Sarah Bond: Girls with Pearl Earrings: The Pearl Trade in the Roman Mediterranean

Roman, 2nd century AD
Mummy Portrait, Antinoopolis (Egypt)
Now at the Harvard Art Museum
If there is one person within the ancient literary record known for disliking pearls, it was Pliny. Where many saw gleaming white objects to be used in jewelry, Pliny saw only immorality and luxury. This is probably best illustrated by the story related by the natural historian (NH. 9.119-121) that Cleopatra owned the two largest pearls known in the late first century BCE, and, in an attempt to throw the most lavish dinner party (one costing 10 million sesterces!), took one out of her ear, plopped it in a vessel full of vinegar, and--like an alka seltzer--drank the pearl. The story is--like many stories about women and jewelry in antiquity--meant to demonstrate Cleopatra's excessive opulence and moral deprivation. 

To truly appreciate Cleopatra's choice of hors d'oeuvres, one must also consider that attaining pearls in antiquity was a much more difficult endeavor than today. Since the early 20th century, pearls have lost much of their value due to the ease with which we can now manufacture them. However, in antiquity, they were difficult to attain and often travelled over vast distances. In Latin, they are generally called a margarita and in Greek a μαργαρίτης (a bit of classics trivia I tend to break out at Mexican restaurants). Many of these pearls were imported at great expense from the area of southern Babylonia and the Persian Gulf, but pearls could also come from the area of the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and other parts of India. Even Britain had some, though they were of lesser quality and prestige. 

Although knowledge of pearls existed long before, the late antique historian Ammianus Marcellinus (22.6.84) notes that after the conquest of Lydia in 546 BCE, pearls were one item that became popular within the Persian empire. Ammianus further notes (erroneously) how they are made: "For at that time they desire, as it were, a kind of copulation, and by often opening and shutting quickly they take in moisture by sprinkling with moonlight" (Ibid. 85). Through this method, the shells became pregnant. Despite the lack of veracity, it is a lovely story that helps us to understand the ethereal wonder surrounding pearls in antiquity. 

Inscription noting Asterius, son of a pearl dealer [Naro, Africa Proconsularis]
(CIL VIII, 12457b = ILCV 4940B)
As is my way, I am often more fascinated by the traders in various commodities than in the commodities themselves. Dealers of pearls in the Roman empire were often termed a margaritarius or collectively called margaritarii. These pearl dealers could be found on the Via Sacra in Rome (perhaps near the Porticus Margaritaria) and in many other large cities within the empire. 

We do not know the exact 

location of this Porticus, since it is based solely off a citation in the regionary catalogues (Regio VIII), but the map presented here is one guess.

Elite Romans within the city appear to have had a voracious appetite for eastern luxuries in the early empire. Horace notes that wealthy women often lined their clothing with emeralds and pearls, and many an elite male tied pearls to moral decline. Yet far beyond their being seen as symbols of luxury, greed, or narcissism, pearls were a symbol of the vast trade network within the Roman empire. Although Pliny cast pearls as an emblem of decline, I can only view them as a symbol of economic capability and opportunity. 

Mosaic of the empress Theodora, from Ravenna.

1 comment:

  1. These ornaments looking stunning,But recently I found a post Famous Vintage jewellery Which has not only a good collection,but unique also.Like as 'Double-stranded natural pearl necklace Christies',' Windsor single-strand pearl necklace' etc.


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