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Ancient Trendsetters

The ancient Greeks and Romans offer style guidance that remains on trend, millennia later

In ancient Greece and Rome, gold was the word. Ornamentation of the body was an abundantly popular form of expression and perhaps designation of class—much as it can be today. Similarly to contemporary people and our tastes, the ancient Greeks and Romans found a great allure in adorning their bodies with precious and semiprecious gems and metals.

During the centuries that Rome dominated the Mediterranean, the Romans commanded a culture and style that spread throughout their empire. In a sense, they were the style icons of the classical world, following and expanding upon the tradition begun on a smaller scale by the earlier Greeks. Examples of objects following the style of the times have been found throughout the Roman world, confirming that it was very much in vogue to do as the Romans did. (Today, the saying includes the Greeks as well.) Taking our cue from our ancient predecessors, The Met Store has looked to ancient artisans for these contemporary interpretations.

Left: Gold, garnet, and agate necklace. Late Hellenistic. Gold, garnet, agate; 15 in. diameter; 1st century B.C. Purchase, The Bothmer Purchase Fund and Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1994 (1994.230.4–.6). Right: Late Hellenistic Carnelian Necklace, $125

 

From the century before the rise of the Roman Empire, a set of Hellenistic gold, garnet, and agate jewelry is a very rare example of a perfect set of matching jewelry from this period of Greek history. The pieces’ rarity explains their appeal for contemporary people seeking to emulate the Classical tradition.

Left: Gold and pearl earring. Roman, early Imperial. Gold, pearl; H.: 1 5/16 in.; 1st century A.D. Rogers Fund, 1920 (20.235). Right: Roman Pearl Pendant Earrings, $68

 

A pair of gold-and-pearl crotalia earrings is of a type that grew in popularity during the first century of the Roman Empire. Worn primarily by women, they were not purely for aesthetic decoration. The dangling pearls rattled together when their wearer moved, creating a pleasant noise that followed the wearer and drew attention to her as she went about her day. This pair and many like it have been discovered south of the Roman capital in the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, two well-preserved examples of ancient Roman cities and culture thanks to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

Left: Earrings. Roman. Gold, chalcedony, glass; 5/16 × 13/16 in. diameter; 2nd–3rd century A.D. The Cesnola Collection, Purchased by subscription, 1874–76 (4.51.3962). Right: Roman Carnelian Drop Earrings, $75

 

In Cyprus, a similar effect was achieved in the following centuries of Roman Imperial rule by the owner of a pair of earrings made of gold, chalcedony, and glass. Created from popular materials that typify Roman taste, these earrings demonstrate the proliferation of Roman style beyond the Italian peninsula.

Left: Gold crescent-shaped earring. Cypriot, Classical-Roman. Gold; 11/16 in. diameter; 5th century B.C.–1st century A.D. The Cesnola Collection, Purchased by subscription, 1874–76 (74.51.3900). Right: Cypriot Crescent-Shaped Earrings, $48

 

Similarly, a pair of gold crescent earrings also from Cyprus shows centuries of aesthetic influence in action.

Left: Marble column from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis. Greek, Hellenistic. Marble, H. 142 1/8 in., ca. 300 B.C. Gift of The American Society for the Excavation of Sardis, 1926 (26.59.1). Right: Sardis Column Charm Earrings, $35

 

On the Aegean side of style, nothing better exemplifies Greek architectural taste than a columned temple. Representing ornamentation of the ancient Greeks’ surroundings rather than their bodies, the huge marble column from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis is one of the most visible and iconic pieces in The Met’s collection of Greek art. With its capital in the Ionic order of a scroll and its large, fluted body, this column and others like it became common throughout the Mediterranean, even into Roman times. In the modern world, the Greek column remains a symbol associated with sophistication—and a connection to these revered ancient civilizations.

 

Right: Owen Jones (British, 1809–1874). Page from The Grammar of Ornament. London, 1868 (NK1510 .J7 1868 Q).  Right: Greek Palmette Bracelet, $75

 

Throughout the centuries following the height of ancient Greece and Rome, each contemporary civilization has looked back to them for cultural guidance. In 1868, Owen Jones published a book entitled The Grammar of Ornament, in which he referenced some styles of the ancient world and which contains an illustration of Greek palmette motifs for nineteenth-century audiences to admire and study.

Even today, we still see the allure and even sophistication of taking style cues from the ancient world. Trendsetters in their own day, the Greeks and Romans have remained a source of inspiration for modern audiences.

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