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Illuminating the Roman Empire

An interview with Laurent Chrzanovski

Published: 5 1月 2022
“Lamps start out as concave containers with a pinched edge to hold the wick. Based on Mesopotamian prototypes, they originate in the outlying area of Phoenicia, and then invade the Mediterranean.” This is Laurent Chrzanovski, the university professor and expert in Roman archaeology, speaking. Chrzanovski has been studying the existence of artificial light in the classical and post-classical period for over 25 years, and through his research into lamps he has contributed to numerous anthropological, social, religious and macroeconomic analyses. He has written and edited dozens of books (41 to date) and over a hundred scientific articles. He has also curated numerous international exhibitions, all accompanied by an educational catalogue for the public. He has published volumes on sites and museums in Switzerland, France, Italy, Crimea, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Egypt and the Near East. Two volumes that are particularly useful for getting to grips with his work, that combines archaeology, sociology and economics, are De Prométhée à la Fée Electricité and Firmalampen: an abundantly-produced lamp-type almost never used?, both are freely available online. In 2003, Chrzanovski founded the International Lychnological  Association that brings together over 230 researchers, specialised in the field of antique and medieval lighting, from 39 different countries.
Illuminating the Roman Empire

Some of Laurent Chrzanovski’s publications

What is lychnology? What type of artefacts are you interested in and which historical period?
Lychnos is the Greek term for “lamp”. The “lychnology” neologism was first used by English researchers, and I picked up on it because, in the world of archaeology, which ranges from the Phoenicians to the Arab invasion of the Mediterranean, there was no specialised study platform on this topic, which includes lamp production centres, routes, modes of use, copies, rejects and so on. We use the term “lamp” to refer to an item that is made specifically to include a wick and solid or liquid fuel. “Lampada” (Lamp), the term used today in Italian comes from Genoese, which in turn comes from the Greek lampàs, that covers all artificial lighting tools (torches, wax candles, etc.).

Why is it important to know which lighting methods were used by the Ancient Romans?
Archaeology, in general, no longer offers only confirmation of historical data, it also allows history to be rewritten. Unlike what used to be taught at school, the Roman Empire is no longer regarded as a military empire where everything was standardised. There was a degree of standardisation, but we need to go beyond that. The challenge of my generation is to associate classic archaeology with that of the Roman provinces. In the Roman Empire there was an incredible range of iconography. For example, on the beautifully decorated Roman disc lamps, there is a vast difference between the tastes of the new Romanised populations of the Limes Germanicus and those of North Africa, in the current Tunisia or Algeria.
Illuminating the Roman Empire

An example of ante litteram “industrial design”: a lamp designed to take up less space when stocked.

Lamps were never an export item that could fill a large boat. Instead, they were collateral goods, so it is increasingly important to study them from a micro and macroeconomic perspective and then see who copied them. We know there were large production centres in the centre of Italy, the area around what is now Naples, North Africa and Asia Minor, and these had a major impact on the whole Empire, but it is clear that shapes and motifs developed independently too. Thanks to all the means we have at our disposal, today, like microscopic or ceramologic analysis, we can even see which fuels were used. The myth was that lamps used olive oil, but oil was extremely expensive and not available in three quarters of the provinces.

So lychnology brings together chemistry and physics?
Yes. Recently, research explained a phenomenon that had hitherto been a mystery: why was salt found in the Roman lamps in Portugal. Originally, historians thought they were just residues as the lamps were found close to the sea. But, actually, it is because salt absorbed the water content of the oil, leaving only the flammable part. Today, the twenty or thirty professions that work with archaeology help us to really understand how people used to live and what were the relationships between these apparently unconnected places. As they are small items, lamps have often been neglected, so there is still a lot to do.

Can we reconstruct the Roman equivalent of what we would call a lighting system or lighting design, today?
Thanks to French digs in Argos and other Greek islands, where a number of Roman villas or domus have been brought to light, we now know a lot more. Recently excavated rooms show that up to 70 lamps were required to light a room measuring 30 m2 and we can see clearly where they were positioned. Then, of course, there were people who could afford luxury furnishings, like bronze lamps and candelabra, and those who could not.
Illuminating the Roman Empire

Lamps lit during a religious ceremony

What role did the birth and growth of the church play in all this?
The Church gave rise to a new trade: wax candles. In the Constantinopolitan church of the third century, the legend arose that bees lived in an ideal society, so burning a wax candle was the most noble offering one could make. Some people blew their fortunes on wax candles or donated all their slaves and possessions to provide lighting for churches. Europe has never been self-sufficient, so there were massive imports of wax. To gain access to Slav wax, the Germanic world set up the Hanseatic League, whereas Mediterranean countries constructed a vast trading network with Islamic countries, who considered wax to be an animal secretion that could not therefore be used by Muslims. In French, in fact, the word for “candle” is bougie which comes from Béjaia, the name of a large port in Algeria. This trade was strictly controlled by the Eastern Empire with a monopoly that did not allow just anyone to access it, as private merchants would have mixed the wax with animal fats to reduce costs. For the Church, wax was also a highly lucrative business, as every time a candle was given as an offering, it was burnt for the duration of the mass and then it was melted down and resold by the Church at a significant profit.
Illuminating the Roman Empire

Rituals linked to light in Ancient Rome and contemporary India

Political customs and symbols were also developed around light. Are these matters that interest you or do you leave them to the anthropologists?
Of course, they interest me. The purpose of archaeology is to go beyond archaeology. Some of these phenomena are truly fascinating. For example, today, we can find echoes of Rome’s past in India. As a session of parliament cannot be opened in India without first lighting the sacred lamp – in the image you can see the Prime Minister Modi opening the first session of the year. This same symbol of power existed in Ancient Rome, where Quaestors (magistrates) during the Republic, and then the Emperor and members of the Imperial Court were preceded, even during the day, by people holding lamps and torches. In an advanced society like Ancient Rome, the worst thing that could happen was for the vestal flame to go out, as that would have brought disaster upon the city.