Monday, 15 April 2013

How did Romans light their lamps?




Okay, so it's night time in a Roman city. Just like your several thousand neighbours you want to read a book or at least see what you're eating. The corner wine-bar has the same problem, they've got to keep the patrons there after dark, so what to do? Light up the lamps of course. Almost every Roman home and business was lit with oil lamps. A modest two or three room apartment probably had a set of lamps in each room, but as oil didn't grow on trees - all right it did back then, but that's irony for you - the large room lamps with multiple nozzles were probably only lit when the room was in use, with smaller hand-lamps moving from room to room with the budget conscious home owner. The thing is...how to light all of these lamps? The match wasn't invented until 577AD - and that was by the Chinese - so it took another thousand-ish years for the idea to reach Europe. So what to do? Well, as it turns out, the idea for the modern Zippo lighter isn't a new one. Striking hardened steel against flint to create sparks has been around for goodly three thousand years - and that's just what the average Roman did. Most households would have had a fire-striker (or fire steel) handy. And using it wasn't much different to using a match - the steel was struck against a piece of flint, chert, jasper or obsidian - producing enough sparks to light an oil soaked lamp wick or some straw tinder in the fireplace, oven or furnace. The fire strikers could look like horseshoes or horseshoes folded in on themselves to produce rubbing surfaces - the latter were small enough to be carried in your purse or on the belt and used just like a modern lighter. Pretty simple really - but I guess not as easy as just turning the light on. For more on Roman households, read 'A Body of Doubt', available from Amazon - just follow the links