces and consisting mostly of vases” (Fig. 4). (F. J. Whiting had arranged the purchase of this material from the Vestor Company in 1913.) The second article mentioned that, in 1906, Lydia Thompson Morris had made a donation of 180 vessels “exclusive of beads and fragments.” There were 40 Roman vessels illustrated in these two articles, but the discussion of their prove­nance, dating, and cultural significance was very superfi­cial—certainly not the stuff of modern scholarship.

Even the excavated material went largely unre­ported. Gerald Fitzgerald, the excavator of the Beth Shean cemeteries, published just one page of line draw­ings and two paragraphs of commentary on 35 pieces of glass (mostly fragments) from the site. (However, a copy of his unpublished thesis, “Excavations in the Northern Cemetery Area, 1924-1930,” in the Museum’s Archives provides substantially more information.) And the exca­vator of Roman graves at Kuourion, George McFadden, died in a sailing accident in 1953, before he could pub­lish the handful of intact vessels from Tomb 5 now in the Museum’s collections. Later acquisitions, some of them sizable, have received equally little recognition. As a consequence, from 1909 until now, all but a minute proportion of the vessels in these collections have remained in complete obscurity.

Over the past three years, we have been able to document in some detail just how rich the Musea’s collections of Roman glass are. A computerized database (VITRA), created with the Claris software FileMaker Pro, now holds routine information on more than seven hun­dred vessels, along with at least one profile sketch of each. Close to three hundred of these sketches are fin­ished to publication quality, and many have supplemen­tary sketches of significant parts, such as the handle or rim form or the decoration on the body or the base (Fig. 3a-c). More than 95 percent of the vessels are intact, and they span the entire period of Roman Imperial history, from the late 1st century BC to the early 7th century AD. These facts were major considerations in the decision to prepare the exhibition Roman Glass:Refllctions on Cultural Change, since they assure that we can offer both an aesthetically appealing display and a complete histor­ical perspective for our public visitors.

In documenting this kind of collection, two ref­erences have been particularly useful: Clara Isings’ Roman Glass and Karin Goethert-Polaschek’s Katalog der römischen Glaser des Rheiniscben Landerrmuseums Trier (see Fig. 4). Despite being almost forty years old, Isings’ book is still an excellent resource for known parallels in Italy and the western Empire over the period of the 1st century BC to the 4th century AD and an efficient link to older publications of glass grave goods. Goethert ­Polaschek’s book documents in detail several dozen well-provenanced tomb assemblages from the Trier region. The Trier assemblages constitute one of the best resources available for dating 1st-3rd century AD Roman glassware. However, these standard works define each vessel form only in a quite general way. Regional idio­syncrasies in the shape of a vessel’s base, handle, or rim call for a constant awareness of innumerable excavation reports. In these reports, we can on occasion find matches for some of the Museum’s vessels that are so close that we can suggest they came from the same workshop, even perhaps from the same mold.

The Study of Roman Glass

There are major scholarly issues still unresolved about Roman glassware, not least where any particular piece was made. Glass vessels, like many other goods, moved effortlessly through the sprawling Roman trade network (Delaine 1983; Price 0978; Sorokina 1967). Thus, while the production of cast mosaic bowls and dishes is set firmly in Italy during the early decades of the 0st century AD (Grose 0989), dozens of these vessels were distributed throughout the Empire and sometimes far beyond (Fig. 5). For example, when legions were moved in times of crisis from one frontier to another, some of the domestic glassware—tablewares and storage vessels—was carted along with all the usual military paraphernalia. Thus, a robust bottle made in Spain might finish its life in a fort on the Rhine, while one made in Gaul could appear in a trash pit near Hadrian’s Wall or in a grave near one of the veterans’ colonies that the Romans established along the north African coast­line (Fig. 6).

There is also a remarkable level of uncertainty about what Roman glass vessels were used for and, in case of the various kinds of bottles and flasks we have, what they contained. The wonderfully preserved wall-paintings at Pompeii and Herculaneum do depict glass­ware and so, to some extent, put it in its social setting (Naumann-Steckner 1991). But those items are only a tiny fraction of the repertoire of vessels produced and used at that time (Fig. 7). They guide us little in our quest to understand the directions that Roman glass-making took in subsequent centuries. So many of the Roman glass vessels that we have available for study today survived only because they were grave goods and so were afforded some degree of long-term shelter. The general dampness and acidity of a tomb  environment, however, ensured that the contents of those vessels evaporated or rotted a long time ago. In any case, only in modern excavations would care be taken to preserve any residues.

Even such residues, however, might tell us only part of the story, since many vessels were utilitarian and had a multipurpose life. In a domestic setting, for example, a large jar could be used to store dried goods such as flour in one season, and salted meat the next; if used in trade, it might contain fruit preserved in honey one time, pickled fish the next; in a final use as a grave good, it might contain a good stock of olives to be enjoyed in the afterlife, or the deceased’s cremated remains. Indeed, many glass vessels finished up as funer­ary urns, including even a large measuring cup originally used to dispense grain allowances to the needy (Fig. 8). Similarly, any small bowl or jar could be used to mix things (Fig. 9), but those things could range from spices for a dinner entrée to dried herbs that would be con­cocted into a cure for insomnia (see Scarborough, this issue). Truth to tell, we should not expect otherwise, since today a coffee jar will often find a secondary usage as a paint pot or a place to put spare nuts and bolts.

There is also uncertainty as to how the Romans valued glass. Given the Roman proverbial use of vitrea fracta for “rubbish,” it is difficult to resist Michael Vickers’ assertion that, for the most part, glass was the medium of the less wealthy sectors of Roman society (pers. com., 1996); whether one should say “of the Roman middle class” I don’t know, because that is to impose modern western imagery on a culture with a materialism different from our own.

The range of technical quality that character­izes glass from ancient contexts, both domestic and funerary, suggests that the glassmaking industry had an internal hierarchy of its own, in terms of quality of product. Note the following in a letter sent by a young man stationed in Alexandria to his father living in Guaranis in the Fayoum oasis sometime in the 3rd century AD: “I thank you because you considered me worthy and have made me free from care. I have sent you, father . . sets of glassware, two bowls of quinarius size, a dozen goblets . . .” (Gazda 1983). Should we be surprised that a rural family in a Roman province would enjoy owning some glass-ware that was more delicate than anything they could buy locally, even though the gentry of Rome and other large cities of the Empire held glass vessels of any kind in low regard?

There is also the puzzle of why there was no Roman glassmaking craft before the latter part of the first century BC. For whatever reason, the Romans chose to ignore it as a material, domestic or luxurious, throughout the first three centuries of their pre-Imperial territorial growth. It was not as if they knew nothing about it, since Rome’s territories of the late 3rd century BC encompassed those parts of southern Italy and neighboring Sicily where immigrant Greek settlers and native Italic peoples had culturally fused together centuries before. The tomb furnishings recovered from cemeteries outside Canusium (modern Canosa di Puglia) illustrate this region’s taste for imported Hellenistic luxury items (Grose 1989), including some fine cast glassware (Figs. 10, 11). Additionally, direct Roman trading contacts with the Hellenistic world of the eastern Mediterranean were firmly established by the mid 4nd century BC (Weinberg 0965), and Hellenistic glassmaking was certainly flourishing at that time. So much of Hellenistic culture was then eagerly embraced by the Romans—architecture, religious cults, modes of dress, literary style—that Cato the Censor (died 149 BC) created a countermovement designed to re-assert earli­er Roman homespun values and personal austerity. (His pleas went largely unheeded.) The Roman adoption of Hellenistic glassmaking processes lagged far behind the Roman acceptance of Hellenistic philosophies. The primary Roman contribution to the development of glassmaking was much less techno­logical than it was organizational—the transformation of a craft into an industry. Admittedly, this industry never had a scale of productivity remotely close to that of glassmaking today, but it did have similar  ideals: mass production of wares through management of a skilled labor force and constant provision of raw materials, sone standardization of products, and a responsiveness to popular demand that went well beyond local and regional needs. This industry serviced a population which, on mainland Italy at least, was crammed into sprawling cities at levels rivaling those of Charles Dickens’s London. In Rome alone, we are talk­ing of perhaps 180,000 households in the mid 1st centu­ry AD, so that an annual turnover of more than a million glass vessels does not seem unreasonable in satisfaction of that city’s domestic needs.

Each of the featured vessels in the six vignettes that follow is in the permanent collections of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Each vignette explores a different aspect of the crafting, distribution, and uses of early Roman glassware.

Ribbed Bowl

Hellenistic glassmakers first adopted the technique of casting in the late 3rd century BC (see Figs. 00, 00). Although the ribbed bowl was not part of the original repertoire, within a century or so it was their most popular  product. Roman glassmakers favored it as well. The Hellenistic-Roman transition was marked by a con­siderable improvement in the form: the ribs became more pronounced and widely spaced, and their layout more symmetrical (Fig. 14a,b). At the same time, the natural colors of the Hellenistic era—varying hues of golden brown and murky green—were replaced by a Roman palette of vivid monochromes and, in Italy during the Augustan era, a wide range of complex marbling and mosaic cane effects (Fig. 03).

Ribbed bowls were made by tooling hot glass immediately after it was allowed to sag into shape over a model resting on a potter’s wheel (Fig. 14a,b). As the wheel was slowly rotated, the rim of the bowl was fash­ioned by pressing the disk’s edge against the model with a bronze or iron lath, while a rhythmic chopping action with a second lath defined the ribs. The exterior of the rim was usually finished by grinding and polishing, which invariably created a slanting triangular bevel at the top of each rib. The interior of the bowl was ground smooth and sometimes decorated with concentric sets of grooves on the body wall and/or on the base.

Ribbed bowls were as scattered through the Empire and neighboring lands as any kind of Roman glass­ware. Recently published examples from provenanced burial contexts include Espe, in the Fyn region of Denmark (Ekholm 1963); Zohor (near Bratislava) in Slovakia (Kraskovská 1980); Um al-Qaiwain in the United Arab Emirates (Haerinck 1994); and Vitudurum (near Windisch) in Switzerland (Rütti 1988). All these and earlier finds date to the 0st century AD, after which time Roman glassmakers virtually abandoned the casting technology described above in favor of a more cost-effective mold-blowing technique.

Blue Unguentarium

Our earliest evidence for any attempt to blow glass comes from an early 1st century BC trash deposit in Jerusalem that included several partially worked glass rods—probably applicators for cosmetics or ointments—and fragments of glass tubes, some of which had been fire-sealed at one end and partially inflated into simple bulbs. Parts of a few crude bottles among the same debris indicate the general success of this experimentation (Israeli 1990). However, the industrial potential of this new technology went unrecognized for several more decades, awaiting the invention of the blow-pipe—in prototype, perhaps one of the pottery nozzles used to provide draft for the crucibles and molds of metalworkers (Stern and Schlick-Nolte 1994). The changeover was abetted by Augustus’s imperial decision to uproot hundreds of craftsmen from the eastern Mediterranean and resettle them on the Italian mainland. There, as slaves, those craftsmen were obliged to adapt their craft skills towards mass production.

The first products of commercial glass-blowing were mostly roughly finished unguentaria—small bottles and vials for a perfumed oil or lotion (Fig. 16) that were most likely presented as offerings to deceased relatives. The next wave of production was of much higher quality. In response to the importance placed upon personal appearance and hygiene in Roman society, various jars and juglets appeared, to be used for cosmetic mixing, decanti­ng, and application (see Fig. 9). The forms and decoration of unguentaria also multiplied.

The elegantly tapered unguentaria of Figure 15 combines two fashionable aspects of glassmaking of the mid-lst century AD. Both its shape and its white-on-blue color scheme echo contemporary cameo vessels (Painter and Whitehouse 1990) (Fig. 08). Its form is a natural elon­gation of the spherical unguentaria (Fig. 19) that were fire-sealed after filling so that the end had to be snapped off before the contents could be used.

The use of spiraling threads as a means of decora­tion suited well the way that glass could be extruded and handled while hot. The technique was applied to all kinds of glassware in a whole range of color schemes (Figs. 17, 19), including monochromes such as green-on-green. Its popularity in the western Empire declined in the mid 2nd century ADC, after which it was rarely more than a supple­ment to more complex manipulations of the glass’s surface (see Fig. 39)

Oil Flask


As Roman glassmakers explored the practicalities of free-blowing, their products diversified and became more substantial. Utilitarian glassware found a niche in almost every part of Roman daily life. Each morning, dozens of unguentaria containing oils and lotions were brought forth, to endow a lady with the fresh complexion necessary for her subsequent round of socializing. Pitchers and bowls of water were carried by household slaves, so that businessmen could refresh themselves either during a morning meeting, or between courses at an evening meal. One part of the normal day of every Roman, patrician and plebeian alike, was a visit to the public bathing houses (thermal). By the mid 4nd century AD these were complexes of bathing pools and areas for bathing, exercise, reading, and socializing (Carcopino 1964). In a few spacious rooms, the wealthy, after they had bathed, could be pummeled into shape and rubbed down with heavily scented oils. The two flasks shown here (Fig. 20a,b and Fig. 20a,b) are typical of those used for storing such oils.

Social bathing, albeit at more modest thermal, was just as much a part of everyday life in the Roman provinces as it was in Rome, so find spots for glass oil flasks are Empire-wide. The forms of their rims and han­dles (which originally would have held the ends of a bronze carrying loop) do, however, show some interesting regional variations (Sorokina 1987). For example, a collar-like rim (see Fig. 40) appears frequently among flasks from Asia Minor, particularly at places near the Bosphorus. (This rim form mimics that on glazed pottery being traded out of Pergamon, just 150 kilometers to the south.) A quite different rim, one with an inwardly flattened profile, occurs on flasks from the eastern Mediterranean and around the northeastern coastline of the Black Sea, but it also occurs frequently in the western Empire. Handle form goes some way towards separating eastern from western products. The eastern handle is a curved pivot that stretches from one point on the flask’s shoul­der to another either just below or on the neck (Fig. 40); the western handle is a drape of glass along the flask’s body and neck that curls back to end on the drape itself (Fig. 44).

This globular kind of oil flask went out of fashion by the 3rd century AD. It does persist in places, how­ever. In Egypt, its handle becomes smeared along the entire neck (Fig. 43). In the Rhineland, the flask becomes more bottle-like, with handles in a dolphin-like shape shared by many other vessels from that region.

Juggle by Ennion

MS 5004

Glassmakers was just one of the crafts Augustus placed in the hands of entrepreneurs to ensure industrialization. Pottery making was another—possibly the first and assuredly the most successful. The already sizable kiln complexes in northern Italy (particularly those at Arezzo) were expanded, then supplemented by ones in southern Gaul (Greene 1986). Initial commercial success owed much to the experienced mold-makers that were brought to Italy from Asia Minor to help produce tableware with a fine red gloss finish and a decoration inspired by the silverware of the day.

Glassmakers may have envied the efficiency of these pottery-making centers and the quality of their products, but they could not simply usurp the technology. A vessel molded in unfired clay shrinks as it dries, and so frees itself naturally from the mold. But glass, hot and fluid when blown, clings closely to the mold’s surface. For closed forms, such as bottles, the mold itself has to be in two or more parts if it is to be lifted away (Price 1990). Solutions were found. Multi-part molds of stone and sheet copper found favor because of sturdiness; clay ones were popular because they could be prepared as sets by replication from a metal or wooden model, then filled in turn from one glass melt.

When glassmakers developed the technology of mold-blown glass around ADC 35, the benchmark for quality seems to have been set by some­one called Ennion. The Hellenize nature of his Semitic name, together with its  occasional coupling to the Semitic blessing “Let the buyer be remembered” suggest that Emlion came from the eastern Mediterranean—possibly Sidon, possibly Jerusalem. His use of the western motif of a han­dled rectangle around his name (see Fig. 25) clearly indicates a Roman influence upon his career. Findspots for some of his wares and a suggestion of Italic mimicry in his style hint at time spent on the Italian mainland. Whatever his background, his products were all characterized by a crisp­ness in the design motifs and a skillful management of the mold parts so that their line of union is all but invisible on the surface of the glass.

Everything about the bottle shown in Figure 44 suggests that it, too, is a product of Ennion workshop. The central frieze of alternating in-and out-turned palmettes matches exactly the frieze on the shoulder of an Ennion “signed” jug (Fig. 25) found in the Old City of Jerusalem (Israeli 1983). These two vessels share the devices of obscuring the mold-join under the stem of one of the palmettos. The rough finish of the juglet shown in Figure 46 underscores, by contrast, the quality of Ennion’s craftsmanship. The central motif of tendril scrolls is poorly defined; the mold-joins on either side of the body disfigure the design. When this kind of tendril scroll was produced by Ennion, the vegetation always retained its lifelike form.

Juggle, Bacchus Motifs

MS 5 0 0 0

As early as the 4nd century BC, eastern cults were attracting eager disciples in Rome. The city was teeming with people of non-Roman birth—slaves, freedmen and businessmen—for whom those cults were native religions; but times of plague and famine also encouraged many a Roman citizen to seek cultic comfort (Shelton 1988). Cybele came from Asia Minor to help defeat Hamlibal; Isis and her son Osiris came from Egypt with promises of resurrection; and Dionysus, transformed into Bacchus, came from Greece, offering salvation and a blessed afterlife. Bacchic rituals were mysterious, emotional to the point of frenzy, and (so critics claimed) prone to lewdness and drunken devilry. Yet Bacchus worship persevered for many centuries, contributing its favorite symbols—the vine and the mask of revelry—to many a Roman sculptural relief and wall-painting (Lehmann-Hartleben and Olsen 1944).

Some specific imagery on mold-blown glass gives us a sense of Bacchus’s popularity during the latter part of the 1st century AD (Weinberg 1972; Matheson 1980). In the most direct allusions, we have the god accompanied by his acolytes, drunken Silenus and pipe-playing Pan. Similar allusions include depictions of wine jugs and bowls alongside such items as the panpipes and a vine-garlanded shepherd’s staff (the tarsus) that were part of the paraphernalia of Bacchic festivals. But the pairing-up of pine cone and pomegranate motifs with one of a grape bunch (Fig. 47a,b) is a more subtle expression of Bacchic beliefs. It harks back to the Hellenistic ori­gins of the cult as a mixture of two gods of nature, the Greek Dionysus and the Phrygian Sabazios. The pome­granate, by virtue of its heavy seed load, was an image of fertility for both of these eastern deities, and the pine cone was always a primary symbol for Sabazios (Fig. 28). Meanwhile, the fusion of the Bacchus cult with tradi­tional Roman paganism is clear where, for example, Bacchus joins Neptune among representations of the Seasons (Fig. 49).

While Bacchic symbols in glass decoration are easy to recognize, those for other cults are not. For example, the frequency of occurrence of a specific sextet of bird motifs among bottles and juglets similar to those bearing Bacchic motifs suggests some cultic influence (Fig. 30a,b). But the bird itself is unidentified, and its actions are hard to discern beyond the general notions of flying and nesting. An ibis or a falcon would have Egyptian comlotations, but we simply camlot make that connection here with any certainty.

Square Bottles

8 6 -3 5 -4 7

A Mediterranean merchant would hardly risk using something as fragile as glass for the thousands of liters of wine or olive oil shipped from say southern Spain to Rome. So, when it came to long-distance trade in bulk, the containers of choice were always pottery amphorae or wooden casks (Greene 1986). However, within more regional networks of trade, there was a need for smaller containers. Pottery amphorae were still essential, but they were much supplemented by a variety of jugs and bottles. It was among the latter that glass found another niche alongside its pottery counterparts. For some reason, the niche was not filled as swiftly as it had been for tablewares and unguentaria in the Augustan era, but rather more slowly during the two decades following Nero’s death in AD 68 (Cool and Price 1995). Thereafter, judging by the wear-common vessels of 0st century AD glass, particularly the unguentarium, change shape (Figs. 37, 38). The east-to-west transfer of techni­cal ideas drew strongly on the trade conduits that criss­crossed the entire Mediterranean and linked up at vari­ous points to the wandering courses of the Danube, Rhine and Rhone rivers. Eastern and Italic craftsmen moved about freely, carrying their tools of the trade and their molds with them (Cool and Price 1995). The Roman trade network ensured an ongoing interplay of the many cultures that the Empire’s frontiers encom­passed. Its presence explains why, for example, Cologne emerged in the 3rd century AD as a glassmaking center par excellence, a place of innovation in its own right yet one so willing to absorb the ideas of its counterparts in the East (Figs. 39, 35) and why the Egyptian glassmak­ing industry, revived by Roman entrepreneurship at much the same time, produced vessels.


The preceding discussion of transport, trade, trademarks, and Roman square bottles is an appropriate point to close out this brief look at the Museum’s early Imperial glassware. The subsequent evolution of all of the vessels presented in the vignettes was surely much influenced by the changes in trade patterns that occurred over subsequent centuries. Just as the flat-sided square bottle gave way to a ribbed barrel form (Fig. 36), so too did many other  forms and decora­tions as distinctly eastern as those in Cologne were western (Gazda 1983; O’Connor 1994). Roman glass-making remained restless and dynamic all through the first four centuries AD, setting the firmest of foundations for the industry as we know it today.


I wish to express my thanks to all the scholars worldwide who have responded to my many scholarly queries as I have put this article together. I would extend a special thanks to David Grose for being my “tutor” during the first couple of years of research into Roman glass, to Hilary Cool for. her patient response to all my detailed questions over the past two years, and to John Scarborough for helping me keep my sense of humor at times of imagined crisis. The VITRA database, from which many of the illustrations in this essay were drawn, was funded by The National Endowment for the Arts.

Cite This Article

Fleming, Stuart J.. "Early Imperial Roman Glass at the University of Pennsylvania Museum." Expedition Magazine 38, no. 2 (July, 1996): -. Accessed May 25, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/early-imperial-roman-glass-at-the-university-of-pennsylvania-museum/

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