Glassmaking; A Judaic Tradition Part II: The Common Era; The Roman Period

Fact Paper 6-IIA

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

an example of roman glass
Glassware of the Roman Empire period was identified by two Roman emperors as being produced by Judaic glassmakers. Judaic artisans produced glassware for the Christian and Pagan markets as well as for Judaic use. The common use of "gold-glass" vessel bottoms such as the above in Judaic entombment anticipates the similar practice by the Christians. The Latin phrase "Pie Zesis" appears in Judaic contexts and was likewise employed on vessels produced for the Romans. Photograph courtesy of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Jews: Glassmakers of the Roman Empire

It is unlikely that any ancient Roman made glass, despite the common label "Roman Glass" for glassware found throughout the Roman Empire. Neither the Romans nor the Greeks were privy to the secret of transforming quartz (crystalline silicate) to a supercooled liquid (glass).

"To the Greeks glass was something new; to the Romans something unknown," unequivocally stated the English glass historian, W. A. Thorpe, and added in emphasis, "The Romans, that is, the Latin-Italian people were not glassmakers and not glass-minded.1

Glass-making technology was already 2000 years old in the Near-East when the Roman Empire was born. The Romans never acquired the skills and knowledge inherent in vitric technology. Conquering peoples disdain to engage in arts and crafts. Manual labor is regarded by a self-styled "master race" as an odious occupation and is relegated to their subjugated peoples.

The products of manual labor are admired; participation in their production is scorned.

Among the privileges conquerors enjoy is the power to oblige the vanquished, whether as slaves, serfs or freemen, to perform all manual labor. The Romans were no different in this regard than were the Greeks, whose culture they had absorbed. They abjured such rigorous, perverse, sweaty toil as was entailed in the production of glass and glassware. Socrates, an erstwhile stonemason, loved to lounge around sculptor's workshops. But as Greeks became conquerors they also became dillettantes. They lauded worthy works, but expressed contempt for the artisans who produced them. Blue-blooded Plato, Socrates' prize pupil and chronicler, relegated artisans to the lowest social strata of his ideal society.

Aristotle, no less than Plato, promulgated arrogance toward artisanship. He inculcated his famous pupil, Alexander, with the dictum that "the finest type of city will not make an artisan a citizen."2

As conquerors, the Greeks followed the autocratic example which the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians,and Persians had set before them in assuming a supercilious stance toward manual labor. "Greek citizens," Xenophon proclaimed to his fellow citizens, "are prohibited from practicing crafts where Greeks are in military control."3

The Romans were entirely ignorant of the process of making glass at the time their armies thrust into the Near East. Despite the Roman label ubiquitously applied by museums and scientific works to glassware of the period, even Romans of the later Roman period were unlikely to have a single glassmaker among them. The best that can be claimed for the ancient Romans is that glass and glassware was produced in Roman provinces during the period of Roman rule.

Consumption, not creativity, was the concern of Roman gentlemen. They sought luxury, ostentation, and the reinforcement of their assumed right to have the world support their privileged position. Middle-class Romans strove for noble similitude. A Roman household was considered unworthy without its retinue of slaves.

"The number of slaves employed in each household varied from perhaps a squad of eight among the petit bourgeois to as many as 20,000 in the familia Caesaris. Libanus, head of a philosophical school in Antioch, complained that teachers were so ill-paid that they could afford no more than three or four slaves apiece, Slaves were not relegated to mere menial tasks, nor additionally to crafts, but performed as trusted stewards, musicians, geomitricians, grammarians, managers of farms and estates, masters of ships and even as money lending bankers."4

Plebeian sentiments regarding hand-work reflected those of their noble and middle-class peers; they are comparable to those of Americans towards ditch-diggers or stoop farm labor, occupations relegated to immigrants from starving nations or Mexican illegals. Cicero wrote a didactic treatise in 44 BCE, directing its teachings to his 21-year-old son. In it he apposes Roman precepts to that of the Greeks:

"Now in regard to trade and other means of livelihood, which ones are to be considered becoming to a gentleman and which ones are vulgar, we have taught, in general, as follows... Vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labor, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wages they receive is a pledge of their slavery... These privileges Xenophon, a pupil of Socrates, has set forth most happily in his book entitled Oeconomicus. When I was about your present age I translated it from Greek to Latin."5

Cicero emphasized Roman repugnance toward engagement in manual labor by restating in unequivocal terms that "all craftsmen are engaged in a lowly art; for no workshop can have anything appropriate to a free man."6

The earliest reference to glass (vetro) in the corpus of Latin literature occured in 54 BCE, in a speech by the self-same Cicero in defence of a Rabirus Postumus, who had been imprisoned for crimes committed during his stint as royal treasurer of Alexandria. "It is true that the goods invoiced were only cheap, showy articles of paper, linen, and glass," Cicero slyly inserted in Postumus's defence. Cicero then added, "Many ships were packed with these..."7 Cicero thereby informed us of the existence of glassware in exports from the Near East to Rome.

Cheap glassware, in fact, began to appear as an integral part of Roman trade after the invention of glassblowing in the Galilee sometime before or during the early part of the first century BCE. Glass was also employed as a substitute for precious stones.

In the year 61 BCE the great general Pompey and some of his officers, gloating over their triumphs, staged an exhibition in the temple of Jupitus Capiloninus of exquisite vessels carved from vibrantly colorful precious stones. These startlingly beautiful treasures were obtained during the Roman campaigns in the Near East. The exhibition was a smashing success and it whetted the narcissistic appetites of the Roman nobility for exotic ware.

The hankering of Roman plutocrats for eastern luxury goods such as those ostentatiously exhibited in Rome stimulated near-eastern glassworkers into expanding the production of glass imitations of precious stoneware. The imitation of lapis lazuli, jade, emeralds, and other precious stones had been part of the eastern glassmakers repertoire for 2000 years. Their products were equal to, and even out-shone, the most precious stoneware. The most riotously colored agate was duplicated in glass with rainbow-colored hues rare in, or absent from, the natural stone. In addition, eastern glassmakers made vessels in special effects attainable only in glass; they were the most costly and desirable. Vessels were intricately wrought of glass tesserae, murrhine, which often surpassed natural stones in brilliance and color. "Murrhine have come to us from the East," Pliny the Elder informed us. Thorpe, the English glass historian, noted that as far back as Roman times, "Murrhine was an oriental dealers word."

An even more intricate form of murrhine vessels, termed millifiore, was composed of sections of intricately wrought canes of glass. When fused together they added fascinating integral designs to the fabric of the vessels.

Another, most costly type of glass vessel, developed purely as an expensive tour-de-force, was the vasa diatreta. These vessels were cast or blown thick enough to permit carving it into several strata. The central portion was almost entirely cut away, leaving almost invisible posts by which the outer layer remained attached to the inner body. The outer layer was sculpted into geometric, floral, faunal or anthropomorphic designs.

The Roman term for the glass sculptors who performed this infinitely patient and skillful work was diatretarii. The word was transcribed from the Greek, and in turn was originally derived from the Hebrew word for cutting or chiseling. The familiarity of the Hebrew sages with diatreta ("cut glass"), and with the consummate skill required for their production, is reflected in the Midrash. The delicacy of execution and the intrinsic value of such vessels are used to illustrate the most precious aspects of adhering to God's commandments: not merely to obey the commandments but to act upon them:

"It can be compared to a king who instructed his servants: "Guard these two cut-glass vessels [diatreti] for me; and take the greatest care of them." As he was entering the palace, a young calf standing nearby gored the servant, with the result that one of the vessels broke. The servant appeared before the king trembling, and when asked, "Why are you trembling?" he replied: "Because a calf gored me and made me break one of these two vessels." The king thereupon said to him: "That being so, you must be all the more careful with the second one." This is also what God said: "At Sinai you prepared two cups - 'We will do,' and 'We will obey"; by making the golden calf, you have shattered one - 'We will do'; be careful with the second one: 'We will obey.'" 8

The Midrash has other references to Diatreta. It is significant that in Esther Rabbah the word appears in Aramaic adjectival form: "Diatiri," i.e., "carved glass [vessel]." Thus Hebrew/Aramaic terms for certain glassmaking operations were incorporated into Greek and Latin, and have subsequently filtered into other languages as a generic description of this class of glassware.

image of a gold-band glass box
A gold-band box in imitation of agate, first half of the first c. BCE. The lidded box was among the exotic glass artifacts imported into Roman Italy from the Near East. Photo courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass

A Judaic Discipline

Where, then, was Roman Period glass and glassware made? By whom was it made?

Jews constituted a sizable proportion of the skilled artisans distributed throughout the Roman Diaspora. It is difficult to distinguish their identity due to their being referred to as "Orientals," or, depending on their provenance, as "Palestinians" or "Syrians." These abstruse references led historians to ignore Judaic technological contributions to Western society. The omissions are particularly egregious in reference to glassmaking, for it has become increasingly evident that the vitric arts were practiced exclusively by Jews at that time.

"No thoroughgoing attempt has ever been made to collect and study all the available evidence - literary or archaeological - relating to the status and the part played by the Jews in ancient glassmaking. One finds extremes of scholarly opinion; by some a major role is assigned to Jewish glassmakers in antiquity, while others have ignored their share altogether."9

Two Roman emperors did identify the practicers of the art of glassmaking.

In the year 301 CE, the emperor Diocletian issued an edict that fixed the prices of products being produced throughout the Empire. The list specifies the prices of only two classes of glassware. One type was identified as vitri Ijudaici ["Judaic Glass"].

The name Judah [Latin: Judea] had been officially expunged by Hadrian in 165 CE in a vindictive reaction to the stubborn resistance of the Jews in the Bar Khochba war. Judah was renamed Syro-Palestine. The Diocletian edict makes it clear that, a century and a half later, the term "Judaic glass" was so ingrained into the vernacular of the times that it had become a generic term. Vitri Ijudaici, refers to all glassware produced in the former Judea as well as elsewhere in the Empire with one exception. The sole other type of glass in the Diocletian edict was Vitri Alessandrini, glassware made in Alexandria. At that time the Jews constituted about 40% of the Alexandrian population. They were at the forefront of the skilled crafts of that bustling city. The fact that glassmaking was preeminently an art practiced by the Jews in that city was eloquently attested to by Emperor Hadrian Augustus. In an epistle from Hadrian to his consul, Servianus, Hadrian wrote:

"[The Alexandrian Jews] are prosperous, rich and fruitful, and in it no one is idle. Some are blowers of glass, others makers of paper, all are at least weavers of linen or seem to belong to one craft or another; the lame have their occupations, the wounded have theirs, the blind have theirs, and not even those whose hands are crippled are idle."

Thus two Roman Emperors specify that the glassmakers in Alexandria and throughout the Roman Diaspora are Jews.

The Anatolian Connection

The validity of the testimony of the two Roman emperors has considerable archaeological support.

For example, many cities of ancient Anatolia (now Turkey), harbored substantial Judaic communities. Evi-dence of glassware production in Anatolia appears only in those cities.

A fragment of the Diocletian Edict on Prices was found at the Anatolian city of Synnada. The museum of the region at Afyon contains a collection of Roman period glassware. It was catalogued by C. S. Lightfoot under the aegis of the British Institute of Archaeology. Lightfoot noted that some of the eastern-type glassware appears to have been of local production, and since the autochthonous peoples of the region were ignorant of the vitric arts, "it might be supposed that the Jewish communities played a particular role in the creation of a local industry."10

Epigraphic evidence of a significant Judaic presence and of glassworking has turned up in Apameia (modern Dinar), a major Roman administrative center at the hub of the easternmost province of Pamphylia. An engraved flask, "the most interesting of the glasses from outside the boundaries of the Afyon Province," was found at Dinar; similar to others found elsewhere. A Late Roman engraved bowl, likewise found at Dinar, is similar to others appearing as far afield as the northwest Roman provinces and even Nubia.11 The bowl is deemed so remarkable that it was featured as an outstanding example of the vitric arts of the period at a joint exhibition of the Corning, British, and Römisch museums entitled Glass of the Caesars.

Significant Anatolian/Judaic communities have likewise been epigraphically confirmed at Acmoneia and at Synnada. It is precisely from those ancient cities that glassware has been recovered. The Judaic community of Acmoneia supported a sizeable synagogue. A marble column of that synagogue featuring a menorah was found in the city's ruins. "Acmoneia," Lightfoot reminds us, "lay in the Apamene conventus and, like Apameia itself, had a significant number of Jewish inhabitants."

Glass cullet and other evidence of glassworking was likewise recovered at Sardis, site of the greatest of ancient synagogues. The beautifully appointed, mosaic-floored structure was capable of hosting three thousand worshipers. A trove of cullet was recovered from a Judaic shop nested against the wall of the great synagogue itself.

Glassmakers Arrive in Europe

In the first century of the Common Era, glassmakers fired up furnaces in and near Rome, and across Italy in Roman Aquileia at the head of the Adriatic Sea. In the next two centuries glassmakers established their enterprises up along the Seine and Rhine Valleys.

The process was probably initiated during the reign of Augustus (27 - 14 CE) after he added Egypt to the Empire and demanded glassware as part of the tribute. The supply failed to satisfy him, so he ordered that Alexandrian artisans be brought to Rome to establish the art. No record of this order being carried out exists, but glassmaking did appear in Italy coincident with the manumission of thousands of Jewish slaves who had previously been hauled into Rome as captives of war. "Having been brought to Italy as captives," Philo related, "they were freed by their owners and not forced to violate any of their ancestral customs."The Judaic priestly class receives almost all historiographical attention, but it constituted a small part of the Judaic population. Judaic artisans, slaves and freemen, are dimly visible, albeit they created many important industries in Rome and along the Roman routes. Judaic identity dissipated with references to them as Orientals, Palestinians or Syrians. Additionally, Jews who were not already bearing hellenized surnames assumed Latin ones.

In fact, the numbers of Jews in the empire swelled with Greek and Roman proselytes and burgeoned into many millions. A census taken by the Emperor Claudius in 42 CE numbers them "exactly 6,944,000."12

image of a glass diatreton
A diatreton or "cage-cup" 4th-5th c. BCE. Such carved vessels were a tour-de-force of glassworking and expensive due to the delicate, difficult and time-consuming work involved in their production. Dietreta were valued as status symbols by members of the Roman hierarchy. The word "diatreton" derives from the ancient Hebrew for "cutting" or "chiseling." Photograph courtesy of the Civic Museum of Milan, Italy

The Jewish population of Rome itself numbered in the tens of thousands. Thirteen congregations of the early Roman Empire have been identified. One congregation, the "Severians," clearly established during the time of the Severi, would therefore date back to about 200 BCE.13

Josephus reported that when the Jewish embassy petitioned the Roman emperor to remove Herod's dynasty after the tyrant's death in 3 BCE, "it was escorted on its way to the Imperial palace by a crowd of 8000 Jews. Another historian estimates that by the first half of the first century the free Jewish population alone of Rome was at least 20,000.14 Other sources estimate as many as 40,000.

"It was from this stratum that the Roman proletariat and its petty bourgeoisie for the most part was recruited. It was from this stratum that the Roman Jews predominantly belonged... these humble immigrants settled by the Tiber and especially in the Trastevere, or right bank. There the boats which brought goods from Ostia docked; there lived harbor and transport workers, boatmen, shopkeepers, numerous artisans; there were sailors' taverns and all trades and industries which could not be admitted into the city."15

It was in the Trastevere quarter of Rome that the first glassmaking furnaces must have been constructed among other sweaty, sooty and malodorous industries as metalsmithing, unguent manufacture and leather tanning, all of which industries were largely if not exclusively in Jewish hands. Trastevere (Transtibiris, "across the Tiber"), was a dreary slum with crooked streets and dingy workshops. Pope Benedictus VIII gave a charter in 1019 to the bishopric of Portus, whose jurisdiction extended over the island of the Tiber and Trastevere, the area was still designated fundum integrum, qui vocatur Judaeorum, ("The whole district, named after the Jews").

The area in the foreground of the Porta Portese (port gate) in Trastevere was known as "Jew's Field" until the seventeenth century, just as the bridge over the Tiber was called, in the Middle Ages, the "Jew's Bridge" [Pons Judaeorum]. It led to the Via del Pianto ("Street of Lamentation"), the heart of the vicus Judaeorum ("Jewish Quarter"), which was later referred to as the ghetto. In the Trastevere stood Rome's oldest synagogue.16

A murrhine bowl of the late 2nd or early 1st c. BCE. Such valuable glassware was produced in the Levant before the Roman conquest. The Latin word for "glass: (vetro) first appeared in 54 BCE. "Murrhine" was an oriental dealer's word, noted the Engish historian W.A. Thorpe. Photo courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass.

Trastevere lay along the Appian and Latin Roads, the bridgeheads for communications with the great harbors of Puteoli and Bruniseum, with Capua and Naples, with the seaside resorts and country estates at Baiae and its environs. Alexandrian glassmakers founded glassmaking facilities on the coast between Cumae and Liternum in 14 CE, and at Porta Cassena in Rome. Pliny mentions that the glassmakers from the region he refers to as "Syria" established themselves in Campania, an area near the Volturnus River;17 The sand from the river supplied the silicate for glass manufacture and the nearby fashionable cities and resorts of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Capua, Neopolis, Cumae and Salerno supplied a ready market. In 79 CE ashes erupting from fiery Vesuvius preserved many examples of the work of the artisans of the region as well as of imported ware.

Another ancient synagogue was discovered at the port of Ostia. It served a significant community of Jewish proletariat and suggests that the Jewish work-force was an important factor in the importing and industrial activities of the area. A funerary inscription of its archisynagogus (head of the synagogue) was found. His name was Plotius Fortunatus, a distinctly Roman name. Were it not for the designation of his position as head of the synagogue his Jewish identity would never have been recognized. "The name helps to explain why the Jews of Ostia were so elusive," writes Meiggs in apology for overlooking the existence of the Ostian Jewish constituency. "I overlooked the fact that it was common Jewish practice to adopt Roman names."18

The eastern provenance of artisans in the Roman Empire becomes occasionally evident from reference to ancestry and place of origin. Thus the inscription Asclepepiades, son of Simon from Cnidus, informs us that the man bearing a Roman name was the son of a Jew from Cnidus. While freed slaves usually took their first two names from that of their former owner and retained their slave name as a cognomen, "their sons and grandsons could adopt more respectable [i.e., Roman] names." Thus most of the millions of Jews of the Roman period, having passed through several hundred years of Hellenic and Roman dominance, cannot be identified by their names, a factor rarely considered in ancient historiography.

That considerable numbers of Jews populated Roman ports is evidenced by the numbers of Jews known to have been buried at the other important harbor-cities of Puteoli and Portus. Most of the trade with Alexandria and the East into the Roman area took place through these ports. The burials "indicate callings which have to do with commerce and navigation."19 Another synagogue existed in Puteoli "in the first century of the Christian Era (Acts 28:13 and 14), and a street of glassmakers, which also contained a quarter for incense-makers."20

The Jewish catacombs in Rome afford yet another glimpse into the association of the Jews with the art of glassmaking. Five Judaic catacombs have been uncovered. The oldest of these underground cemetery complexes was discovered at Bosio in 1602, but the anti-Semitic climate of the subsequent three hundred years served to bury the knowledge. The vast catacombs remained forgotten until the mid-nineteenth century. They were rediscovered in 1904, but scientific exploration commenced considerably later. They were left unprotected in the interim centuries, subject to the ravages of treasure hunters and despoilers.

The artistic renderings in the various media employed in the catacombs contain pagan as well as Jewish iconography. In addition to depictions of scenes from the Old Testament and such standard symbols as the menorah, lulab, etrog, grape clusters and vines, Torah arcs, the portals of the Jerusalem Temple, the shofar and trumpets, there are representations of genii and divinities such as Pegasus, Victory and Fortune. They eloquently attest to the fact that contemporary Judaic culture was far from monolithic. The lions which flank the arc of the Torah, the eagles, the peacock, and other birds and animals, as well as nude human and even nude figures are well represented in Judaic catacomb art.

Many pagan symbols and figures appear on molded glass of the period and are too often ascribed to Greek, Roman or Paleo-Christian art. Among the artifacts overlooked by robbers are examples of so-called "gold-glass." Gold-glass is not glass of a gold color but a design in gold foil laminated between two layers of glass. The bottoms of gold-glass vessels containing such designs were broken carefully away from the sides of the vessels and imbedded into the walls of tombs. Some bear Latin or Greek inscriptions. A favorite Hebrew phrase rendered in Greek or in Latin is composed of the words pie zeses (drink and live). A number of catacomb and gold-glass renderings include fish on a platter "obviously a Sabbath meal."21 This common theme of ancient Judaic art predates and bears no relationship to the use of fish (symbolizing ichthus, an acrostic of "Jesus Christ, son of God, Savior) as a symbol of Christ among the early Christians. The rendering of a fish on a platter too often leads to the mistaken identification of a mosaic floor or other work as Christian. Jewish art was a prototype for "Christian borrowing, interpretation and adoption.."22

Confusion arises because the Christians continued many conventional Judaic practices, notable among which was the funerary custom of inhumation. The Judaic catacombs, served as a model for Christian entombment.23 The Christians also imbedded gold-glass fragments into the walls of their tombs with, however, Christian symbols. The Christian versions, however, first appear at the end of the third century, well after the precedent set by the Jews. Nonetheless, the practice and the gold-glass medium is characterized as Christian art.

The glassmakers of Roman Italy, no less than their cousins in Palestine and Alexandria, produced what the market demanded, all sorts of glassware with Judaic, Christian and Pagan themes. Among the latter are the well-known "drink and live" and the so-called "gladiator's cups," awarded to a victor as a treasured prize.

Glass vessels, probably of the first century CE found near Kibbutz Hagoshrim in Israel. The incomplete diatreta vessel on the right, the ill-formed blown vessel on the left and masses of cullet (broken glass) found together with them were remelted for making new glassware. Similar material found by the author in 21 sites in Israel evidence glassmaking activity in the first centuries before and after the advent of the Common Era. Photo by the author

Phoebe Phillips expressed the best that can be claimed for the Romans in the art of glassmaking in her Encyclopedia of Glass: "The Romans did more for the glassblower than just provide roads and ships; they created stable trade routes, appreciated and paid for the best artistry, provided the luxury market with what it wanted and the ordinary market for what it needed."24

Ms. Phillip's astute observation sums up in toto the extent of Roman participation in the vitric arts. The prestigious glass historian Axel von Harden, adds: "Although Syria-Palestine remains the cradle of 'modern' glass-making and Alexandria continued to produce fine luxury ware, Naples, Rome and northern Italy, southeastern France, Cologne and other cities along the Rhine, could also claim an efficient industry established mainly by Jewish glassmakers emigrated from Palestine in the 1st century."25

Von Saldern points out the unmistakable similarity of certain glass products of Palestine such as the ribbed-bowl with those retrieved from Egypt, Rome, or Avignon, and that others found throughout the Roman Empire, the "so-called 'Sidonian mold-blown ware,' 'snake-thread bottles,' and 'saddle-flasks' were apparently made exclusively in Palestine."

Pliny included Spain in the areas in which glass workshops were established. In fact, eastern glassware found its way into every western region in which the Roman legions encamped and settled. North Africa, Spain, Nordicum, Pannonia, the four Gauls, the two Germanies and Britain each experienced a similar progression of events. The conclusion of military action was followed by a parceling out of territory to Roman soldiers who had completed their duty. The indigenous population, slaves and serfs, were put to tilling the soil and serving the newly enfranchised Roman landowners and officials drawn from the local hierarchy whose allegiance to Rome was purchased with a bribe of Roman citizenship and a continuation of their privileged social position.

Jewish craftsmen "went through Marseilles into Gaul, and crossed the Alps into the Rhineland."26 Communities of Near Eastern artisans and merchants sprang up along the routes as far as Cologne. The ruins of two early synagogues in that city on the banks of the Rhine at the outer limit of the Roman Empire attest to the importance of Judaic presence.

"The oldest [Judaic] settlement in Germany was in Trier (a ghetto) and the first glasshouses of the Rhineland were founded there. After Trier, the oldest ghettos are in Cologne and Andernach, and it is significant that the oldest established glasshouses in Germany are likewise those in Cologne and Andernach."27

  The evidence of glass-working was retrieved by archaeologists close by the remains of two ancient synagogues in Cologne. One of the objects retrieved was a gold-glass plaque ornamented with a depiction of a menorah, the Judaic, seven-branched candelabra; it is now part of the collection in the Cologne Museum.28 The design of the menorah is similar to another such gold-leaf rendition of a menorah sandwiched into a gold-glass medallion in the Roman catacombs of the Galleria San Giorgio. It is complete with a funerary inscription which ends with the Hebrew word Shalom (peace). Other equivalent gold-glass plaques are to be found in various collections; some also depict the facade of the Jerusalem Temple.29

Thorpe relates that the Semitic artisans who had settled along the route of the Roman legions "had their quarters in the great industrial cities, with the family traditions of their successors at Altare, Murano and Normandy; they combined a willingness to migrate, a fervent sense of parenthood, a racial solidarity, a genius for selling, Semitic qualities that no other glassmakers ever possessed."

The English historian continues to relate that by the late Roman period, "Nice, Marseilles, Bourges, Treves, and above all, Paris, industrial capital was controlled by the Semites... Their activities were not confined to the black-coat business of bankers, ship-owners, money-lenders, and wholesale produce merchants. They were the leaders in the professions of law and medicine, and in the arts of jeweler, goldsmith and silversmith."30

As the Christian church became integral to the fabric of Roman society, it came to resent Roman reliance on artisans who stubbornly resisted conversion. The dependence of the Roman establishment on Jews for industrial products, both of local manufacture and imported, spurred St. Jerome to write a bitter treatise about the humiliating hold oriental artisans had on the Roman world through the exercise of their unique skills. The saint complained that Semitic artisans, mosaicists and sculptors are everywhere, and that not only was retail trade in their hands, but they controlled the export of products such as those made of glass, silk and leather. The saint cited glassmaking as one of the trades "by which the Semites captured the Roman world."31

Saint Jerome resided in Aquileia, an important Roman port city at the head of the Adriatic, one of several centers of the art of glassmaking along that coast. The saint's experiences in Aquileia may well have led to his bitter outburst. It could be that the upper Adriatic littoral was the first area of the European continent to which the art arrived, along with a flood of immigrants from the Near East.

map of adriatic sea
Glassware production in northeastern Italy in the Roman period. The Adriatic Sea provided access into central Europe. Judaic artisans flocked into the region. Glassware was first imported and then produced at Aquileia, Adria, Altino, near Pola in the Istrian peninsula, and then at Padua and Spina.
Painting of patron saint of glassmakers
Filiberto, Patron Saint of the glassmakers of Altare (northwestern Italy). Glassmakers are dimly seen in the lower left hand corner of the ancient painting. Glassmakers in Cologne were exempted from the otherwise strictly enforced requirement for conversion in order to belong to a guild. photograph by the author in the parochial church of the glassmakers of altare/

A substantial Judaic community appears to have resided in Aquileia from the earliest period of the Roman occupation of the area. "There can be no doubt," writes Yves-Marie Duval, interpolating from the writings of St. Jerome and others, "that one can abstract the existence of thousands of Jews in Aquileia and the region."32 [See HHF Fact Paper 28, The Jews of Aquileia]

The church launched a monastic movement based on self-sufficiency, and a humbler attitude toward manual labor was promulgated. The regimen of manual labor served as a means to place crafts under church control. "The effect..." wrote Lionel Casson in a defining work, Ancient Trade and Society,

"was to restore respectability not only to the artisan but to manual labor, to remove the disrepute under which it had suffered all of ancient times. And this monasticism played a significant role. From the beginning, the monks had been mindful of the Hebrew tradition that work was in accordance with God's commandment."33

  The church launched a campaign to convert or displace the stiff-necked "Orientals." Artisan's guilds were formed and put under the patronage of Christian saints. Conversion was required to join the guilds. Jews were thereby driven from most manual trades. Conversion was, however, unevenly enforced because no substitutes existed for certain skilled artisans. Outstanding among these were the glassmakers, for they were indeed alone in the art. Jewish glassmakers were therefore given conspicuous exemption from conversion as a condition for continuing their art.

"In Cologne... where the guilds succeeded in ultimately barring Jews from almost all of industrial occupations, they still allowed them to become glaziers, probably because no other qualified personnel was available. This exemption was reminiscent of the Greek glassmakers in seventh-century France who claimed to produce glass as well as the Jews did."34

There is no record that those Greeks proved their claim! So long as the art of glassmaking remained in Judaic hands it maintained a high level of artistry. Thorpe points out that the decline of the art of glassmaking and that of the numerous other disciplines introduced into Gaul by the "Semites," was brought about by...

"the growth of anti-Semitism in the Merovingian Gaul during the 5th and 6th centuries. This movement has been made familiar in its religious aspect as a conflict of the Christian church with the Jews, but the real issue was racial and commercial, The Germans who invaded Gaul discovered that the capital of the country was largely in the hands of the orientals, in some trades as their superiors as craftsmen, and invariably as their superiors in matters of business... The glass industry suffered with the other rackets [exclusive industries] of the Semites [and] high class models disappear when anti-Semitic propaganda was most intense."35

The Dark Ages descended upon Europe to no small measure as a consequence of the exodus of Judaic artisans and traders. Glassmaking virtually disappeared from Europe for the next millennium, until Crusaders brought the practicers of the art back to Europe. (See HHF Fact Paper 25, The Glassmakers of Altare).

Meanwhile, the art of glassmaking flourished in the Near East. The Jewish sages who compiled the Midrash all worked at trades, and their familiarity with the process of glassmaking is reflected in Midrashic references, extensions of the Talmudic reference in Job in which wisdom is described as being more valuable than sapphires or glass (Job, XXVIII, 1-7). The Palestinian Talmud describes the fusion of glass by rolling, i.e., the production of agate glass with differently colored glasses. It also describes layering glass and cutting through the layers, as in the production of cameo and diatreta glassware. (Pal. Tal. Ch. IV, p. 56b).

In Gen. 2:7 it is written that God formed man out of the dust of the earth, and blew the breath of life into his nostrils. This ultimate act of creation is likened in the Midrash to blowing glass, in which the soul of man becomes the soul of the vessel he creates just as the breath of God becomes the soul of man.36

A glass vessel, it is written, begins with the breath (neshimah) of the glassblower, which flows as a wind (Ruach) through the glassblowing pipe, and finally comes

to rest (nafash) as an ethereal element within the vessel. Man's soul (neshamah) stems from the same root, neshimah, and refers to an element of the soul that is bound to the body and "rests" there. The Ruach is part of the soul that binds the neshamah and Nefesh.

During the European Dark Ages, throughout the Upper and Lower Galilee and all along the Judaean shores, men continued to blow soul into hot glass.

image of a glass vessel fragment
A Roman-period fragment of a glass vessel found in the ruins of Aquileia depicting Abraham offering the sacrifice of Isaac. The depiction of the Temple of Jerusalem above Abraham's hand establishes the Judaic character of the vessel. photo by the author courtesy of the Aquileia Museum
Oil lamp from Aquileia. A significant Aquileian Judaic community is attested by tomb inscriptions, documentary evidence referring to a synagogue destroyed by arsonists, and objects such as the above menorah-decorated oil lamp. The Judaic community of Aquileia, numbering in the thousands, is unmentioned even in the Encyclopedia Judaica. Photo by the author by courtesy of the Aquileia Museum


  1. W.A. Thorpe. English Glass, A & C. Black Ltd., London, p.2.
  2. Aristotle, Politics, 3.3.2
  3. Xenophon, Oeconomicus, 4.3.
  4. Philo, Judaeus, Quod Innis Probus Libus Sit, p. 157.
  5. Cicero, On Duties, I, xii, II, xxiv, 87, xxv.
  6. Cicero, Ibid, I: 150-151.
  7. Cicero, Pro Rubirio Postumo , an oration given in 54 BCE.
  8. Midrash Rabbat, trans. by Rabbi S. M. Lehrman, Soncino Press, London, p.330
  9. Dan Barag, Ancient Glass in Modern Research, Museum Haaretz, Tel Aviv, 1972, p. 123
  10. C. S. Lightfoot, A Catalog of Glass Vessels in the Afyon Museum, British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara, Monograph no. 10, BAR Intern'l Series 530, 1989, pp. 15,16.
  11. Donald B. Harden Glass of the Caesars, Olivetti, Milan, 1987, pp. 203, 204.
  12. Peacocke, ed. and trans. "Bar-Hebraeus" in Historia companiera dynastiarum, 1985, pp. 73, 116
  13. Leo W. Schwarz, Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People, p. 118; Vogelstein, Ibid., p. 27.
  14. Herman Vogelstein, The Jews of Rome, trans. by Moses Hades, 1940, p. 17
  15. Vogelstein, Ibid., pp. 17, 18.
  16. Vogelstein, Ibid., p. 25.
  17. Pliny, Natural History, XXVI, p. 194.
  18. Russell Meiggs, Roman Ostia, Oxford Un. Press, 1977, p. 587
  19. Vogelstein, Ibid, p. 43.
  20. J. B. Brown, Lebanon and Phoenicia, I: "Beirut," p. 111.
  21. Vogelstein. Ibid., p.39.
  22. Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Graeco-Roman Period, 1953, vol. 12, ch 2, p. 22.
  23. Vogelstein. Ibid., p.34
  24. Phoebe Phillips, The Encyclopedia of Glass, London, 1981, p. 34.
  25. Axel von Harden, Glas von der antike bis zum jugenstil, Mainz um Rhine, 1980, p.19.
  26. Frederic Neuberg, Ancient Glass, trans. Michael Bullock and Alissa Jaffa, London, 1962, p. 56, quoting Daremberg and Salio, Dictionaires des Antiques Grecxques and Romanins, vol. III, p. 939.
  27. Neuberg, Ibid., p. 56
  28. Neuberg, Ibid, p. 70, quoting from M. Schwab and A Refenberg, Estratto dalla Rivista si Archeologica Cristiaas, XV, 1939, 3,4.
  29. Neuberg, ibid., p. 70, referring to descriptions of such gold-glass plaques in Archives de l'Orient Latin, vol. 1884, chapter VII, pp. 439-465; Leopoldt Angelos, Das Judische Goldglas, Berlin 1928; see also Erwin Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman period, vol. II, illustrations 962-975. Item 975 is presumably from Cologne.
  30. Thorpe, Ibid., p. 7, 8, 11, 75, 76.
  31. St. Jerome, Comm. In Exekiel, xxvii, in Pat. Lat. 25, 313, "Orbe, Romano Occupato."
  32. Yves-Marie Duval, "Aquilee et la Palestine entre 370 et 420,"Antichita Altoadriatica , Aquileia, p. 263.
  33. Lionel Casson, Ancient Trade and Society, Detroit, 1984, p. 147
  34. Salo W. Baron, Arcadius Kahan and other contributors, ed. Nachum Gross, Economic History of the Jews, 1975, p. 40
  35. Thorpe, Ibid., p. 69.
  36. Exodus 23:12, 31:17 and: Moshe Chaim Lozzatto, Derech haShem (The Way of God), 1983 part 2, pp. 347-8, referring to the Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 14:9, devarium Rabbah 2:9, and Shaar haGilgulim I.