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Nanotechnology of Ancient Rome

by Sankalan Baidya
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Lycurgus Cup - ancient Roman nanotechnology

And you think nanotechnology is only a modern development, don’t you? No matter how unrealistic it may sound, nanotechnology was pretty much in use in ancient Rome. At least they knew the concept and the Lycurgus Cup hailing from 4th century BCE is the screaming truth that slaps our face.

The cup gets its name from a scene depicting King Lycurgus of Thrace engraved on it (that’s the best word we can get – engraved). This jade-green chalice that hails from 1600-year old Roman world baffled the scientific community of modern times. Acquired by British Museum in 1950s.

So, what’s so interesting about the chalice? When lit from front, it is green and when lit from back, it is red – blood red. In 1990, broken fragments of the chalice were finally put under microscope and revealed that the glass was actually impregnated with gold and silver particles. These particles were 70 nanometers in diameter. How big or small is that? It is one-thousandth (1/1000) the size of a grain of table salt.

It was no accident that the glass of the chalice was actually impregnated with metal particles. It was a result of skillfully and carefully executed artistry and the way the gold and silver particles were mixed simply stated that the Romans actually mastered the art.

When light falls on the glass chalice, it hits the electrons of the metal flecks the electrons vibrate and thereby changes the light color depending on the viewing angle. What the Romans actually did was that they mixed a colloid of gold and silver nanoparticles with the glass. Probably it was an accidental discovery but glass makers eventually mastered the art.

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