Roman Pearl Information

The ancient Romans loved pearls! Enjoy Kunz & Stevenson's who, what, where & why of Roman pearl information here!



From Greece admirations for pearls quickly extended to Rome, where they were known under the Greek word margaritae. However, a more common name for this gem in Rome was unio, which Pliny explained by saying that each pearl was unique and unlike any other one. The conclusion of the historian Ammianus Marcellinus (330-395 A.D.), that it was because each one was found singly in a shell, seems scarcely correct.

Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder

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Claude de Saumaise, the French classical scholar, thought that the common name for an onion was transferred to the pearl, owing to its laminated construction. According to Pliny, the Romans used the word unio to distinguish a large perfect pearl from the smaller and less attractive ones, which were called margaritae.

It was not until the Mithridatic Wars (88-63 B.C.) and the conquests by Pompey that pearls were very abundant and popular in Rome, the great treasures of the East enriching the victorious army and through it the aristocracy of the republic. In those greatest spectacular functions the world has ever known--the triumphal processions of the conquering Romans--pearls had a prominent part. Pliny records Roman pearl information that in great Pompey's triumphal procession in 61 B.C. were borne thirty-three crowns of pearls and numerous pearl ornaments, including a portrait of the victor, and a shrine dedicated to the muses, adorned with the same gems.

More Roman pearl information:

The luxuries of Mithridates, the treasures of Alexandria, the riches of the Orient were poured into the lap of victory-fattened Rome. From that time the pearl reigned supreme, not only in the enormous prices given for single specimens, but also in the great abundance in possession of the degenerate descendants of the victorious Romans. The interior of the temple of Venus was decorated with pearls.

The Temple of Venus
The Temple of Venus

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The dress of the wealthy was so pearl-bedecked that Pliny recorded Roman pearl information and exclaimed in irony: "It is not sufficient for them to wear pearls, but they must trample and walk over them"; and the women wore pearls even in the still hours of the night, so that in their sleep they might be conscious of possessing the beautiful gems.

Gaius Caesar Caligula, Roman Emperor with His Horse Incitatus
Gaius Caesar Caligula, Roman Emperor with His Horse Incitatus

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Roman pearl information is recorded that the voluptuous Caligula (12-41 A.D.) --he who raised his favorite horse Inciatus to the consulship--decorated that horse with a pearl necklace, and that he himself wore slippers embroidered with pearls; and the tyrannical Nero (37-68 A.D.), not content with having his scepter and throne of pearls, provided the actors in his theater with masks and scepters decorated with them. Thus wrote the observant Philo, the envoy of the Jews to the Emperor Caligula; "The couches upon which the Romans recline at their repasts shine with gold and pearls; they are splendid with purple coverings interwoven with pearls and gold."

Yet Roman pearl information reports that not all the men of Rome were enthusiastic over the beautiful "gems of the sea, which resemble milk and snow," as the poet Manlius called them. Even then, as now, there were some fault finders. The immortal Caesar interdicted their use by women beneath a certain rank; Martial and Tibullus inveighed against them; the witty Horace directed his stinging shafts of satire against the extravagance. Referring to a woman named Gellia, Martial wrote; "By no gods or goddesses does she swear, but by her pearls. These she embraces and kisses. These she calls her brothers and sisters. She loves them more dearly than her two sons. Should she by some chance lose them, the miserable woman would not survive and hour." Hear what stern old Seneca had to say: "Pearls offer themselves to my view. Simply one for each ear? No! The lobes of our ladies have attained a special capacity for supporting a great number. Two pearls alongside of each other, with a third suspended above, now form a single earring! The crazy fools seem to think that their husbands are not sufficiently tormented unless they wear the value of an inheritance in each ear!"

Roman pearl information on prices reported for some choice ones at that time seem fabulous. It is recorded by Suetonius, that the Roman general, Vitellius, paid the expenses of a military campaign with the proceeds of one pearl from his mother's ears: "Atque ex aure matris detractum unionem pigneraverit ad itineris impensas."

In his "Historia naturalis," Pliny reports Roman pearl information and says that in the first century A.D., they ranked first in value among all precious things, and reports sixty million sestertii as the value of the two famous pearls--"the singular and only jewels of the world and even nature's wonder"--which, Cleopatra wore at the celebrated banquet to Mark Antony.

The Banquet of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra
The Banquet of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra

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Roman pearl information records that Suetonius places at six million sestertii the value of the one presented by Julius Caesar as a tribute of love to Servilia, the mother of Brutus, who thus wore

The spoils of nations in an ear,
Changed to the treasure of a shell.

Or, as St. Jerone expressed it in his "Vita Pauli Eremitae":

Uno filo villarum insunt pretia.

We are told by AElius Lampridius that an ambassador once brought to Alexander Severus two remarkable large and heavy pearls for the empress.

Portrait Bust of Emperor Severus Alexander (Ad 205-35)
Portrait Bust of Emperor Severus Alexander (Ad 205-35)

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The emperor offered them for sale, and as no purchaser was found, Roman pearl information records that he had them hung in the ears of the statue of Venus, saying: "If the empress should have such pearls, she would give a bad example to the other women, by wearing an ornament of so much value that no one could pay for it."

The word "margarita" was used symbolically to designate the most cherished object; for instance, a favorite child. In an inscription published by Fabretti, the word margaritio has the same significance.

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More information on pearls after Roman pearl information
Greek pearl information
Koran pearl information
Hebrew pearl information
Egyptian pearl information
Iraqi pearl information
Persian information on pearls.
Chinese information on pearls


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