Gems in Ancient Rome: Pliny’s Vision



gemstones, Pliny the Elder, international trade, luxury, Roman economy, urban crafts


Greco-Roman culture classified a great variety of gems. Authors such as Theophrastus, Plutarch and Pliny the Elder dealt with the subject. To know which gems were most highly valued in ancient Rome, it is essential to consult book 37 of Pliny the Elder. Book 37 of Pliny’s Natural History is one of the few accounts on precious stones, gems and amber that collects information from various sources of antiquity, which in many cases have survived only thanks to Pliny’s transcription. He catalogued the most prestigious gems, and discussed their origin, their exploitation techniques, their properties and their etymology. This corpus collects a total of 240 different variants of gems, of which, in 93 cases, its place of origin is known. In order to know to what extent the words of Pliny reflect the reality of the Roman market, we have analyzed as examples ten catalogs of modern collections of gems from various places and compared them with Pliny’s comments. This analysis confirms the fact that the urban Roman elites valued precious stones extracted from the territories beyond the Roman Empire, especially those of the East. The ten catalogues contain more than 4000 different gems and glasses. It compares the information in Pliny’s book on gems with ten current catalogs of various museums, adding more than 4000 analyzed copies. Both of these sources similar results and therefore confirms the interest of the Romans for these productions.