Engagement ring

Marking an engagement or the big wedding day itself with a ring is an integral part of many cultures today. But you might be surprised to learn that wearing the ring on the fourth finger of the left hand is a tradition dating back at least a thousand years.

This is a practice that is believed to have originated from the belief that a vein runs from this finger all the way to the heart – vena amoris. This idea is often attributed to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, but the origin of the ring itself is unclear.

Read more: Humans and Neanderthals may have shared jewelry designs

History of wedding rings

It is often said that wedding rings (or at least related to marriage) begins with the ancient Egyptians. Archaeologists have discovered gold rings which could indicate such uses.

Yet, before the reign of the Ptolemies, there was no formal marriage ceremony in ancient Egypt. Marriage contracts were practiced, but the arrangement remained mostly between households.

From Egypt, the use of rings is believed to have spread to the Greeks and Etruscans and thus to ancient Rome. Although the ancient Greeks exchanged rings as a symbol of love, not marriage.

Read more: Why are we addicted to love?

When did engagement rings start?

A Roman ring used as an engagement or wedding ring in the third century AD (Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Public Domain)

When it comes to the origins of the use of engagement rings, all roads lead to Rome – or so it seems. Roman hand rings are commonly understood to be engagement rings, explains Karen Klaiber Hersh, a professor of Greek and Roman classics at Temple University.

This symbol of clasped hands is a shared emblem between the Greeks and Romans, lending some credence to the fact that there was mutual exchange between these peoples.

In general, rings were incredibly important to ancient cultures, says Klaiber Hersch, also author of The Roman Wedding: Ritual and Meaning in Antiquity. They indicate wealth and status, are worn by those who hold certain political roles, and are imbued with symbolic and religious meaning.

Roman engagements

Other evidence highlights the use of rings in Roman betrothals: Pliny the Elderfor example, notes that in his day “an iron ring is sent as a present to a woman when she is betrothed, and that too without a stone in it.”

“There is enough evidence to suggest that the rings were given as a sign of promise,” says Kleiber Hersch. The ring will be offered at an event known as sponsaliaan informal marriage agreement, usually between the groom and the father of the bride.

These engagement rings—known as annuli pronubi — may have changed over time, from the simple iron rings described by Pliny to those made of silver and gold. Around the third century AD, it was apparently common practice (at least among elites) to mark engagements with these more valuable materials.

Wedding rings

Medieval gold rings on display at Christiansborg Castle in 2017 (Credit: Thomas Quine/CC BY 2.0/Flickr)

Although Roman wedding rings remain elusive and were probably not used, the practice of offering them to mark engagements may have inspired their use during wedding ceremonies by the Christian church. In the Middle Ages, they became a symbol of love and permanent union.

Placing a ring on someone’s finger with the intention of getting married is steeped in history. Of course, not every part of the tradition is ancient: the modern diamond-encrusted engagement band is presented as a result at crafty marketing meetings only in the middle of the 20th century.

Read more: Alternatives to the diamond engagement ring

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