37

I have read that, generally, Roman men during the Empire would wear only one ring at a time. For instance here: http://m.tribunesandtriumphs.org/roman-clothing/roman-jewelry.htm

An unmarried one would wear a seal, but was there a standard for which hand and which finger to wear it on? It is my impression that when it was about marriage or religion, they went for the fourth finger of the left hand, as they believed the "vena amoris" (a term coined in the 17th century, they were actually thinking of a nerve) was the only vessel that connected fingers to the heart. For example Tiberius, who was after all left-handed according to Suetonius, thus displays a ring in his bronze portrait as the Pontifex Maximus:

enter image description here

I couldn't find sources for how seal rings were worn. I would guess the hand depended on your left- or right-handedness (or maybe shaking hands with the right one had implications), and perhaps the finger was the index or middle one.

Or perhaps there was no standard?

  • 'vena amoris' is not a Roman concept. It's at most 500 years old tall tale. – Agent_L Aug 3 '17 at 14:34
  • @Agent_L: Sorry if this is a mistake, and thanks for pointing it out. However, could you give a reference? I've looked the thing up and found many links supporting this. Which doesn't exclude it might be a myth though, as it appears the term was coined in the 17th century. – Vincenzo Oliva Aug 3 '17 at 14:42
  • @VincenzoOliva I've settled with wikipedia article. IMHO if this myth would be as known among Romans as it is among us, it should pop up in some trustworthy sources. Roman customs are pretty much the red-headed step-child of explanations: when you can't explain some stupid custom, you blame it on Romans. So unless there is solid evidence that Romans actually did it, dismiss it. – Agent_L Aug 3 '17 at 15:11
  • @Agent_L: Since I love Ancient (and modern) Rome, I'll certainly follow your advice. Do take a look at this article though, it turns out it's not a myth: google.it/amp/s/nocenslupus.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/… – Vincenzo Oliva Aug 3 '17 at 15:17
  • @Agent_L: I mean, it's not a myth that they believed in the "vena amoris" (though they didn't call it like that). And there's nothing shameful in them believing in it, by the way. Different times, different beliefs. There still survive irrational beliefs, and this one belief of theirs was simply due to an observational error. – Vincenzo Oliva Aug 3 '17 at 15:35
39

Pliny the Elder wrote about wearing finger rings in volume 33 of his Naturalis Historia. He states:

"The worst crime against mankind was committed by him who was the first to put a ring upon his fingers: and yet we are not informed, by tradition, who it was that first did so."

So he clearly wasn't a fan of finger rings!

However, having made that point, he goes on to say:

"Whoever it was that first introduced the use of rings, he did so not without hesitation; for he placed this ornament on the left hand, the hand which is generally concealed, whereas, if he had been sure of its being an honourable distinction, it would have been made more conspicuous upon the right."

The implication being that rings were traditionally worn on the left hand (at least by men). He then reinforces the impression that rings were worn on the left hand when he says:

And if any one should raise the objection that this would have acted as an impediment to the right hand, I can only say that the usage in more recent times fortifies my opinion, and that the inconvenience of wearing rings on the left hand would have been still greater, seeing that it is with the left hand that the shield is held.

From there he goes on to discuss how rings came to be introduced to Rome.

  • Thank you for your answer! I guess there is no definitive answer for the finger part :/ – Vincenzo Oliva Aug 2 '17 at 12:15
  • @VincenzoOliva I haven't found any references that specify the finger yet. But I haven't given up looking ... :) – sempaiscuba Aug 2 '17 at 12:17
  • Glad to hear that, I'll wait for news from you or someone else then, before marking the best answer – Vincenzo Oliva Aug 2 '17 at 12:38
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    Here and I had always assumed rings were on the left hand, the hidden hand, because you never knew when you might need a sword in your right hand, and not wanting any silly adornments getting in the way. – corsiKa Aug 3 '17 at 23:40
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    @corsiKa: wildly speculating, but you hold a sword on the inside of your hand, and a shield on the back of your hand (as well as grasping the grip). So assuming a great big bulbous seal on the ring, and that you aren't just going to wear it on a string around your neck, I suppose perhaps Pliny felt it's more of an obstruction on the left. Since he hates them regardless of hand, and in that sentence is only defending his position that wearing them on the left proves they're shady, I doubt we can take any snark he makes as being the real reason for anything. – Steve Jessop Aug 4 '17 at 17:00
31

Pliny the Elder answers the question. The hand part was quoted by @sempaiscuba, here is the finger part:

It was the custom at first to wear rings on a single finger only, the one, namely, that is next to the little finger; and this we see the case in the statues of Numa and Servius Tullius. In later times, it became the practice to put rings on the finger next to the thumb, even in the case of the statues of the gods; and more recently, again, it has been the fashion to wear them upon the little finger as well. Among the peoples of Gallia and Britannia, the middle finger, it is said, is used for this purpose. At the present day, however, among us, this is the only finger that is excepted, all the others being loaded with rings, smaller rings even being separately adapted for the smaller joints of the fingers. Some there are who heap several rings upon the little finger alone; while others, again, wear but one ring upon this finger, the ring that sets a seal upon the signetring itself, this last being kept carefully shut up as an object of rarity, too precious to be worn in common use, and only to be taken from the cabinet as from a sanctuary. And thus is the wearing of a single ring upon the little finger no more than an ostentatious advertisement that the owner has property of a more precious nature under seal at home!

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    Very well spotted! – sempaiscuba Aug 2 '17 at 13:45
  • Interesting! I think there is a period missing between "Tullius" and "In". – hobbs Aug 3 '17 at 2:14
8

(Too long for a comment, so posting this as an answer.) The rules on how to wear seal rings vary quite a bit nowadays, and likely reflect the fact that they weren't universal in the past either.

FWIW traditional French conventions (in French) are as follows:

  • Men wear it on the right pinky except the family seal's (male) leader, who gets to wear it on the left ring finger alongside their wedding ring.
  • Women wear it on the left pinky.

The convention has a further twist depending on whether your marital status:

  • You wear it seal up (i.e. towards your nail) if your heart is open for taking.
  • You wear it seal down (i.e. towards your palm) if your heart is taken.

For comparison, the same page and its German counterpart offer that:

  • In Germany, you usually wear it seal up (so others can see it) on the ring finger. Right or left hand depends on the region and family. Exceptions are made for wearing it on the pinky when the ring is too small or bulky.
  • In Switzerland, you usually wear it seal up on the left ring finger; more rarely on the pinky (presumably for reasons similar to those in Germany).
  • In Belgium you wear it on the left ring finger regardless of sex or being family leader, while keeping the seal up/down symbolism.
  • In the UK you usually wear it seal up on the left pinky.

I would add as an aside that the wedding ring finger isn't universal either. Where in Western Europe it usually is the left finger insofar as I'm aware, it is the right finger in Hungary and, I believe, Russia and Greece.

Either way there certainly were conventions. I couldn't locate the specific convention(s) the Romans were using, but sempaiscuba's suggestion (left hand ring finger) seems sane in light of the above. (It's almost tempting to speculate that the sex/status rule might have been introduced by the French at some point between Charlemagne and William the conquerer, with the marital status symbolism following at a later point.)

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    How do these conventions relate back to Rome? – doppelgreener Aug 2 '17 at 14:02
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    @doppelgreener: per the first line, it was a long comment. It technically hints at an answer to OP's second question though, i.e. was there a convention? – Denis de Bernardy Aug 2 '17 at 14:04
  • The wedding ring is also in the left for Portugal, and right for phillipines, usa and russia – Rui F Ribeiro Aug 3 '17 at 9:45

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