Origins: Pottery was an important part of daily living in ancient Rome. As Roman used earthenware for most of the purposes, a huge quantity of utensils, cooking pots, amphorae and fine wares were produced. Many have since been discovered during excavation. These items provide a rare insight into Roman life and society. Roman pottery was initially influenced by Etruscan and Greek style but later on established its own separate identity.
Unlike Greek pottery in which decorations were painted on the pottery, Romans preferred to engrave them. Roman pottery can be divided in two main categories, namely fine ware and coarse ware. Gaul, North Africa and several parts of present day Italy were known for their pottery all over the empire.
Fine Wares: Fine wares were the more formal and exquisite pottery that was used by Romans for formal occasions and was used to serve food on the table. The fine ware was delicate and had thin walls. They had a glossy surface and some were lead glazed to make them look shiny. Several beakers, flasks, flagons and vases have been found from excavations sites. The rise of glass and silver ware affected pottery adversely during the days of Roman Empire.
However, fine ware pottery remained popular in many parts of the empire. The most common fine ware pottery was the red glazed pottery called ‘terra sigilata’. Its production was started by artisans in Rome but soon the style was picked by people in central, eastern and southern Gaul and North Africa.
Coarse Ware: Coarse ware, as the name suggests was coarsely made and was used for different purposes like cooking, carrying liquids and eating (for poor people). The quality was low and the product had thick walls to withstand rough use in kitchens and other places. These items of pottery were cheap and often broke owing to rough use in kitchens. They did not carry any decoration and were simple in design. The shape and size depended on the intended purpose of use. Poor Romans and slaves could not afford fine ware and used coarse ware pottery utensils for eating and cooking both.
Amphorae: Roman Amphorae were pottery jars which were used to carry different liquids and food items like olive oil, fish sauce and wine. These were usually large and coarsely made pottery items. The shape and size depended on type of liquid to be stored in them. It was also important that amphorae were easy to handle and stored and were not too heavy or delicate. A huge number of ancient Roman Amphorae were recovered in Rome from Monte Testaccio, an artificial mound which is composed entirely of pieces of broken amphorae. The most common type of vessel found is a 70 liter container used for storing olive oil.
Other Uses: Other pottery objects manufactured by Romans, included lamps. Terracotta figures, tiles, bricks and ceramics. Roman heating system hypocaust also had pottery parts.
Decorations: Romans did not have a taste for painting the pottery for decoration like Greeks. They were more enamored by relief work for the purpose of decoration. Romans also used the technique of glazing the pottery with lead and other materials to make them appear shiny and beautiful.