classics exhibit

Welcome to the Online Exhibition of Roman Glass at the CU Art Museum, University of Colorado

The Wonder of Glass



Glass in the Roman World

The people of the Roman Empire were a mix of many different cultures, religions, and societies. They enjoyed varying economic statuses and took advantage of the extensive trade network throughout the Empire. Trade allowed new and foreign technologies and materials to be quickly distributed across the Mediterranean Sea and to lands beyond. The methods for creating and shaping originated in the eastern region of the Empire, according to Pliny the Elder, a Roman author and naturalist. Pliny reported that the material of glass was discovered accidentally by Phoenician merchants on a beach in the region of Syria long before the Romans ruled the Mediterranean. In actuality, the technology of glass probably developed in the regions of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, where the oldest man-made glass objects have been found.

Ancient people found that glass was an incredibly useful material. When cooled, it hardened into a solid that could be used for storage or decoration. When reheated, the glass became pliable and could be manipulated into shapes such as beads, bowl, vases, or figurines. Glass served the purposes of gold, silver, and ceramics yet was less expensive than the metals and more impressive than the terracotta. In its most desirable form it resembled the clear and colorless rock crystal that was so highly prized by Romans. Glass provided a more affordable luxury for those Roman people who could not indulge in metal cups, bowls, and pitchers.

The glass objects in the CU Art Museum collection represent a wide array of quality and types. Many of the small or narrow bottles once held perfume or oil, which was used for beautification by Roman men and women. Other vessels such as bowls were used for other purposes such as dining.

All the images on this website are © Regents of the University of Colorado / CU Art Museum. They may not be used or duplicated without the permission of the CU Art Museum. To seek permission, please contact the Collections Department at (303) 492-2551. The photographs were all taken by Tim Riggs of ITS Graphics, through the University of Colorado Natural History Museum.
These glass vessels were originally studied by Henry P. Colburn, who wrote an essay analyzing each art piece in 2007. This essay is available with footnotes and a full bibliography here.

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