Roman pottery had its roots in both local and Greek traditions, and many characteristics of late Greek pottery can be seen in early Roman pottery. The Etruscans, the Romans’ neighbors to the north, had a well-established tradition in ceramics*, one of the many artistic areas in which they strongly influenced Rome. The Greek pottery that the Etruscans imported had a further influence on local styles. Etruscan pottery was often decorated with designs borrowed from Greek artworks, as well as scenes from Greek mythology. Through their trade with other civilizations in Italy, the Romans acquired Greek and Etruscan pottery that inspired much of the pottery they produced.
The best known type of Roman pottery was Samian ware, a bright red pottery originally produced on the Greek island of Samos. Also known as terra sigillata, Samian ware had a smooth, glossy surface and featured molded ornaments and reliefs* that often covered the entire surface of the vessel. Some Samian bowls were decorated with lead or bronze rivets— metal pins or bolts with a head on both ends. (A rivet is formed by passing it through an object, such as a piece of pottery, and hammering the end to form a head on the opposite side.) The finest examples of Samian ware were produced in Italy and Spain, although some may have been made in Britain as well. The Romans also produced a pottery that was black, a result of its contact with the smoke of the kiln* in which it was fired.
While Samian ware was the finest Roman pottery, it was not typical of the ceramic ware used by the average Roman. Most Roman pottery was not as finely made or as elaborately decorated as Samian ware or the Greek pottery that had inspired it. Roman pots were typically plain, unglazed earthenware vessels used for everyday purposes, such as cooking or storing foods. Compared to the Greeks, Roman potters produced few specialized types of pots. Amphorae were used for carrying wine and other liquids, dolia were used on farms for storage and fermentation, and mortaria were large bowls for mixing and grinding.
Roman pottery included stamped impressions that revealed much about the pieces and the potters. Marks often indicated the name of the potter or the owner of the workshop in which the pottery was produced. Roman military units included potters who often stamped the name of their unit or legion* onto the bricks and roof tiles they produced. Such marks revealed that some manufacturers moved their operations to newly conquered provinces* or set up new workshops there to avoid the expense of transporting their wares to distant markets.
As the Romans established political and social control over Italy, they conquered communities that had already been producing high-quality pottery and ceramics, such as the Etruscans, the Celts in northern Italy, and the Greek colonies in southern Italy. Pottery styles from these areas were adopted by the Romans and carried with them to places as far away as Germany and Britain. The reverse is also true, and the pottery from these distant lands often found its way into the selection of wares sold by Roman potters. As the Roman empire expanded, Roman pottery spread throughout the Mediterranean region. As in so many other areas of life, Roman styles came to dominate the pottery of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, and these styles remained the major influence on the art of ceramics as late as the A.D. 600s. (See also Art, Roman; Crafts and Craftsmanship; Etruscans; Pottery, Greek.)
* ceramics pottery, earthenware, or porcelain objects; the manufacture of such objects
* relief method of sculpture in which the design is raised from the surface from which it is shaped
* kiln oven for baking bricks, pottery, or other materials
* legion main unit of the Roman army, consisting of about 6,000 soldiers
* province overseas area controlled by Rome