History of Jewelry Part 2: Byzantine and Early Christian Period|
Ancient Rome extended its civilization across much of the known world, but by the end of the 4th century AD, the Roman Empire was in decline. Much of the political upheaval at the time was a religious struggle, and religion likewise influenced the production of culture. This includes, of course, the style of the jewelry produced, its distribution and how it was preserved for future generations to find out about. A brief explanation of the religious route from the Roman Empire up to the medieval era will help us understand the jewelry we have found dating from this period.
Originally the Romans followed a rural animistic tradition, based heavily in Greek and Etruscan mythology. Families performed ceremonies to their ancestors, and the Roman emperor was honored as a god as well. Also in practice was Mithraism, a mystery religion supposedly founded by Zoroaster. Christianity began as a persecuted 1st century Jewish sect, but spread throughout the Greco-Roman world between 33 and 312 AD. The last two phases of government in ancient Rome were called the Dominate, established in 27 BCE and collapsing with the Western Empire in 476 AD; it was during the Dominate that Christianity began to flourish, and it was during the Dominate that the Roman Empire began its fall.
Emperor Galerius issued an edict permitting the practice of Christianity in 311, and in 313, Constantine I issued the Edict of Milan, announcing the toleration of the religion. Constantine would become, in fact, the first Christian emperor. In the waning days of the Roman Empire, emperor Theodosius enacted a law establishing Catholic Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire and ordering all others to be deemed heretical. All practices deemed “pagan” – including Mithraism, ancestor worship, and the worship of emperors – were banned.
One of the cultural changes that came with the widespread adoption of Christianity in the west was the adoption and development of Christian burial rites. Previously, of course, people were famously buried with much of their wealth, and it is from tombs that archaeologists learned much of what we know of pre-Christian jewelry. The body of Queen Pu-abi at Ur in Sumeria was covered with a robe of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, carnelian, agate and chalcedony beads, among other finery dating from the 3rd millennium BCE. Tutankhamen, the famous pharaoh of the 18th Egyptian dynasty, was buried with fabulous treasures in his pyramid, all of which revealed the degree of mastery attained by Egyptian goldsmiths. The handicraft of the sea-faring Minoans, Phoenician traders, the Greeks and pre-Christian Romans were all revealed through the plastic arts of painting and sculpture, but very importantly, through their burial practices as well.