Primary History

British History: Roman Gemstones

  • Gemstones from Caerleon

    Here is a special collection of 88 Roman gems discovered by archaeologists at the Caerleon Roman Baths site in south Wales.

    The gems are engraved with detailed pictures of gods and different symbols that were important to the Romans. Originally, these gems would have been set in rings and used as signets, charms or talismans.

    The gems include red jasper, cornelian and amethyst.

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  • Roman Trading

    It is thought that many of the gems in this collection came from countries such as Cyprus, Egypt, India and Sri Lanka. They would have been cut and engraved by craftsmen in gem cutting centres along the main trading routes.

    Trading was very important to the Romans, and the Roman Empire had countless trading routes. One of the main reasons why the Romans built so many roads was for them to be able to trade easily with other countries. They would also use huge cargo ships to move goods from one part of the Empire to another.

    The Romans bought all kinds of goods - wool, soap, honey, pottery, silk, spices, valuable gems, iron, lead, leather, salt, cotton, slaves, and even wild animals such as lions - from countries like Spain, France, Germany, Britain, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, North Africa and the Far East.

    They also sold goods such as wine, olive oil and pottery to other countries.

    Pearls from the Persian Gulf were popular in Roman times, as were emeralds and peridot from Egypt, carnelian, jasper, turquoise and onyx from Persia, amber from Gdansk, and sapphire and topaz from India or Sri Lanka.

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  • Caerleon Roman Fortress

    These gems were discovered by archaeologists at the bottom of a large drain under the cold bath suite at Caerleon.

    It is thought that most belonged to the legionary soldiers sent there between the 1st and 3rd century AD, but it is possible that they were lost by some of the citizens and women who would have used the baths.

    The Roman name for Caerleon was 'Isca'. The fortress was built by the Romans in the year 75 AD, and it was one of three permanent centres for the Roman legionary soldiers in Britain: the other two were Chester (Deva) and York (Eberacum).

    The fortress was home to the Second Augusta Legion which included over 5,000 soldiers. The soldiers left Caerleon at the end of the 3rd century.

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  • Religion

    The Romans believed in many different gods, goddesses and spirits. They believed that each god was responsible for different aspects of life, for example:

    Jupiter - King of the gods
    Juno - Jupiter's wife, the goddess of women
    Mars - the god of war
    Minerva - the goddess of wisdom
    Neptune - god of the sea
    Diana - goddess of the moon and hunting
    Mercury - messenger of the gods
    Venus - the goddess of love and beauty
    Mithras - god of the sun
    Cupid - the god of love

    The Romans believed that a dead person's spirit crossed the river Styx to an underworld called Hades (some kind of heaven), and that the entrance to Hades was guarded by a dog with three heads! They also believed that every Emperor became a god after he died.

    As well as worshiping their own gods, the Romans worshiped gods from some of the countries they conquered. They would give those gods Roman names.

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  • Superstition

    The Romans were also extremely superstitious. They believed that natural symbols, such as a flock of birds or a thunder storm, were messages from the gods. They strongly believed that stepping over a threshold with your left foot first was unlucky. Spilling wine, water and oil was also a sign of bad things to come.

    The Romans believed that stones, trees, wells, caves, lakes, mountains and even animals had their own spirits.

    They wore a bulla, a small leather purse, full of stones and lucky charms around their necks to fend off bad spirits.

    The Romans also believed that specific gems, such as the red jasper seen in this collection, had supernatural powers.

    Many gems in this collection from the Caerleon Baths include religious and superstitious pictures and symbols.

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