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p95 Annulus

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp95‑97 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

A′NNULUS (δακτύλιος), a ring. Every freeman in Greece appears to have used a ring; and, at least in the earliest times, not as an ornament, but as an article for use, as the ring always served as a seal. How ancient the custom of wearing rings among the Greeks was, cannot be ascertained; though it is certain, as even Pliny (H.N. XXXIII.4) observes, that in the Homeric poems there are no traces of it. In works of fiction, however, and in those legends in which the customs of later ages are mixed up with those of the earliest times, we find the most ancient heroes described as wearing rings (Paus. I.17 §3, X.30 §2; Eurip. Iphig. Aul. 154, Hippol. 859). But it is highly probable that the custom of wearing rings was introduced into Greece from Asia, where it appears to have been almost universal (Herod. I.195; Plat. de Re Publ. II. p359). In the time of Solon seal-rings (σφραγῖδες), as well as the practice of counterfeiting them, seem to have been rather common, for Diogenes Laërtius (I.57) speaks of a law of Solon which forbade the artist to keep the form of a seal (σφραγίς) which he had sold. (Instances of counterfeited seals are given in Becker's Charikles, II. p217). Whether, however, it was customary as early as the time of Solon to wear rings with precious stones on which figures were engraved, may justly be doubted; and it is much more probable that at that time the figures were cut in the metal of the ring itself, a custom which was never abandoned altogether. Rings without precious stones were called ἄψηφοι, the name of the gem being ψῆφος or σφραγίς (Artemidor. Oneirocrit. II.5). In later times rings were worn more as ornaments than as articles for use, and persons now were no longer satisfied with one, but wore two, three, or even more rings; and instances are recorded of those who regularly loaded their hands with rings (Plat. Hipp. Min. p368; Aristoph. Eccles. 632, Nub. 332, with the Schol.; Dinarch. in Demosth. p29; Diog. Laërt. V.1). Greek women likewise used to wear rings, but not so frequently as men; the rings of women also appear to have been less costly than those of men, for some are mentioned which were made of amber, ivory, &c. (Artemid. l.c.). Rings were mostly worn on the fourth finger (παράμεσος, Plut. Sympos. Fragm. lib. IV; Gellius, X.10).a The Lacedaemonians are said to have used iron rings at all times (Plin. H. N. XXXIII.4). With the exception perhaps of Sparta, the law does not appear to have ever attempted in any Greek state to counteract the great partiality for this luxury; and nowhere in Greece does the right of wearing a gold ring appear to have been confined to a particular order or class of citizens.

The custom of wearing rings was believed to have been introduced into Rome by the Sabines, who are described in the early legends as wearing gold rings with precious stones (gemmati annuli) of great beauty (Liv. I.11; Dionys. II.38). Florus (I.5) states that it was introduced from Etruria in the reign of Tarquinius Priscus, and Pliny (l.c.) derives it from Greece. The fact that among the statues of the Roman kings in the capitol, two, Numa and Servius Tullius, were represented with rings, can scarcely be adduced as an argument for their early use, as later artists would naturally represent the kings with such insignia as characterized the highest magistrates in later times. But at whatever time rings may have become customary at Rome, thus much is certain, that at first they were always of iron, that they were destined for the same purpose as in Greece, namely, to be used as seals, and that every free Roman had a right to use such a ring. This iron ring was used down to the last period of the republic by such men as loved the simplicity of the good old times. Marius wore an iron ring in his triumph over Jugurtha, and several noble families adhered to the ancient custom, and never wore gold ones (Plin. H. N. XXXIII.6).

When senators in the early times of the republic were sent as ambassadors to a foreign state, they wore during the time of their mission gold rings, which they received from the state, and which were perhaps adorned with some symbolic representation of the republic, and might serve as a state-seal. But ambassadors used gold rings only in public; in private they wore their iron ones (Plin. H. N. XXXIII.4). In the course of time it became customary for all the senators, chief magistrates, and at last for the equites also, to wear a gold seal-ring (Liv. IX.7, 46, XXVI.36; Cic. c. Verr. IV.25; Liv. XXIII.12; Flor. II.6). This right of wearing a gold ring, which was subsequently called the jus annuli aurei, or the jus annulorum, remained for several centuries at Rome the exclusive privilege of senators, magistrates, and equites, while all other persons continued to use iron ones (Appian, de Reb. Pun. 104). Magistrates and governors of provinces seem to have had the right of conferring upon inferior officers, or such persons as had distinguished themselves, the privilege of wearing a gold ring. Verres thus presented his secretary with a gold ring in the assembly at Syracuse (Cic. c. Verr. III.76, 80, ad Fam. X.32; Suet. Caes. 39). During the empire the right of granting the annulus aureus belonged to the emperors, and some of them were not very scrupulous in conferring this privilege. Augustus gave it to Mena, a freedman, and to p96Antonius Musa, a physician (Dion Cass. XLVIII.45,º LIII.30). In A.D. 22 the emperor Tiberius ordained that a gold ring should only be worn by those ingenui whose fathers and grandfathers had had a property of 400,000 sestertia, and not by any freedman or slave (Plin. H. N. XXXIII.8). But this restriction was of little avail, and the ambition for the annulus aureus became greater than it had ever been before (Plin. Epist. VII.26, VIII.6; Suet. Galb. 10, 14; Tacit. Hist. I.13; Suet. Vitell. 12; Stat. Silv. III.3.143, &c.). The emperors Severus and Aurelian conferred the right of wearing gold rings upon all Roman soldiers (Herodian III.8; Vopisc. Aurel. 7); and Justinian at length allowed all the citizens of the empire, whether ingenui or libertini, to wear such rings.

The status of a person who had received the jus annuli appears to have differed at different times. During the republic and the early part of the empire the jus annuli seems to have made a person ingenuus (if he was a libertus), and to have raised him to the rank of eques, provided he had the requisite equestrian census (Suet. Galb. 10, 14; Tacit. Hist. I.13 II.57), and it was probably never granted to any one who did not possess this census (Juv. Sat. XI.42; Mart. VIII.5, II.57). Afterwards, especially from the time of Hadrian, the privilege was bestowed upon a great many freedmen, and such persons as did not possess the equestrian census, who therefore for this reason alone could not have become equites; nay, the jus annuli at this late period did not even raise a freedman to the station of ingenuus: he only became, as it were, a half ingenuus (quasi ingenuus), that is, he was entitled to hold a public office, and might at any future time be raised to the rank of eques (Jul. Capitol. Macrin. 4). The Lex Visellia (cod.9 21) punished those freedmen, who sued for a public office without having the jus annuli aurei. In many cases a libertus might through the jus annuli become an eques, if had the requisite census, and the princeps allowed it; but the annulus itself no longer included this honour. This difference in the character of the annulus appears to be clear also from the fact, that women received the jus annuli (Dig. 40 tit. 10 s4), and that Alexander Severus, though he allowed all his soldiers to wear the gold ring, yet did not admit any freedmen among the equites (Lamprid. Al. Sev. 19).º The condition of a libertus who had received the jus annuli was in the main as follows:— Hadrian had laid down the general maxim, that he should be regarded as an ingenuus, salvo jure patroni (Dig. 40 tit. 10 s6). The patronus had also to give his consent to his freedman accepting the jus annuli, and Commodus took the annulus away from those who had received it without this consent (Dig. 40 tit. 10 s3). Hence a libertus with the annulus might be tortured, if, e.g. his patron died an unnatural death, as in case of such a libertus dying, his patron might succeed to his property. The freedman had thus during his lifetime only an imago libertatis, he was a quasi ingenuus but had not the status of an ingenuus (Cod.6 tit. 8 s2; Dig. 40 tit. 10 s5), and he died quasi libertus.º In the reign of Justinian these distinctions were done away with. Isidorus (XIX.32) is probably alluding to the period preceding the reign of Justinian, when he says, that freemen wore gold, freedmen silver and slaves iron rings.

The practical purposes, for which rings, or rather the figures engraved upon them, were used at all times, were the same as those for which we use our seals. Besides this, however, persons, when they left their houses, used to seal up such parts as contained stores or valuable things, in order to secure them from thieves, especially slaves (Plat. de Leg. XII. p954; Aristop. Thesmoph. 414, &c.; Plaut. Cas. II.1.1; Cic. ad Fam. XVI.26, de Orat. II.61; Mart. IX.88). The ring of a Roman emperor was a kind of state-seal, and the emperor sometimes allowed the use of it to such persons as he wished to be regarded as his representatives (Dion Cass. LXVI.2). The keeping of the imperial seal-ring was entrusted to an especial officer (cura annuli, Just. Hist. XLIII.5). The signs engraved upon rings were very various, as we may judge from the specimens still extant: they were portraits of ancestors, or friends, or subjects connected with the mythology, or the worship of the gods; and in many cases a person had engraved upon his seal symbolical allusions to the real or mythical history of his family (Cic. in Catil. III.5; Val. Max. III.5.1; Cic. de Finib. V.1; Suet. Tib. 58, 63; Plin. H. N. II.7, &c.). Sulla thus wore a ring with a gem, on which Jugurtha was represented at the moment he was made prisoner (Plin. H. N. XXXVII.4; Plut. Mar. 10). Pompey used a ring on which three trophies were represented (Dion Cass. XLII.18),º and Augustus at first sealed with a sphinx afterwards with a portrait of Alexander the Great, and at last with his own portrait, which was subsequently done by several emperors (Plin. H. N. XXXVII.4; Suet. Aug. 50; Dion Cass. LI.3; Spartian. Hadr. 26).

The principal value of a ring consisted in the gem framed in it, or rather in the workmanship of the engraver. The stone most frequently used was the onyx (σαρδῶνος, σαρδώνυξ), on account of its various colours, of which the artists made the most skilful use. In the art of engraving figures upon gems, the ancients in point of beauty and execution far surpass every thing in this department that modern times can boast of. The ring itself (σφενδόνη), in which the gem was set, was likewise in many cases of beautiful workmanship. The part of the ring which contained the gem was called pala. In Greece we find that some persons fond of show used to wear hollow rings, the inside of which was filled up with a less valuable substance (Artemid. l.c.).

With the increasing love of luxury and show, the Romans, as well as the Greeks, covered their fingers with rings. Some persons also wore rings of immoderate size, and others used different rings for summer and winter (Quinctil. XI.3; Juv. I.28; Mart. XI.59, XIV.123).

Much superstition appears to have been connected with rings in ancient as well as in more modern times; but this seems to have been the case in the East and in Greece more than at Rome. Some persons made it a lucrative trade to sell rings, which were believed to possess magic powers, and to preserve those who wore them from external dangers. Such persons are Eudamus in Aristophanes (Plut. 883, with the Schol.), and Phertatus in Antiphanes (ap. Athen. III p123). These rings were for the most part worn by the lower p97classes, and then not made of costly material, as may be inferred from the price (one drachma) and the two instance above referred to. There are several celebrated rings with magic powers, mentioned by the ancient writers, as that of Gyges which he found in a grave (Plat. de Republ. II. p359, &c.; Plin. H. N. XXXIII.4)º, that of Charicleia (Heliod. Aeth. IV.8), and the iron ring of Eucrates (Lucian, Philops. 17). Cf. Becker, Charikles, vol. II p398, &c.; Kirchmann, de Annulis, Slesvig. 1657; P. Burmann, de Jure Annulorum, Ultraject. 1734.


Thayer's Note:

a In addition to the reason given by Gellius in the passage cited, Macrobius has a couple more odd ideas: Sat. VII.13.7; and the investigations of the empirically-minded Sir Thomas Browne, a medical doctor, are of interest: (Pseudodoxia Epidemica IV.IV).


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