Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Ancient Fibulae

Fibulae replaced straight pins that were used to fasten clothing in the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age. The first fibulae design, known as the violin bow fibulae appeared in the late Bronze Age. This simple design, with a unilateral spring, looks remarkably like a modern safety pin. The violin bow fibula has a low flat arch with the body running parallel to the pin so it resembles a violin bow. The bow could be round, square, or flat and ribbon-like in cross-section. Some had simple punched or incised decoration on the bow. Violin bow fibula were  introduced in the 14th century BCE by the Myceneans on the Greek Peloponnesus. The fibula soon spread to Crete, Cyprus and Mycenean trading posts in Sicily. 

While the head of the earlier straight pin was often decorated, the bow or plate of the fibula provided a much increased scope for decoration. During the Iron Age, the use of fibulae became more widespread and were usually highly decorated among the elite, with incised or moulded geometric designs.

The classic fibula of the late-Roman era, and in fact the best known of all fibula types, is the crossbow type. The crossbow fibula consists of a highly arched semi-circular bow, usually of squarish cross-section, and a long flat foot. The fibula has a wide transverse bar (or arms) at the head containing the pin-hinge.

Among some cultures, different fibula designs had specific symbolic meanings. They could refer to a status or profession such as single woman, married woman, man, warrior, or chief. Some Roman-era fibulae symbolized specific ranks or positions in the Roman legions or auxiliary. In some cultures, fibulae were worn in pairs and could be linked by a length of chain. 

A penile fibula, developed by the Romans from the Greek use of the kynodesmÄ“, was a ring, attached with a pin through the foreskin to fasten it above the glans penis. Scholars think it was used to promote modesty when appearing nude in public such as participation in athletic competitions, or in the belief that it helped preserve an orator's voice.  It was also used by masters on their slaves to prevent intercourse. Penile fibulae were frequent subjects of ridicule among satirists in Rome. Somehow, I doubt if Marc Antony bothered with modesty when participating in the Lupercalia, though!

Gilded bronze crossbow fibula, 300-365 CE, at the Gallo-Roman Museum, Tongeren courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A east Germanic bow brooch crafted of silver with gold-sheet overlay and inlaid garnets, 400-450 CE at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The De Braganza Fibula, 250-200 BCE, Greek, from the Iberian Peninsula, now in the British Museum.

Germanic fibula with Gold plating on silver with inlaid garnet, glass, enamel, 430 CE, at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor James Steakley

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