The popularity of the pearl in ancient Rome can arguably be traced to a single man – Pompey. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (29 September 106 BC – 28 September 48 BC), known in English as Pompey, came from a wealthy Italian family and went on to become a well-known political and military leader in the Roman Republic. Already a well-accomplished military figure, in 66 B.C. Pompey was chosen as commander in the Third Mithridatic War against Mithridates VI of Pontus in the East. Pompey’s military campaign was wildly successful, and he returned to Rome a welcome and beloved hero.
During their conquest in the East, Pompey and his army gathered a wealth of pearls from their successful military campaigns. These pearls went on to play a major role in the triumphal processions of the conquering Romans. In Pompey’s procession in 61 B.C., there were a reported thirty-three crowns of pearls, numerous pearl ornaments, and even a picture of Pompey’s own face which he had artists fashion entirely out of pearls.
After the influx of pearls into the Roman army and the Roman aristocracy, pearls became a staple among Roman high society. The temple of Venus had its interior decorated with pearls, and soon the clothing of the rich became so adorned with pearls that a historian stated, “it is not sufficient for them to wear pearls, but they must trample and walk over them” and “the women wore pearls even in the still hours of the night, so that in their sleep they might be conscious of possessing the beautiful gems.”
While our incorporation of pearls into clothing and jewelry may have become more practical with time, society’s obsession with them has never waned. Many thanks to Pompey for bringing this beautiful gemstone into the hearts and hands of his people, whose interest in pearls has survived in human society through centuries.