The Origins of Mirrors
and their use in the Ancient World
By Helen Costantino Fioratti
The Hellenistic Era (4th -5th centuries) saw glass mirrors from the first center of production in Alexandria. Mirrors are illustrated in scenes of daily life found on black and red figure ceramics from Greece, circa 500-400 B.C. Glass mirrors became more common during the later Roman Empire. They were made in various regions, especially in the British Isles.
Cola di Rienzi (1313-1354), the popular revolutionary leader, was the owner of an Etruscan mirror which had belonged to a slain enemy. Such antique items particularly attracted scholarly attention later, especially in seventeenth century Rome in the circle of Poussin (1594-1665) and Cassiano dal Pozzo(1588-1657). The mirrors that interested them were often of cast bronze. Silver box mirrors have also been found, but have not been securely authenticated. They usually have inscriptions describing the scenes represented (including erotic ones), which seem to have been chosen for their appeal to their female owners.
Etruscan women were emancipated, living their lives mingling with men, and in that spirit a nude female figure (called Lasa) recurs on a number of 3rd century B.C. mirrors. The Etruscan equivalent of Minerva, however, was the most popular subject in her role as protectress of matrimony and educator of infants. Greek heroes were also depicted on Etruscan mirrors, with Hercules appearing most often. These mirrors, for use in daily life, have been found with other objects of adornment in tombs where their presence indicated the deceased lady’s status. From Circa 6th century B.C. to the end of the 2nd century B.C., Etruscan mirror production became almost an industry.
Mirrors were mentioned in Roman writings: Seneca the younger (circa 14 B.C.–A.D. 65) reprimanded the wealthy because their silver and gold mirrors (inlaid with gems) cost the equivalent of the dowry the state offered to a poor general’s daughter. The larger the better was the Roman attitude towards their polished metal mirrors. Plutarch (circa A.D. 46 – 126) in Coniugalia wrote, “Just as a mirror, although embellished with gold and precious stones; is good for nothing unless it shows the true likeness, so there is no advantage in a rich wife unless she makes her life true to her husband’s.”