The ancient Romans considered jewellery to be an essential accessory, for it provided a public display of their wealth. Roman jewellery at first followed trends set by the Etruscans, using gold and glass beads, but as the power and spread of the Roman Empire increased, so too did jewellery designs became increasingly elaborate. Different cultural styles from Greece, Egypt, and North Africa were all incorporated to reflect Rome’s prosperity as a dominant, conquering city. The wide range of natural resources enabled artisans to create ostentatious jewellery using a diverse selection of materials: this increasingly included sapphires, diamonds, emeralds, garnet and amber from India, and pearls (which were particularly prized). Archaeological finds of Roman jewellery are relatively rare, considering the magnitude of Roman civilisation, and the historical and geographical span of the Empire.
The custom of wearing rings was popular amongst the Romans, and was probably introduced by the Sabines, who are described in early legends as wearing gold rings with precious stones. During the Roman Republic it became customary for all the senators, chief magistrates, and at last for the equites also, to wear gold rings. The large size of this ring suggests that it would have been worn by a male, possibly one enlisted in the army, with the image of Mars acting as a protective sign. Mars was the Roman god of war, and a key deity in the Roman Pantheon.
In Greek and Roman mythology, Hades fell in love with the beautiful daughter of Demeter and Zeus, Persephone. He kidnapped the girl and took her to the Underworld with him, to Demeter’s dispair. Demeter was so heartbroken by the loss of her daughter’s company that she put the world into a drought and made it impossible for crops to grow. Eventually Zeus intervened and said Persephone should be returned to her mother, but Hades had tricked the young girl into eating some pomegranate seeds (the food of the underworld), thus meaning she would have to stay. Zeus finally ruled that Persephone would spend half the year with her mother, and the other half with Hades as Queen of the Underworld. The Greeks and Romans believed that this myth was the explanation for the seasons- while Persephone was above ground with her mother, Demeter allowed for harvests and the growth of crops (spring), while when Persephone was with Hades, Demeter made the land barren and unfavourable for harvest (winter). It is believed that the garnet, in rich red-purple tones, is associated with the pomegranate fruit from myth.
To find out more about intaglios, please visit our relevant blog post: Engraved Gemstones in Ancient Rome.