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A Lesson from Ancient Rome. The trend to multiply the use of rings began in ancient Rome. In fact, the story of the betrothal ring in ancient Rome can be instructive for us today. Originally, as mentioned earlier, the betrothal ring was a plain iron ring, but it soon evolved into elaborate golden rings. The Encyclopedia Britannica states: "The giving of a ring to mark a betrothal was an old Roman custom. The ring was probably a mere pledge, pignus, that the contract would be fulfilled. In Pliny’s time [about 70 A. D.] conservative custom still required a plain ring of iron, but the gold ring was introduced in the course of the second century. This use of the ring, which was thus of purely secular origin, received ecclesiastical sanction, and formulae of benediction of the ring exist from the eleventh century."15

Tertullian (about 160-225), a pagan lawyer who became an influential church leader, lamented the extravagance in dress and ornaments that was evident among the Romans in his time. He commended the ancient Romans for encouraging modesty by condemning the wearing of gold, except the marital ring: "I see now no difference between the dress of matrons and prostitutes. In regard to women, indeed, those laws of your fathers, which used to be such an encouragement to modesty and sobriety, have fallen into desuetude, when a woman had yet known no gold upon her save on the finger, which, with the bridal ring, her husband had sacredly pledged to himself."16

The "laws of your fathers," which restricted the use of gold to the bridal ring, presumably were laws passed in the early part of the second century; as we just noted, at the time of Pliny (about A. D. 70) only the wearing of a plain betrothal iron ring was permitted. In other words, what began in the first century as a plain iron betrothal ring to express conjugal commitment, developed by the end of the second century into elaborate gold rings to display wealth, pride, and vanity. We shall see that the same thing happened in the Christian church.

James McCarthy noted the reason for this development: "The trouble with the Romans, as with others enamored of anything, was that they began to overdo the wearing of rings. They covered their fingers with them. Some even wore different rings for summer and winter. They were immoderate not only in the number of rings worn but also in their size. Even on the little finger extremely heavy rings of gold were worn during the twilight days of the Empire. Thumb rings of even more gigantic size were sported. It would seem as though the flash of rings paralleled the inevitable fall of the Roman Empire."17

McCarthy continues noting that in spite of the moralists’ denunciations of their own countrymen for wearing too many rings, " rings continued to be worn and Rome continued to decline. Rome fell and the rings continued on. Whether there is a moral here I cannot say."18 Indeed there is a moral, because what happened in the history of imperial Rome, has been largely repeated in the history of Christianity.

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