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Ancient Roman Lamps & Lighting

Roman lamps, or lucerna, were relatively simple items, simply a vessel that held olive oil or melted grease with threads twisted loosely together for a wick or wicks, drawn out through one or more holes in the cover or top as in the picture below. Usually there was a special hole through which the lamp was filled. The light given by such Roman lamps and lanterns would likely have been fairly unclear and dim. There was no glass to keep the flame steady and there was never a chimney or central draft.

As works of interior and decorative art such lamps were often quite beautiful though. Even lamps made of cheap materials were often of graceful form and proportions, while lighting of expensive material was given the full treatment by artists and such lamps as these would likely have had far greater value compared to the rare stones or precious metals out of which they were made.

Roman Lamps
Roman Lamps.

Some of these lamps, as in the picture above, were meant to be carried in the hand like lanterns, as shown by the handles, while others were to be suspended from the ceiling by hanging chains. Other lamps were kept on tables expressly made for them, as the monopodia commonly used in Roman bedrooms, or the tripod shown in the picture below.

Lamp Base
Lamp Base.

For the lighting of public rooms there were also, tall stands, like those of modern floor lamps, as seen in the picture. On some of these, several lamps were placed or hung at once and some of the stands were adjustable in height. The name of these lamp stands (candelabra) shows that they were originally intended to hold wax or tallow candles (candelae) and the fact that these candles were supplanted in the houses of the rich by the smoking and fould smelling lamp is good proof that the Romans were not skilled in the art of candle making.


Finally, torches (faces) of dry, inflammable wood, often soaked in oil or smeared with pitch, were kept near to the outer door for use on the unlit night streets.

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