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Bill Thayer

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p713 Lucerna

Unsigned article on p713 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

LUCERNA (λύχνος), an oil lamp.a The Greeks and the Romans originally used candles; but in later times candles were chiefly confined to the houses of the lower classes. [Candela] A great number of ancient lamps has come down to us; the greater part of which are made of terra cotta (τροχήλατοι, Aristoph. Eccl. 1), but also a considerable number of bronze. Most of the lamps are of an oval form, and flat upon the top, on which there are frequently figures in relief (See the woodcuts, pp143, 395, 464).b In the lamps there are one or more round holes according to the number of wicks (ellychnia) burnt in it; and as these holes were called from an obvious analogy, μυκτῆρες or μύξαι, literally nozzles or nostrils, the lamp was also called Monomyxos, Dimyxos, Trimyxos, or Polymyxos, according as it contained one, two, three, or a greater number of nozzles or holes for the wicks. The following example of a dimyxos lucerna, upon which there is a winged boy with a goose, is taken from the Museo Borbonico, vol. IV pl. 14.

[image ALT: An engraving of a particularly elaborate specimen of Roman oil lamp. Shaped like a footed gravy boat, it is chased with plant motifs and has a lid in the shape of a toddler hugging a duck; the lid is fastened to the handle with a fine chain.]

The next woodcut, taken from the same work (vol. I pl. 10), represents one of the most beautiful bronze lamps which has yet been found. Upon it is the figure of a standing Silenus.

[image ALT: An engraving of a particularly elaborate specimen of Roman oil lamp. Shaped like a footed gravy boat, the body of it is chased with an acanthus-like motif; the handle is in the shape of a fish, and the spout is decorated with a human head.]

[image ALT: An engraving of a particularly elaborate specimen of Roman oil lamp. The lamp itself appears to be in the shape of a boar's head, and hangs by two chains from the left hand of a statue of a naked boy.]
	The lamps sometimes hung in chains from the ceiling of the room (Virg. Aen. I.726; Petron. 30), but generally stood upon a stand. [Candelabrum.] Sometimes a figure holds the lamp, as in the annexed woodcut (Museo Borbon. vol. VII pl. 15), which also exhibits the needle or instrument which served to trim the wick, and is attached to the figure by means of a chain (cf. Virg. Moret. 11, "Et producit acu stupas humore carentes").

We read of lucernae cubiculares, balneares, tricliniares, sepulcrales, &c.; but these names were only given to the lamps on account of the purposes to which they were applied, and not on account of a difference in shape. The lucernae cubiculares were burnt in bed-chambers all night (Mart. XIV.39, X.38).c

Perfumed oil was sometimes burnt in the lamps (Petron. 70; Mart. X.38.9).

(Passeri, Lucernae fictiles; Böttiger, Die Silenuslampen, Amalth. vol. III p168, &c.; Becker, Charikles, vol. II p215, &c., Gallus, vol. II p201, &c.)

See also the article on the lantern, Laterna.

Thayer's Notes:

a What seemed so obvious to a writer in the mid‑19c, before electricity, had now better be explained. Oil lamps are containers filled with some kind of oil, in which a cloth or rope wick is made to steep. The upper end of the wick is in the air: light it and the oil in it burns, giving off light. As the oil at the tip of the wick is used up, more is drawn up along the wick by capillary action, until the oil gives out. The wick too will eventually burn away to nothing, although it takes a surprisingly long time as long as you keep it soaked in oil.

Here, for example, is a lamp from the American frontier, in which the principle hasn't changed at all; as shown in a woodcut reproduced on p247 of the sesquicentennial edition of Solon J. Buck, Illinois in 1818, with its caption from that book:

[image ALT: A woodcut of a zzz.]

Grease Lamp

The lower receptacle was filled with grease, a wick was inserted through the small opening, and it was the up-to‑date lamp of 1818.

To "turn off" the lamp, you can simply blow out the flame or pinch the wick with your fingers; but in an elegant household, you snuffed it out, either with a special snuffer, or, as in the first woodcut above, by putting its lid back on: you'll notice the chain is there so the lid doesn't get lost. I can just hear a thousand mothers: "Lucius, how many times have I told you to use the snuffer!"

Petroleum was a rare curiosity in Antiquity, so the oils used for lamps, and just about everything else, were vegetable oils: in turn, that almost always meant olive oil, although luxury perfume oils must have been used occasionally. For olive oil and the cultivation of the olive tree, see Smith's article Olea; for the occasional use of petroleum-based fuels in places like the Near East where they were commonly available, see for example Poseidonius as quoted by Strabo (XVI.1.15). Strabo also mentions the use in rural Egypt of oil from a plant called kiki: he leaves the impression that this was a cheap substitute (XVII.2.5; also Diodorus, I.34.11).

One might think that oil lamps would blow out at the slightest breeze; this was clearly not the case, since when it occasionally happened to the emperor Tiberius he viewed it as an omen worth a supernatural explanation, at least according to Suetonius' biography of him (chapter 19). I haven't experimented, but my guess is that a breeze would just fan the flame brighter.

And finally if you have your thinking-cap on, you'll wonder about the soot and fire danger that ancient lamps must have produced; and sure enough, here and there the ancient authors do allude to it: Vitruvius recommends easy-to‑clean surfaces in rooms where you plan on using artificial light (VII.3.4) and advises you not to put paintings or delicate stucco ornaments in them (VII.4.4), a piece of advice that will occur to any tourist who's seen the old churches in Rome; soot (in that case, from candles) and stucco combine to make them filthy. Quintilian (Inst. Or. XI.3.23) says that people who study late at night breathe in a lot of soot, and I suspect this is also what underlies Celsus' medical advice not to start studying by lamp-light until you've digested your food (I.2.5). Furthermore, burning olive oil smells: so much so that an overly elaborate or careful piece of writing is very commonly described in ancient literature as "smelling of the lamp": see Quintilian again (Inst. Or. VI.3.33) for an example of the phrase.

b Also p543.

c This is one of the many passages in Smith's Dictionary where the student needs to strip off the history and the Latin and just use common sense. This paragraph merely means that Romans referred to "bedroom lamps", "dining-room lamps", "tomb lamps", and so on. Of course they did: just as today, people used lamps in different places; and some people must have kept their bedroom lamps on all night as some of us do today: we would call that a night light.

Tomb lamps? To many Americans this will sound odd, but in many parts of Europe little lights are still being kept lit at graves: the example on the right below, hanging from a chain in a family vault in the cemetery of S. Salvatore in Spoleto, is rather elaborate, but votive lamps by the dozens or hundreds, candles or electric, flicker all night in any Italian cemetery.

    For stories of Roman lamps found inside tombs, 1500 years later and still lit, see these notes on Olybius' Lamp.

[image ALT: Three cubical stone structures about a story and a half tall, in a row. They are elaborate tombs in the cemetery of the church of San Salvatore in Spoleto, Umbria (central Italy).]

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Page updated: 12 Jun 13