Chapter 7 Meaning in the Making: Representing Glass Production in Imperial Rome

In: Valuing Labour in Greco-Roman Antiquity
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Bettina Reitz-Joosse
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1 Introduction

When I was eight years old, a glassblower visited my primary school to give a live demonstration of his craft. To this day, I vividly remember my amazement when the heated glass glowed and became manipulable, expanded like a balloon and seemed to shape-shift under the glassblower’s light touch. Afterwards, I used some of my pocket money to purchase from this glassblower the only thing I could afford: a small blue glass droplet, which looked just like the ones I had seen come into existence. I still own this droplet (Fig. 7.1). The reason that it was—and is—special to me is neither its beauty nor its utility. What makes it special is rather that I know, saw, and experienced how it was made. My understanding and my memory of its making has changed what it means to me.

Figure 7.1: Glass droplet

Figure 7.1

Glass droplet

Photo: author

As a reader of the preceding paragraph, your attitude towards this glass droplet has now also undergone a change. You did not experience its creation at first hand, but you read my description of its making. To tell a story of making, then, adds new meaning to a finished object or type of object.1 This paper aims to throw light on this relationship between making, its depiction, and the impact of material objects on human viewers and users. More specifically, I investigate this relationship with regard to imperial Roman glass vessels: how does the making of such glass vessels relate to the meaning that their contemporary viewers, owners and users attached to them? I propose to add to our understanding of this relationship by analysing a number of Roman depictions, literary and visual, of processes of glassmaking.

Glass is already known from ancient Egypt and the Ancient Near East in the second millennium BCE, and its presence is well documented in the ancient Greek world.2 However, the first century BCE saw a transformative technological discovery: glassworkers in the Syro-Palestinian region realized that glass could be expanded and shaped by human breath. The development and refinement of glassblowing in the Roman empire in the decades that followed led to an enormous expansion of the production of glass vessels, which could now be made more quickly and with less raw material.3 The rapid spread and transformative effect of this novel technology in the early empire has recently been much explored from a technical, logistical and economic perspective.4 In this chapter, I hope to add a new perspective by turning to literary and visual depictions for insights into Roman ideas about the processes of glassmaking and glassblowing—and therefore, ultimately, also about its products, glass vessels.

There are several Roman imperial texts which depict the making of raw glass, of glass objects and glassblowing. I focus on three in particular: Pliny the Elder’s chapters on the production of raw glass and two poems on glassworking—the first ascribed to Mesomedes of Crete, the second preserved as an anonymous fragment. I also discuss a visual depiction of glassblowing on an oil lamp from Roman Asseria. Based on these analyses, I attempt to identify several key elements of the Roman discourse surrounding the creation of glass objects, including the notion of glass as an ‘imperial composite,’ the agency of fire in making and shaping it, and the overwhelming sensory impact and ‘magical’ qualities of glassblowing.5 The juxtaposition of the ‘elite’ perspective of literary texts and the depiction of glassblowing on the Asseria oil lamp also helps to bring into sharper focus what disappears from view in literary discourses: for example, the collaborative nature of glass production.

In a final section of this chapter, I introduce the notion of ‘madeness’ to relate this discourse of (glass-)making to attitudes towards the made—Roman glass vessels. I argue that for Roman owners, viewers and users, ideas about how glass objects were created had a significant impact on the value they attached to finished objects.

2 Pliny the Elder on Roman Glassmaking

Book 36 of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History concludes with a section on glassmaking (189–199), which has been both an important source of information and a thorn in the flesh of scholars studying ancient glass technologies. While his explanation of the ingredients of ancient glass and of their provenance offers invaluable information, it also contains some decidedly puzzling elements.6 In this chapter, I leave technical questions aside to focus on the ideas and values which Pliny connects with the process of glassmaking, and the ways in which these relate to the value(s) of glasswork as they were perceived by Roman users in this period. Three aspects in particular stand out in Pliny’s account.

First, Pliny presents raw glass as an ‘imperial composite:’ a human-made substance created by combining materials and technologies drawn from disparate regions of the world and the Roman empire.7 Traditionally, Pliny explains, raw glass was exclusively produced with sand from a particular section of the Belus River in ‘that part of Syria which is called Phoenicia’, mixed with soda (nitrum), preferably sourced from Egypt. Now, he writes, sands from the river Volturnus in southern Italy are also in use. Pliny stresses that the technologies used to produce raw glass and to shape it were originally developed in Sidon; he also compares technologies supposedly used in India, as well as ‘ready-made’ glass-like obsidian, which he says occurs in Ethiopia (36.196), India, Italy (Samnium), and along the Spanish coast (36.197). He adds that raw glass is now also produced in Gaul and Spain (36.194). Pliny’s interest in specific materials and their origins, qualities and human uses, is characteristic of the encyclopedic Natural History in its entirety.8 Nonetheless, his text alerts us to the easily neglected fact that many Roman owners or users of glass objects would have understood that what they held in their hands was a composite substance, created by humans from materials which had been drawn from different parts of the vast Roman empire.9

Another focal point in Pliny’s discussion is shared with all other representations in this chapter: the role of fire in the processes of making and shaping glass. Pliny moves seamlessly from his section on glassmaking and glassworking into a reflection on fire as a creative force, writing (Plin. NH 36.200. Trans. Author):

… and after all things have been treated which depend on man’s talent for making art reproduce nature, it occurs to me to wonder that there is almost nothing that cannot be achieved by fire.

… et peractis omnibus quae constant ingenio arte naturam faciente, succurrit mirari nihil paene non igni perfici.

Having provided a series of examples for the transformative power of fire, Pliny continues: ‘It (i.e. fire) is a vast, unruly element of nature, and one which causes us to doubt whether it is more a destructive or a creative force’ (inmensa, inproba rerum naturae portio et in qua dubium sit, plura absumat an pariat).10 Pliny stresses the centrality of fire and its agency in the process of making and shaping glass and metal and the dangers and the challenges which accompany its use under precarious human control. Anguissola stresses that the end of Book 36 of the Natural History marks the transition from man-made marvels to gemstones created by nature, and that fire occurs at this transition since ‘fire escapes the distinction between producer and product’.11 As we shall see, fire—its collaborative agency and its dangerous, uncontrollable properties—all feature in all the representations of glassmaking and glassworking treated in this chapter.

Only worth a brief mention to Pliny is the danger attached to working with glass. He acknowledges this in Book 36, writing (Plin. NH 36.193. Trans. author.):

The sharpness of glass is everywhere so great that it cuts to the bone, faster than you can even feel it, any part of the body it has breathed upon.

acies tanta est quacumque, ut citra sensum ullum ad ossa consecet quidquid adflaverit corporis.

Whether Pliny here refers to the danger involved in handling raw glass ingots or that of working with liquid glass remains unclear. In any case, his interest in this passage is focused on a noteworthy property of the material itself, in line with his scientific interests, rather than on the human cost at which this knowledge would have been acquired. The other great danger of working with glass in antiquity, namely the inhalation of poisonous fumes, remains unmentioned by Pliny or any other Roman author.12

3 Working with Glass in Poetry I: Mesomedes (AG 16.323)

I now turn from glassmaking (the production of raw glass from its base ingredients) to glassworking (the shaping of raw glass into final products). While glassmaking was confined to a few specialized production centres, glassworking occurred in ‘secondary’ workshops in many different regions of the Roman empire. Glassworking could involve the making of beads, the creation of flat window panes, the pouring of molten glass into moulds, and also, most importantly, the technology of blowing, either within or without a mould.13 I now turn to two poems from the Roman imperial period, both written in Greek, which feature processes of glassworking.

An early second-century CE poem by Mesomedes of Crete, a freedman of the emperor Hadrian, depicts the process of glassworking as follows (AG 16.323 = 2.13 Regenauer):14

A workman brought this glass, having cut it off. Into the fire he placed the chunk, hard as iron. The glass ran out like wax, heated completely by the all-devouring flames. And for mortals it was a miracle to see that which had been drawn from the fire flowing [down], and the workman trembling, lest, falling down, it [the thread] might tear. On the edge of the two lips he placed the lump …

Τὰν ὕελονἐκόμιζε
κόψαςἐργάτας ἀνήρ,
ἐς δὲ πῦρ ἔθηκε βῶλον
ὡς σίδηρον εὐσθενῆ.
5 ἁ δὕελος, οἷα κηρός
ἐξεχεῖτο παμφάγοισι
φλοξὶν ἐκπυρουμένα.
θαῦμα δἦν ἰδεῖν βροτοῖς
ὁλκόν ἐκ πυρὸς ῥέοντα
10 καὶ τὸν ἐργάταν τρέμοντα,
μὴ πεσὼν διαρραγῇ.
ἐς δὲ διπτύχων ἀκμὰς
χειλέων15 ἔθηκε βῶλον
⟨ ⟩

This poem is transmitted in the Anthologia Planudea (323), where its attribution to Mesomedes is also preserved. Although the poem displays many formal characteristics of an epigram, it is written in a lyric metre (trochaic dimeters), while its diction also gestures towards epic, in particular Homeric depictions of the workshop of Hephaestus in the Iliad.16

The poem has probably suffered some corruption, as shown by the metrical impossibilities in the opening lines.17 Furthermore, its abrupt ending has led scholars to hypothesize that we are missing a section at the end: the poem breaks off at the point when the workman apparently begins the process of shaping.18 However, enough of the poem remains to allow us to draw some conclusions about Mesomedes’ presentation of the process of working with molten glass.

The poem proceeds as follows: the workman cuts or hacks off a piece of raw glass (although the text is uncertain) (1–2), and places it into the furnace (3–4). The glass softens from the heat (5–7). The workman prevents the liquid glass from flowing down and tearing (8–11), and places it on the blades of a tool (12–13), although we do not learn to what purpose.19

Mesomedes deliberately takes up and then immediately subverts a well-known epigrammatic convention by opening the poem with a demonstrative pronoun (τάν).20 In many epigrams, such a pronoun refers to a particular object, which then forms the subject of an ecphrastic poem describing the object. This poem, however, as the reader quickly comes to understand, is not an ecphrasis of a static, finished object: rather, it opens with a lump of raw glass, which will be transformed into something else in the course of a poem about the process of making.

Two elements stand out in the poet’s depiction of the process of shaping glass. First, Mesomedes, like Pliny, stresses the transformative power of fire, able to change the state of the solid glass lump to liquidity. Of particular interest is his phrase παμφάγοισι / φλοξὶν (‘all-devouring flames’). The latent personification of the hungry flames as a creature of insatiable hunger strengthens the sense of the fire’s agency and hints at the danger and the achievement involved in bending its wild nature to human will.21 Second, the phrase θαῦμα δἦν ἰδεῖν βροτοῖς (‘and for mortals it was a miracle to see’) seems to imply a separation between the mortal onlookers, for whom the process is a θαῦμα, and the workman himself, who by implication is raised above the status of mere mortals through his ability to manipulate the hard glass into a new shape. The evocation of the Homeric depictions of Hephaestus’ workshop adds to this impression of making as a divinely inspired activity.22 These themes, and several others, reappear in the second poem under consideration.

4 Working with Glass in Poetry II: P.Oxy. L 3536 = APHex I.15

APHex I.15 (P.Oxy. L 3536) is a poetic fragment in Greek hexameters. The papyrus on which it is preserved dates to the third century CE, while the poem is tentatively dated to the late second or the early third century CE.23 The author of the poem was almost certainly familiar with Mesomedes’ poem, since he picks up some of the earlier text’s vocabulary and expands Mesomedes’ short metaphorical expressions into more elaborate comparisons.24 While the exact interpretation of the process depicted by Mesomedes remains challenging, the anonymous author of this hexameter poem is without doubt depicting glassblowing in action:25

… building for men … He first heated the very point [of the iron], then snatched from nearby an idle lump of [glass?], [which he] expertly laid inside the hollow kiln. As it tasted the strong fire, the crystal melted like wax under the blows of Hephaestus. And as he blew in the liquid air from his mouth, the man modulated its breath, as if essaying the pleasurable art of the pipe. The glass received … arched [into a circle?] in front of him, taking the shape of a sphere. It would then receive another impulse of divine [breath?], for repeatedly he would blow air in, whirling it like a shepherd does with his crook …

. . . . . . . . . . .
τε]ύ̣χων ἀνθ̣ρώποιϲι μ[ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣]η̣λ̣α̣ ̣[
πρ]ῶτα μ[]ν̣ οὖ̣ν θέρμην̣εν̣ ἄκρη̣ν γλω̣[χῖνα ⏑ — ⏒
]ρ̣παϲε δ̣ἐ̣γγύθ̣ι βῶλον ἀεργεννη ̣[ ⏕ — ⏒
θῆ]κ̣ε δἐπιϲταμένωϲ κοίληϲ ἔντοϲθε κ̣[αμίνου.
] δ̣ἄρα γ̣[ε]υ̣ϲ̣αμέ̣νη θα̣λερο̣ῦ πυρ̣ὸϲ ἠ̣ΰ̣τ̣[ε] κ̣[η]ρ̣ό̣[ϲ
μ]α̣λθάχθη̣ κρύϲταλλοϲ̣ ὑ̣φ̣’ []φαίϲτοιο βο̣[λ]ά̣ω̣ν̣.
καὶ] ῥ̣ὅτἀ̣πὸ ϲτομάτων δι̣ερὴν ἐν̣έ̣π̣[νευϲ]εν ἀϋτμ[ήν
εἵλ]κ̣υϲἀνὴρ, ὡϲ εἴ τέ̣χ̣ν̣ηϲ πειρώ̣[με]ν̣[ο]ϲ̣ α̣ὐλ̣[οῦ
τ]ε̣ρπνοτάτηϲ· ὕελο̣ϲ̣ δ̣ἐπ̣ε̣δέξατο π[ — ⏕ — ⏒
ϲ]φαιρηδὸν δὲ πάροιθ̣εν̣ ἐ̣κ̣υρτώθη πε[ ⏑ — ⏒
ὁρμ̣ὴν δἄν θεί̣ηϲ̣ ἑ̣τ̣έ̣ρ̣ην ἀνεδέξ[ατ ⏑ — ⏒
π̣ο̣λλάκι μὲ̣ν γὰρ ὁ̣π̣[ο]ῖ̣α̣ κ̣α̣λ̣α̣ύρ[ο]π̣α βου[κόλοϲ — ⏒
διν]ῶ̣ν̣ ἐμπν̣είεϲκε  ̣ι̣ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣[ ̣] ̣[ ̣ ̣ ̣] ̣ ̣ ̣[
[ ].[
. . . . . . . . . . .

The poet represents the different steps of the procedure in considerable detail: the glassblower heats the tip of his blowpipe (2), gathers a chunk of glass (pre-softened) by touching his heated blowpipe to the chunk (3), and places the blowpipe with the attached glass into the furnace (4), thereby melting the glass glob (5–6). Then the blowing begins: he inflates the glass by blowing into it (7–8), a process which is compared to aulos-playing (8–9). The glass expands and becomes spherical (line 10), and this is then followed by a comparison between the glassblower and a herdsman who swings a kalaurops (apparently a wooden throwing stick with weights on each end). The comparison may be with vigorous swinging or swirling of the blowpipe in order to lengthen and shape the vessel. Here the poem breaks off.

I want to draw attention to some elements of this depiction which particularly relate to the experience, perception and estimation of this particular form of making in the Roman world. It has long been recognized that makers rely on their sensory awareness—the way something looks, sounds, feels, or smells—to guide them in the process of making.26 For observers, too, making is—and was—a multi-sensory experience: they feel the heat of a furnace, hear the noises of weaving, or smell dye or paint. Experimental archaeology has recently made strides in reconstructing the sensory surround of Roman processes of making.27 However, human sense perception is always mediated and culturally contingent: even if it were possible to recreate the noises or smells of a Roman workshop perfectly, this would not in itself be sufficient for appreciating the sense experience of a Roman maker or observer.28 Narrative depictions offer another, complementary way of approaching the sensory side of manual creation. P.Oxy. L 3536 presents a narrative reimagination of the sensory experience of glassblowing. For example, the poet mentions the ‘heat’ (θέρμηνεν, 2) of the furnace and (like Mesomedes) describes that the glass is softened like wax (ἠΰτε κηρός, 5). While heated glass can obviously only be touched with specialist tools, the poet offers a comparison with a softened material which any reader will have had experience of touching in softened state. Further sensory clues come from the expression γευσαμένη θαλεροῦ πυρός, ‘tasting the strong fire’. In this phrase, the sense experience seems to reside not with the human maker and his imagined audience but with the material itself, as the poet imagines the glass itself as ‘tasting’ the fire. The idea of tasting combines the sense of touch with that of taking something inside oneself: the heat of the fire is thought to enter the crystal, thereby rendering it soft and workable.29

The poet also compares blowing into the pipe to aulos-playing (8–9). On the one hand, this comparison helps to conjure up the visual experience of the onlooker, who sees someone blow into a long hollow ‘pipe’. On the other hand, the remark ὡς εἴ τέχνης πειρώμενος (8) also hints at the experience of the player himself, introducing a sense of experimentation and learning-by-doing which is essential to making.30 The comparison between glassblowing and flute-playing is also relevant for one final reason: the art of flute-playing is called ‘most delightful’, and it is an example of a technê that leads to no product other than itself.31 The comparison thus evokes the experimental element of glassblowing for the blower himself, the performative element of glassblowing, and the pleasurable excitement of its audience—thereby expanding the purely visual θαῦμα ἰδεῖν of Mesomedes into a multi-dimensional sensual experience for different participants.

I now turn to the way in which collaboration is handled in this fragment. We know that Roman glassblowers did not work in industrial-scale workshops, but neither did they work entirely alone: the fire of the furnace required skilful stoking in order to be kept at the required temperatures, and depending on the complexity of the process, a blower also needed an assistant to hand him his tools.32 In this poem, however, the glassblower is not collaborating with human colleagues, but rather with the force of fire, personified as Hephaestus (line 6), who softens the glass with his ‘blows’ so that the glassblower can then shape it.33 Both Mesomedes and the author of the hexameter poem thus emphasize the agency of the fire during the process of glassworking, but while Mesomedes’ all-devouring flames suggest a wild, untamed and potentially dangerous entity, the hexameter poem rather emphasizes the divine quality of the fire and its gracious collaboration with the human maker.

Hephaestus, however, is not the only divine presence in this poem. In line 11, the glass ‘receives another impulse of divine …’ (Perale surmises that the missing word at the end of 11 may be the Homeric ἀϋτμῆς, ‘breath’). The fact that the breath of the glassblower appears to be called θεῖος, divine, creates an impression of similarity between the two collaborators (Hephaestus and the glassblower) and their respective command over the forces of fire and air. Even more explicitly than in Mesomedes’ poem, the human glassblower seems temporarily to transcend his human state through the act of creation.

The vocabulary of the passage suggests that there is also a more specific sense in which a divine element is thought to be active in the process of glassblowing. The vocabulary of this passage recalls that of Stoic ontology and cosmology.34 According to Stoic doctrine, the world consists of matter pervaded and animated by πνεῦμα, usually conceived of as a mixture of fire and air, and in any case conceptually linked to both ‘breath’ (its literal meaning) and heat. In this passage, glass is animated by a combination of fire and breath (cf. also ἐνέπνευσεν, 7; ἐμπνείεσκε, 13). The impulse of the blower’s breath is described as a ὁρμή, 11, the technical term for the impulse of the Stoic soul (which consists of πνεῦμα) towards an object. The glassblower himself thus appears as akin to the Stoic demiurge, able to animate matter through pneuma.35 The shape of the blown vessel (σφαιρηδόν, 10) reminds the reader of the shape of the cosmos, which, in Stoic cosmology, is conceived of as spherical.36 In ancient philosophical writing, the activities of a divine creator of the world are frequently elucidated by relating them to the familiar activity of a craftsman.37 Here, the poet reverses the direction of this well-known comparison, elucidating the activity of the glassblower in terms reminiscent of the Stoic demiurge.

5 Throwing Light on the Glassblower: A Roman Oil Lamp from Asseria

While Mesomedes and the author of P.Oxy. L 3536 praise the technical skill of the glassworker himself, both poems ignore the contribution of other members of the workshop. Although experimental archaeology has shown that achieving the required temperature in the furnace was a particular technical and logistical challenge, both poets depict only a sole human workman who shapes the lump of glass into its new form.38 One explanation for this may be that the poems are seeking to suggest a parallel between the creative activities of the (semi-divine) workman and their own inspired process of (poetic) creation. Such a ‘metapoetical’ layer can frequently be discerned in ancient poetic texts, and it may be intended here, although the fragmentary nature of both poems prevents us from drawing any more specific conclusions.39 In any case, an analogy between the poet and a (single) artisan suggests itself more readily than an analogy between a poet and a team of workers.40

A visual depiction of glassblowing, roughly contemporary with Pliny’s text, provides a complementary perspective on the idea of the ‘lone artisan’, however.41 So far, three Roman terracotta oil lamps have come to light which depict the process of glassblowing, all produced around 70 CE, presumably from the same mould.42 I focus here on one of those lamps (Fig. 7.2), found at Podgrade near Benkovac in Croatia (Roman Asseria) and currently housed in the Archaeological Museum of Split.43 Its disc depicts two human figures, ranged on either side of a large furnace. On the right, a blower is blowing a bottle-like vessel while sitting on a low stool. The figure on the left, slightly smaller in size, appears to be rendering him assistance, probably by working the bellows.44

Figure 7.2: Roman oil lamp from Asseria showing a glassblower’s workshop

Figure 7.2

Roman oil lamp from Asseria showing a glassblower’s workshop

Photo: Archaeological Museum in Split, Croatia (inv. no AMS-Fc-1094)

Like Pliny and both poets, this lamp’s designer emphasizes the importance of the control of fire to the blower’s craft. The furnace forms the centre of the image, to which the eyes are drawn first, before taking in the human figures. Furthermore, this particular copy has a noteworthy feature not shared by the other two lamps from this mould. The pouring hole, used for refilling the oil lamp, was manually cut into the clay once the lamp had been shaped. The maker of this particular lamp decided to locate this hole in the stoking compartment of the furnace.45 Therefore, the lamp goes beyond simply depicting—visually—the process of glassblowing. It offers a kinesthetic experience, involving the user of the lamp in the process as the stoker, who replenishes the fuel for the lamp’s fire just as wood would have to be replenished in the furnace to achieve the high temperatures required for glassblowing. The warmth of the flame and the scent and fumes of the burning oil are further sensual triggers which can place the user of the lamp in the shoes of the glassworkers depicted.

Finally, this particular lamp (unlike the other two copies found in Spodnje Škofije and Ferrara) bears not only the image of glassblowing, but also a short inscription of two names, Athenio and Tr[e]llus. These names appear have been scratched into the clay before firing rather than afterwards, making it possible that one or both of the named individuals had some involvement in the production of this (‘custom-made’?) object.46 Perhaps the names are supposed to signify ownership of the lamp, but their arrangement vis-à-vis the figures rather suggests that they are to be identified with the two workmen depicted. Perhaps we can infer that this particular lamp was seen by its owner(s) as depicting the actual working relationship of Athenio and Trellus in a glassblowing workshop.47

6 Making and Meaning

In the final section of this chapter, I argue that to investigate the Roman ‘discourse of making,’ which I have analysed related to glass, can open up new insights into the impact of material objects on those who interacted with them. How would Roman viewers or users have reacted to blown glass vessels in their surroundings? They may have noted, for example, their shine or vibrant colour, their similarity to metal, their transparency, their hardness and odourlessness, their fragility, their price.48 But their response to those vessels would also have included a sense of how such a vessel might have been made. How things were made, and how their stories of making were presented or imagined, was deeply relevant to how they were perceived and valued by their ancient viewers, owners, and users. Specifically, I suggest that we might use the concept of ‘madeness’ to analyse the complex relationship between an object’s actual production history, contemporary cultural discourse about making, and the object’s owners or users.49

‘Madeness’ as I conceive of it refers to someone’s sense of an object’s having been made or produced in a certain way. Different viewers may attribute different kinds of madeness to an object, depending on three main factors. First, madeness is elicited by the object’s own material facture (e.g., in the case of glass, pontil marks or air bubbles, which point the viewer towards reflecting on the object’s process of creation). Second, the madeness attributed to a glass object depends a particular viewer’s or user’s knowledge or understanding of its production, or of glass production in general (for example, the viewer might be a glassblower, someone who once saw glass blown, or someone who does not even know that this technology exists). Third, the madeness attributed to a glass object depends on the discourse of glass production, as we have investigated it in this chapter. The ‘madeness’ of glass was reflected in and, more importantly, shaped through, cultural conversations and imaginative reflections on its provenance and production, such as those accessible to us in Roman literary texts.

Specifically, Pliny’s chapters on glassmaking alert us to the fact that glass was understood as a substance obtained and produced by combining materials and technologies derived from different regions of the empire. Both of the poems analysed in this chapter highlight the pleasurable sense of admiration and spectacle associated with watching a glassblower at work. These poems, as well as the oil lamp depicting the glassblowing workshop, even offer a kinesthetic experience for their audience, through the recreation—in their respective media—of the sensual experience of participating in the process. Finally, every depiction of glassmaking and glassworking treated in this chapter emphasizes the crucial role of fire in the process, pointing towards the need for its collaboration in a joint endeavour, and its potentially destructive and threatening qualities that push the bounds of human control. While it is impossible to pin down precisely what kind of ‘madeness’ glass objects had for specific Roman viewers in specific contexts, all of the elements outlined together contribute to a ‘thicker’ description of human responses to glass objects in ancient Rome.

Ancient discourses of glassmaking and glassworking not only help us to understand ancient ideas about them; they also contributed to shaping these ideas, and through them the social realities of the Roman empire. Recently, literary sources on ancient manufacture have sometimes—with good reason—been sidelined in investigations of ancient manufacture. As scholars increasingly seek to reconstruct the lived realities of the working population of the Roman empire, literary sources, with their perceived elite bias, have become less central to this enquiry. But reading them in conjunction with other types of evidence, with close attention to their representational choices and strategies, can reveal what precisely ‘elite’ conceptualizations of manufacture tend to foreground, downplay, or leave out, how elite and sub-elite representations of making interact with one another, and the ways in which depictions of making construct, reinforce or question power structures in the Roman world. Without doubt, all literary texts discussed in this chapter were written by and for (relatively) elite inhabitants of the Roman empire.50 It is worth stressing that none of them show an obvious disdain for manual labour or those engaged in it.51 On the contrary, Pliny stresses the inventiveness of the pioneers of glassmaking, while both of the imperial poems suggest that his craft temporarily raises the workman above the human sphere and associates him with the divine. The anonymous poet of P.Oxy. L 3536 actually compares the glassblower to the Stoic demiurge. Nonetheless, through their emphases and omissions, these representations of making do reinforce the hierarchies of power surrounding the production of glass in ancient Rome. For example, these curated depictions convey little or no sense of the physical dangers or hardships of glass production. They also entirely leave out all members of the workshop not engaged in the activity of blowing or shaping liquid glass: not merely a poetic but also a social act of elision. Only the oil lamp from Asseria, unlikely to have been an elite-owned object,52 conveys something of the thought-world of the men and women actually engaged in glass production: not only does it foreground the human collaboration required in the workshop, but it also names two individuals engaged in the trade, de-anonymizing not only the glassblower but also his colleague.

Acknowledgements

I thank audiences at the Penn-Leiden conference and the Rostock Latin seminar, my Groningen colleagues and the anonymous referee for their helpful comments on this paper, and Hylke de Boer for his support with proofreading and bibliography. Marco Perale graciously provided me with a unicode version of his edition of APHex I.15, and the Arheološki muzej u Splitu / Archaeological Museum in Split generously allowed me to reproduce Figure 7.2. This chapter was partly written during a research sabbatical in Berlin, funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

1

I explore this dynamic specifically in regard to architecture and processes of construction in Reitz-Joosse 2021.

2

On the development of glass technologies in the Greco-Roman world, see the overview of Stern 2009.

3

On glassblowing as an example of Roman imperial innovation see Flohr 2016. For a Roman writer’s sense of the enormous importance of this discovery, see Sen. Ep. 90.31.

4

See, for example, Wiesenberg 2015 (experimental archaeology regarding Roman glass furnaces), Foy 2017 on circulation of raw glass and glass vessels, Rosenow et al. 2018, or the ERC GlassRoutes project.

5

Schneider 2021 usefully compiles all mentions of glass in Roman imperial literature, with a view to contextualizing archaeological research about glass. His overview of literary mentions of glass is more wide ranging, since it does not focus on production specifically but also includes texts discussing the use, price, or appearance of glass objects. He briefly discusses Pliny the Elder (147–149) and cites Mesomedes without discussion (154–155), but does not mention any of the key themes surrounding glassmaking that I focus on in this chapter.

6

For example, why does Pliny at 36.194 offer such a confusing ratio for mixing quartz and soda (on which see Rottländer 2000, 27)? What does he mean when he claims that glass could be chased like silver (argenti modo caelatur, 36.193)? Among the many attempts to understand Pliny’s challenging passage, a 20-year collaboration between classicists, archaeologists, ancient historians, mineralogists, physicists and chemists stands out as a particularly determined effort, resulting in Rottländer 2000. See also Freestone 2008, who relates Pliny’s text to recent archaeological insights into Roman glass technologies.

7

In this respect, Pliny goes much beyond views on glass as expressed, for example, by Greek philosophers, who classed glass with metals, without noting the fundamental difference between the refining of metals and the true transmutation of materials required to produce glass (Stern 2009, 521; Beretta 2009, esp. chs 2 and 4).

8

Pliny’s views on materials have recently been the subject of important new scholarship: see especially Anguissola 2022 and Grüner and Anguissola 2021.

9

The relationship between Pliny’s own encyclopedic project, which aims to organize the whole of nature and culture, and Roman imperial ideology is, for example, explored by Carey 2003, Murphy 2004, or Beagon 2013.

10

Finally, Pliny adds, citing Empedocles, Hippocrates and Varro, that fire also has a curative and medicinal force (36.202).

11

Anguissola 2022, 15.

12

On the dangerous side of the profession, see Stern 1999, 256.

13

For an overview of the different technologies with a rich bibliography, see Stern 2009.

14

Trans. author. The most thorough analysis of this poem is Regenauer’s 2016 edition, translation and commentary (426–440). See also Deroy 1989, 182 and Stern 2007, 353–354.

15

Regenauer 2016 retains the MSS’s χειλέων (rather than emending to χηλέων, ‘claws’, as other editors have done), following the argumentation of Stern 2007, 354: ‘the poet was referring to the long blades of the most important glassblower’s tool, a springy iron U-shaped implement called jacks in modern parlance. Jacks resemble sheep shears; they are identical to ancient scissors …’.

16

Regenauer 2016, 430 and passim. On the relationship with Il. 18.372–377 (the making of the tripods) esp. 347.

17

Regenauer 2016, 432.

18

Regenauer 2016, 439–440.

19

See n. 15 above.

20

Regenauer 2016, 432 ad 1.

21

Cf. Regenauer 2016, 436–437 ad 6–7.

22

Regenauer 2016, 438.

23

The poem has been edited in Perale 2020 as APHex I.15 (194–199). See Perale 2020, 194–195 for considerations regarding the dating of the poem.

24

Regenauer 2016, 429–431, Perale 2020, 195.

25

I cite the text of Perale 2020, 196. The translation is Perale’s with slight adaptations.

26

Ingold 2013, passim.

27

See, e.g., O’Sullivan/Souyoudzoglou-Haywood 2019.

28

See especially Routledge’s Senses in Antiquity series and Toner 2014.

29

The idea appears to reverse the metaphor of Mesomedes’ ‘all-consuming’ fire, since here it is the glass which absorbs the fire. It is, however, as often in poetic texts, difficult to judge how vivid this metaphor would have been to a contemporary reader, since γεύομαι is also used to indicate ‘to experience’ in a more general sense (LSJ s.v. γεύω II.3).

30

Ingold 2013, 13; Sennett 2008, 199–213.

31

Cf. Cicero, Fin. 3.24.

32

On the logistics of stoking the furnaces, see Wiesenberg 2014 and Taylor and Hill 2008. On collaboration in Roman workshops more generally Kristensen and Poulsen 2012, Munro 2021.

33

The adjective θαλερός, used to qualify the fire (5), also seems to contain a latent personification, since it is predominantly used to refer to youthfulness or strength of humans or their bodies (LSJ s.v. θαλερός).

34

For an overview see Sedley 1999, White 2003.

35

Note, however, that the Stoic demiurge is not external to the cosmos he creates. Insofar as the glassblower is external to his product, he resembles the Platonic demiurge more than the Stoic one.

36

On the spherical earth and cosmos, see, e.g., Cleomedes, Cael. 1.5, Aetius 2.2.1 (Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta 2.547), Aetius 2.22.3 (Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta 2.654), Diogenes Laertius 7.144 (Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta 2.650).

37

The very world ‘demiurge’ puts the creator in relation to the craftsman. The classic ancient account is Plato’s Timaeus (starting at 28a). A particularly interesting example from the Stoic tradition is Galen’s De Semine 2.5.56–60.

38

See n. 32 above.

39

In my opinion, the fragmentary state of both texts renders it difficult to assess the degree to which this layer of meaning is foregrounded. Regenauer 2016, at least, is convinced that the metapoetic meaning of Mesomedes’ poem is the key to its interpretation (esp. 428, 431).

40

This is certainly not to say, however, that an analogy between poetic work and ‘distributed’ manufacture is never suggested in ancient literature. Along with many others, I have argued that Statius’ Silvae 4.3, a depiction of a group of workmen constructing a road in verse, should be read metapoetically: Reitz-Joosse 2021, 146–171 with bibliography.

41

Lehmann 2012 proposes a methodology for analysing images depicting making in progress, arguing that images of making are capable of communicating the ‘social, material, technical, cultural and aesthetic dimensions of the production of artefacts’ (13). She distinguishes between four functions of such images (archival, instructional, participatory and display). Of these, my analysis focuses on the third (the kinesthetic identification of the viewer with the creative process) and the fourth function (the showcasing and hiding of certain elements of the creative process).

42

One was found near Ferrara (Baldoni 1987), one recently at Spodnje Škofije near Koper in Slovenia. According to Lazar, the lamps from Asseria and Spodnje Škofije were made from the same mould (Lazar 2006); it seems likely that the Ferrara lamp also came from the same mould (Baldoni 1987, 23).

43

AMS-Fc-1094; Abramić 1959.

44

Stern 2007, 355–357. Lazar 2006, 231, also interprets the tool as bellows, but also points out that experimental archaeology has not yet confirmed the need for bellows to achieve the required temperatures in glass furnaces.

45

This artistic choice is not appreciated by Abramić 1959, 149, first to describe this lamp: ‘Leider wird der Aufbau [i.e. of the furnace] an seiner Basis durch das Loch für den Öleinguß beschädigt.’ The hole is located in a different position on the other two known lamps made from this mould, where it is placed next to the head of the glassblower below the blowpipe (Lazar 2006, Baldoni 1987).

46

Stern 1999, 457 with n. 69.

47

The (funerary) context in which the Asseria lamp was found is, however, badly documented, because the lamp seems to have been excavated illegally (Abramić 1959, 149).

48

All of these perspectives, too, are reflected in ancient literary accounts. Stern 2007 offers a complete and authoritative overview, cf. also now Schneider 2021. A forthcoming paper by Karen ní Mheallaigh will explore the semiotics of glass in imperial literature.

49

I introduce the term ‘madeness’ in my monograph, Reitz-Joosse 2021 (see 8, 16 and passim). There, I use it to investigate how texts and images can activate and shape an audience’s sense of how a built structure has been created (and a text has been composed). In the current chapter, I broaden and develop my definition of the term to further explore the interaction between discourse, material culture and individual. I will be developing the concept further in the context of the ERC-funded research project FACERE (2023–2028, University of Groningen), which explores processes of making in Roman literature and art.

50

Regenauer 2016, 431 stresses the difference between the social position of Mesomedes, as a freedman of the emperor, and his presumed audience. However, her suggestion that Mesomedes aims to comment, through his poem, on the contributions of those from a ‘sozial niedrige Schicht’, under which Regenauer appears to subsume an imperial freedman together with a manual worker, seems doubtful to me.

51

On negative and ethically coded attitudes towards manual and wage-earning labour in ancient texts, see the introduction to this volume.

52

See p. 144 above.

Bibliography

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stern, M.E. (2012). Blowing Glass from Chunks Instead of Molten Glass: Archaeological and Literary Evidence. Journal of Glass Studies 54, pp. 3345.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Taylor, M. and Hill, D. (2008). Experiments in the Reconstruction of Roman Wood-Fired Glassworking Furnaces. Journal of Glass Studies, 50, pp. 249270.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Toner, J.P., ed. (2014). A Cultural History of the Senses in Antiquity. London.

  • White, M.J. (2003). Stoic Natural Philosophy (Physics and Cosmology). In: B. Inwood, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics. Cambridge, pp. 124152.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wiesenberg, F. (2014). Experimentelle Archäologie. Römische Glasöfen: Rekonstruktion und Betrieb einer Glashütte nach römischem Vorbild in der Villa Borg. Merzig.

  • Wiesenberg, F. (2015). Das experimentalarchäologische ‘römische’ Glasofenprojekt im Archäologiepark Römische Villa Borg (Borg Furnace Project). In M. Koch, ed. Archäologie in der Großregion. Nonnweiler, pp. 315322.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Collapse
  • Expand
  • Abramić, M. (1959). Eine römische Lampe mit Darstellung des Glasblasens. Bonner Jahrbücher 159, pp. 149151.

  • Anguissola, A. (2022). Pliny the Elder and the Matter of Memory. An Encyclopaedic Workshop. Abingdon.

  • Baldoni, D. (1987). Una lucerna romana con raffigurazione di officina vetraria: alcune considerazioni sulla lavorazione del vetro soffiato nell’antichità. Journal of Glass Studies 29, pp. 2229.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Beagon, M. (2013). Labores pro bono publico: The Burdensome Mission of Pliny’s Natural History. In: J. König and G. Woolf, eds., Encyclopaedism from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Cambridge, pp. 84107.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Beretta, M. (2009). The Alchemy of Glass. Counterfeit, Imitation, and Transmutation in Ancient Glassmaking. Sagamore Beach, MA.

  • Carey, S. (2003). Pliny’s Catalogue of Culture. Art and Empire in the Natural History. Oxford.

  • Deroy, L. (1989). Sur deux poèmes grecs d’époque romaine décrivant un verrier au travail. Antiquité Classique 58, pp. 178184.

  • Flohr, M. (2016). Innovation and Society in the Roman World. Oxford Handbooks Online.

  • Foy, D. (2017). An Overview of the Circulation of Glass in Antiquity. In: A. Wilson and A. Bowman, eds., Trade, Commerce, and the State in the Roman World. Oxford, pp. 265300.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Freestone, I.C. (2008). Pliny on Roman Glassmaking. In: M. Martinon-Torres and T. Rehren, eds., Archaeology, History and Science. London–Walnut Creek, CA, pp. 77100.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Grüner, A., and Anguissola, A., eds. (2021). The Nature of Art. Pliny the Elder on Materials. Turnhout.

  • Ingold, T. (2013). Making. Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. Oxford.

  • Kristensen, T.M. and Poulsen, B., eds. (2012). Ateliers and Artisans in Roman Art and Archaeology. Portsmouth, R.I.

  • Lazar, I. (2006). An Oil Lamp from Slovenia Depicting a Roman Glass Furnace, Vjesnik APD, 2006. Vjesnik Za Arheologiju i Povijest Dalmatinsku, 99(1), pp. 229235.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lehmann, A. (2012). Showing Making: On Visual Documentation and Creative Practice. The Journal of Modern Craft, 5(1), pp. 924.

  • Munro, B. (2021). Ancient Maker Spaces: The Value of Craft Communities in Multi-Material Workshops in Late Antiquity. In: H. Hochscheid and B. Russell, eds., The Value of Making. Theory and Practice in Ancient Craft Production. Turnhout, pp. 5368.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Murphy, T.M. (2004). Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. The Empire in the Encyclopedia. Oxford.

  • O’Sullivan, A., and Souyoudzoglou-Haywood, C., eds. (2019). Experimental Archaeology. Making, Understanding, Story-telling: Proceedings of a Workshop in Experimental Archaeology. Oxford.

  • Perale, M. (2020). Adespota Papyracea Hexametra Graeca (APHex I). Berlin.

  • Regenauer, J. (2016). Mesomedes: Übersetzung und Kommentar. Frankfurt am Main.

  • Reitz-Joosse, B.L. (2021). Building in Words. The Process of Construction in Latin Literature. New York.

  • Rosenow, D., Phelps, M., Meek, A. and Freestone, I. (2018). Things That Travelled. Mediterranean Glass in the First Millennium CE. London.

  • Rottländer, R.C.A., ed. (2000). Über Glas und Metalle, Plinius Secundus der Ältere. Sankt Katharinen.

  • Sedley, D.N. (1999). Hellenistic Physics and Metaphysics. In: K. Algra et al., eds., The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy. Cambridge, pp. 355411.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sennett, R. (2008). The Craftsman. New Haven.

  • Schneider, H. (2021). Vitri ars: Das römische Glas in der literarischen Überlieferung. In: F. Klimscha, H.-J. Karlsen, S. Hansen and J. Renn, eds., Vom Künstlichen Stein zum durchsichtigen Massenprodukt. Berlin, pp. 145159.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stern, M.E. (1999). Roman Glassblowing in a Cultural Context. American Journal of Archaeology, 103(3), pp. 441484.

  • Stern, M.E. (2007). Ancient Glass in a Philological Context. Mnemosyne, 60(3), pp. 341406.

  • Stern, M.E. (2009). Glass Production. In: J.P. Oleson, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World. Oxford, pp. 520548.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stern, M.E. (2012). Blowing Glass from Chunks Instead of Molten Glass: Archaeological and Literary Evidence. Journal of Glass Studies 54, pp. 3345.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Taylor, M. and Hill, D. (2008). Experiments in the Reconstruction of Roman Wood-Fired Glassworking Furnaces. Journal of Glass Studies, 50, pp. 249270.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Toner, J.P., ed. (2014). A Cultural History of the Senses in Antiquity. London.

  • White, M.J. (2003). Stoic Natural Philosophy (Physics and Cosmology). In: B. Inwood, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics. Cambridge, pp. 124152.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wiesenberg, F. (2014). Experimentelle Archäologie. Römische Glasöfen: Rekonstruktion und Betrieb einer Glashütte nach römischem Vorbild in der Villa Borg. Merzig.

  • Wiesenberg, F. (2015). Das experimentalarchäologische ‘römische’ Glasofenprojekt im Archäologiepark Römische Villa Borg (Borg Furnace Project). In M. Koch, ed. Archäologie in der Großregion. Nonnweiler, pp. 315322.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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