Reconstructed glass "slide" in the Ancient Cinema exhibition.

“There are major scholarly issues still unresolved about Roman glassware,” writes Stuart J. Fleming in his study of Early Imperial Roman Glass, “not the least where any particular piece was made. Glass vessels, like many other goods, moved effortlessly throughout the sprawling Roman trade network.”

What we do know, he explains, is that “there was no Roman glassmaking craft before the latter part of the 1st century BC. For whatever reason, the Romans chose to ignore it as a material, domestic or luxurious, through the first three centuries of their pre-imperial territorial growth. It was not as if they knew nothing about it, since Rome’s territories of the late-3rd-century BC encompassed those parts of Southern Italy and Sicily where immigrant Greek settlers and native Italic peoples had culturally fused together centuries before. … Additionally, direct Roman trading contacts with the Hellenistic world of the eastern Mediterranean were firmly established by the mid-2nd-century BC, and Hellenistic glassmaking was certainly flourishing at that time. … [Yet,] the Roman adoption of Hellenistic glassmaking processes lagged far behind the Roman acceptance of Hellenistic philosophies.

“The primary Roman contribution to the development of glassmaking,” he adds, “ was much less technological than it was organizational – the transformation of a craft into an industry. This industry serviced a population which, on mainland Italy at least, was crammed into sprawling cities at levels rivaling those of Charles Dickens’s London. In Rome alone, we are talking of perhaps 180,000 households in the mid-1st-century AD, so that an annual turnover of more than a million glass vessels does not seem unreasonable in satisfaction of that city’s domestic needs.” (1)

Sequence of three glass "slides" from the Ancient Cinema exhibition.

The exhibition, “Ancient Cinema,” includes 24 hand-painted Roman glass “slides” discovered in a clay chest near Nin, Croatia, in 2011. The original slides were shattered, some beyond recognition; the slides in the exhibition are reconstructions based on the original glass fragments. Each slide measures 80mm square and is approximately 2mm deep. The 24 reconstructed slides comprise five sets of sequential, or related, images.

While glass vessels of every shape and size were produced in Imperial Rome, very few examples of hand-painted glass have survived from antiquity, due in large part to the impermanence of the pigments. The image, below, is a fragment of a Roman 2nd century beaker in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that has, surprisingly, maintained its vibrant colors. 

Hand-painted 2nd century AD Roman beaker. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“The smooth surface of glass vessels attracted the Roman artist, and a few painted vessels have survived,” writes Ray Winfield Smith in The Significance of Roman Glass. “Much of this work, however, was carried out in earth colors with no protection, or at the most with a layer of a varnish-like substance. As a result, virtually all painting on glass has been affected by weathering, and much of it has become obliterated. To modern eyes, Roman painting as a whole appears inferior to classical sculpture, but the mythological, hunting, arena, and other subjects painted on glass are frequently handled with vigor and imagination, and there are a few examples of outstanding artistic merit,” such as the 2nd or 3rd century AD glass sherd from the collection of the British Museum, below.(3)

Hand-painted 2nd-3rd century AD Roman glass sherd. Collection of the British Museum.
“Small vessels with simple painted decoration are well attested by finds throughout the Roman Empire,” explains R.A. Grossman in Ancient Glass: A Guide to the Yale Collection, “and it seems likely that painted glass was not uncommon. On the other hand, enlisting the services of an expert painter to apply a more elaborate design to a glass vessel may have been a costly proposition, and such an expensive item would have been better suited for display than for use.” (4)

What distinguishes the glass images in the “Ancient Cinema” exhibition, besides their rarity, is that they appear to be sequential, or multiples of the same image, with slight variations.

Sequence of glass "slides" from the Ancient Cinema exhibition.
It was not unusual for Romans to mass produce copies of works of art, however, nor was it unusual for each copy to vary slightly. “Educated and wealthy Romans desired works of art that evoked Greek culture,” states the Metropolitan Museum of Art website. “To meet this demand, Greek and Roman artists created marble and bronze copies of the famous Greek statues,” some of which are “variants of Greek prototypes adapted to the taste of the Roman patron,” or a “pastiche of more than one Greek original.” (5)

Coupled with evidence from the Roman “cinema” tokens and bronze “projector” parts found in the same archaeological cache in Nin, Croatia, Henry Jesionka speculates that the glass images are not mere multiples but “slides” intended to be projected in sequence. “Of course, it’s conceivable that these images were mass produced by the Romans for sale in the colonies,” he explains, ”but the variations in the individual images are significant; they seem intentional. I believe these images constitute the world’s first animated ‘film’ sequences.”


1.Fleming, Stuart J. “Early Imperial Roman Glass at the University of Pennsylvania Museum”. Expedition, 38(2), 1996.

2.Smith, Ray Winfield. "The Significance of Roman Glass," Metropolitan Museum Bulletin,


4.Grossmann, R.A. Ancient Glass: A Guide to the Yale Collection, 2002.

5.Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Roman copies of Greek sculptures". 2012.