From Near East to Roman Empire
Glass-making technology was already 2000 years old in the Near-East when the Roman Empire was born. The Romans never acquired the skills and knowledge inherent in vitric technology. Manual labor is regarded by a self-styled "master race" as an odious occupation and is relegated to their subjugated peoples.
The earliest reference to glass (vetro) in the corpus of Latin literature occurred in 54 BCE, in a speech by Cicero in defense of a Rabirus Postumus, who had been imprisoned for crimes committed during his stint as royal treasurer of Alexandria. "It is true that the goods invoiced were only cheap, showy articles of paper, linen, and glass," Cicero slyly inserted in Postumus's defense. Cicero thereby informed us of the existence of glassware in exports from the Near East to Rome.
Cheap glassware, in fact, began to appear as an integral part of Roman trade after the invention of glassblowing in the Galilee sometime before or during the early part of the first century BCE. Glass was also employed as a substitute for precious stones.
The Roman emperor Diocletian edict makes it clear that, a century and a half later, the term "Judaic glass" was so ingrained into the vernacular of the times that it had become a generic term. Vitri Ijudaici, refers to all glassware produced in the former Judea as well as elsewhere in the Empire with one exception. The sole other type of glass in the Diocletian edict was Vitri Alessandrini, glassware made in Alexandria. At that time the Jews constituted about 40% of the Alexandrian population. They were at the forefront of the skilled crafts of that bustling city. The fact that glassmaking was preeminently an art practiced by the Jews in that city was eloquently attested to by Emperor Hadrian Augustus. In an epistle from Hadrian to his consul, Servianus, Hadrian wrote:
"[The Alexandrian Jews] are prosperous, rich and fruitful, and in it no one is idle. Some are blowers of glass, others makers of paper, all are at least weavers of linen or seem to belong to one craft or another; the lame have their occupations, the wounded have theirs, the blind have theirs, and not even those whose hands are crippled are idle."
The Roman term for the glass sculptors who performed this infinitely patient and skillful work was diatretarii. The word was transcribed from the Greek, and in turn was originally derived from the Hebrew word for cutting or chiseling. The familiarity of the Hebrew sages with diatreta ("cut glass"), and with the consummate skill required for their production, is reflected in the Midrash. The delicacy of execution and the intrinsic value of such vessels are used to illustrate the most precious aspects of adhering to God's commandments: not merely to obey the commandments but to act upon them.
"It can be compared to a king who instructed his servants: "Guard these two cut-glass vessels [diatreti] for me; and take the greatest care of them." As he was entering the palace, a young calf standing nearby gored the servant, with the result that one of the vessels broke. The servant appeared before the king trembling, and when asked, "Why are you trembling?" he replied: "Because a calf gored me and made me break one of these two vessels." The king thereupon said to him: "That being so, you must be all the more careful with the second one." This is also what God said: "At Sinai you prepared two cups - 'We will do,' and 'We will obey"; by making the golden calf, you have shattered one - 'We will do'; be careful with the second one: 'We will obey.'"
It was in the Trastevere quarter of Rome that the first glassmaking furnaces must have been constructed among other sweaty, sooty and malodorous industries as metalsmithing, unguent manufacture and leather tanning, all of which industries were largely if not exclusively in Jewish hands.