Ancient Everyday – Oil Lamps in Ancient Rome

Salvete, dear readers!

My power went out the other night, and I found myself in darkness for a time but for the cold blue light of my phone.

Oddly enough, this made me think of another Ancient Everyday to share with you!

Lighting is something that we certainly take for granted today. We flick a switch and voila, we have light! If we want add to the atmosphere of a dinner party, we light candles for ambiance.

When banqueting, one needed a little light!

But in the ancient world, it was quite different. No switches, no electricity running through the walls of every domus.

The Romans, and the Greeks before them, used oil lamps.

Today, when we shop for lighting, there are myriad choices for size, quality and the amount of ornamentation upon a lamp.

The same can be said of oil lamps in the ancient world!

Oil lamps came in a variety of shapes and sizes (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Oil lamps made out of bronze or pottery were in use in the Mediterranean world from about the seventh century B.C., and continued as such for centuries. Most consisted of a chamber for the oil, a filling hole in the middle, and another hole in the nozzle for a linen wick. Some lamps even had a handle for ease of carrying.

Most oil lamps were made in two-piece molds that were made of gypsum (calcium sulphate) and plaster. When the lamp was removed from the mold, it was dipped in a slip of clay (kind of a thick liquid clay mixture) to further coat the lamp and make it more impermeable to oil.

You can see how the molding process works HERE.

A Roman volute lamp with a gladiator or warrior depicted on the body and the producer’s name on the bottom

The oil that was usually used in oil lamps was, of course, olive oil. After all, it was widely available in the Mediterranean world.

Lamps of the second and third centuries B.C. that were used by Romans in Italy were more often than not imported from Athens where there was a significant ceramic industry. However, from the first century B.C. oil lamps used by Romans were mostly produced in Italy itself, and then exported around the Empire. Later on, these were then often copied by local producers in places such as Britannia.

From the Augustan period onward in Italy, high-quality volute oil lamps were produced. These were wide and flat with room for more ornamentation or scenery depicted in the middle, and curved ornaments to either side of the nozzle(s).

In the northern provinces especially, the Roman firmalampe became quite common. It was more plain than the decorative volute lamps, and purely functional. The firmalampe was made across the Empire.

My own Romano-British firmalampe – Imagine writing on your wax tablet by the light of one of these!

At one point in time in the northern part of the Empire, it’s believed that there was a disruption to the oil supply from the Mediterranean, and so oil lamp production in the northern provinces slowed to a standstill. Instead, candles made of tallow (beef and sheep fat), which the Romans had used to an extent since around 500 B.C., may have begun to replace oil lamps.

However, in the olive oil-producing regions of the Empire, oil lamps in countless different styles were still widely used to light the domus of many a Roman.

Thank you for reading.

A more ornate, double-nozzle, bronze oil lamp with stand and acanthus handle. Only the very best for these owners!

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The Art of Greek Ceramics – A Look at ‘Ceramotechnica Xipolias’

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I have a weakness for souvenirs.

Whenever I travel, I like to purchase something that reminds me of my evanescent days abroad. I don’t mean tacky, mass-produced rubbish that wasn’t even made in the country I visited.

I like to purchase something that is made locally, by local artists, with care and attention to detail.

One of the places I visited on my recent trip to Greece was ancient Epidaurus, home to the magnificent theatre, and the Sanctuary of Asclepios, one of the great centres of healing in the ancient world. I’ve been to this site a few times before, and never get tired of it. More on ancient Epidaurus in a later post.

It was a scorcher of a day on the archaeological site, the cicadas whirring, the smell of pine and wild thyme in the air. After a few hours, we left the site with one more stop in mind: the ceramic workshop and store, Ceramotechnica Xipolias.

Ceramotechnica Xipolias, Ancient Epidaurus

Ceramotechnica Xipolias, Ancient Epidaurus

Now, in Greece, there are many stores that sell pottery. It’s one of the tourist staples. However, there are few places where you can see the actual workshop, and speak with the artists.

I visited the Ceramotechnica Xipolias on my first visit to Epidaurus years ago, and have returned other times. Their museum replicas are some of the best around, they are generous with their time, and they don’t pressure you to buy while browsing.

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Hand-painted Geometrical Period replicas

I always look forward to stopping there and picking up a new piece…or a few. This place, to me, is like a candy shop to a child. I missed it on my last visit to Greece, so it was time to go back!

Ceramotechnica Xipolias has been run by the Xipolias family since the mid-seventies, and it is a testament to the quality of their work, and the friendliness of the people that it is still going strong.

When we pulled up in our car, it was during the afternoon lull, or siesta. The place was quiet, dark even, and I worried that we had missed the opening hours.

Ceramics for everyday use!

Ceramics for everyday use!

Luckily, the door opened and the lights flickered on to reveal rows of welcoming shelves chock-full of history. Some music came on, and out came Dimitra Xipolia, the proprietor, and one of the nicest people you’ve ever met. She greeted us warmly and invited us to look around.

So we did. I felt giddy as I walked among the rows of museum replicas of the Geometric, Minoan, and Mycenaean periods. The work was fantastic, so detailed, so accurate, and very affordable. I started making my mental list right away!

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Hand-painted Minoan and Mycenaean Period replicas

After a few minutes of browsing, Dimitra invited us to see how a Pythagoras cup works. I had never heard of a Pythagoras cup before, so I was thrilled to see how it worked. Dimitra told us that apparently, Pythagoras wanted his students to have equal measures of wine in class, so he invented this cup with a sort of rise in the middle and a line around the edges.

Students were to fill their cups only to the line, and so, get equal measures. But, if a student got greedy and filled it passed the line, all of the contents would leak out a hole in the bottom of the cup and onto the floor! I’m not sure of the exact science behind it, but it was fun to witness.

A variety of Pythagoras cups!

A variety of Pythagoras cups!

After that, we spoke with Dimitra about Ceramotechnica Xipolias, and she explained that all their work is made and painted in-house, by family members, and that all the paints, clay etc. are non-toxic.

After always being so careful about avoiding toxic products, I found it shocking that these lovely mugs, cups, dishes, pitchers, and so much more, were perfectly safe for everyday use, even safe for children! In addition to being non-toxic, Dimitra explained that their work is also dishwasher and microwave safe.

Ceramics ready for painting!

Ceramics ready for painting!

Once I heard that, my mental list got bigger, not just because of the beauty and quality of the work, but also because back home, it’s very difficult to find such non-toxic quality at an affordable price.

I picked out a few pieces, including what I’m calling my ‘writer’s mug’ for coffee. I love the scenes of the ancient world that are painted on their products, as they provide me with a lot of inspiration as I work. But there are also many unique pieces on display, not just historical replicas.

One of my purchases – I love my ‘Writer’s Mug’!

After I chose a few pieces, Dimitra invited me to walk around. In the pictures that are part of this post, you can see the area where the painting is done, the massive kilns where the pottery is baked, and the potter’s wheel where the clay is shaped into numerous designs reminiscent of the ancient world.

Where the ceramics are painted.

Where the ceramics are painted.

Our time at Ceramotechnica Xipolias was not just about picking up a few souvenirs. It was about learning and appreciating art and ancient ceramic making techniques. Our visit was about tradition, and with such a warm welcome, it also felt like a visit with friends.

I’m glad to say that all of our pieces made it back home without a crack, thanks to Dimitra’s expert wrapping.

The kilns - ovens where the ceramics are baked

The kilns – ovens where the ceramics are baked

When we have people over now, these works of art are also centrepieces of conversation. Our friends ask about the fantastic olive dish we have on the table, or the mythological scenes on our new cups. And that’s when I talk about the people who made them.

A potter's wheel

A potter’s wheel

In this age of mass produced-everything, it’s refreshing to hold a product that is handmade with precision, care, and artistry. It’s also of utmost importance these days to support local artists and industry, in Greece and around the world.

I asked Dimitra if they ship around the world, and they do, with a guarantee that if something breaks in transit, they’ll replace it. With the holiday season around the corner, perhaps this is something to consider when shopping for your favourite history-lover or philhellene.

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You can check out Ceramotechnica Xipolias’ work on Etsy, Facebook, and on their website at www.xipolias.gr. On the website there are just a few examples of the fine work they do. As you can see in my photos, they have a lot more on offer. If you place an enquiry via the ‘Contact Us’ tab to let them know what you are looking for, I’m sure they’ll be more than willing to accommodate.

Giassou for now!

Thank you for reading.

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