Roman Pottery - Ancient Rome - History of Pottery
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Roman Pottery

black clay pot
Campanian Pottery

May 2016 - Roman pottery began with Etruscan-style pottery, but soon developed a tradition of its own. In general, pottery in Italy tended to be made in one color, rather than painted as in Greece, and the decorations were molded into the clay rather than painted.

Throughout the Roman Republic, most Roman pottery was made near where it was going to be used. This piece, from Southern Italy, is typical - black slip, over a red fabric.

red clay cup with a stem
Arretine pottery from Arezzo

But in the time of Augustus, people began to build big pottery factories, where they made lots of good pottery to sell to other places. The Romans needed something to sell on the Silk Road, so they could buy things. Probably most of the people who worked in these factories were enslaved. There were some factories in Italy, near a town called Arezzo, and some in southern France (Gaul).

red cup with molded decoration
South Gaulish pottery

This pottery was made in a new way, which the Italians had learned from West Asian potters in the recently conquered eastern areas of the Empire. Instead of being black like earlier pottery, it was red. And the decoration was created by pushing the clay into plaster molds, instead of by painting it on. Molding the decoration was much faster and cheaper than painting it, so these factories could make great quality pottery and sell it very cheaply. This pottery was a big hit, and the factories made a lot of money. Traders brought Arretine pottery on ships all the way to East Africa and India, to trade for Indian medicines and pepper, and for African ivory and giraffes.

Learn by doing: make a clay pot
Later Roman pottery

Bibliography and further reading about Roman pottery:

Ancient Rome (Eyewitness Books), by Simon James (2004). Easy reading.

Handbook of Mediterranean Roman Pottery, by John W. Hayes (1997). Hayes has been the leading expert on Roman pottery for the last several decades.

Roman Pottery, by Kevin Greene (1992). Greene is another pottery expert, particularly interested in what pottery can tell us about the Roman Economy.

More on Roman pottery
More about Roman art
Ancient Rome
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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