Lycurgus Cup: Evidence of “nanotechnology” used 1,600 years ago!

According to scientists, nanotechnology was first discovered in ancient Rome nearly 1,700 years ago and it is not one of many samples of modern technology attributed to our sophisticated society. A chalice made sometime between 290 and 325 is the ultimate proof that ancient cultures used advanced technology thousands of years ago.

Lycurgus Cup: Evidence of "nanotechnology" used 1,600 years ago! 1
Medical concept in the field of nanotechnology. A nanobot studies or kills a virus. 3D illustration. © Image Credit: Anolkil | Licensed from (Editorial/commercial Use Stock Photo, ID:151485350)

Nanotechnology is probably one of the most important milestones in recent decades. The technological explosion has allowed modern man to work with systems between a hundred and a billion times smaller than a meter; where the materials obtain particular properties. However, the beginning of nanotechnology dates back at least 1,700 years.

But where is the evidence? Well, a relic dating back to the time of the Roman Empire known as the “Lycurgus Cup”, seems to show that ancient Roman craftsmen knew about nanotechnology 1,600 years ago. The Lycurgus Cup is an outstanding representation of ancient technology.

Roman Lycurgus Cup is a 1,600-year-old jade green Roman chalice. When you put a source of the light inside it it magically changes colour. It appears jade green when lit from the front but blood-red when lit from behind or inside.
Roman Lycurgus Cup is a 1,600-year-old jade green Roman chalice. When you put a source of the light inside it it magically changes colour. It appears jade green when lit from the front but blood-red when lit from behind or inside.

The Lycurgus Cup is considered among the most technically sophisticated glass objects produced before the modern era. Experts firmly believe that the chalice that was made between 290 and 325 is the definitive proof that shows how ingenious the ancient craftsmen were.

Lycurgus cup
The cup is an example of the diatreta or cage-cup type where the glass was cut away to create figures in high relief attached to the inner surface with small hidden bridges behind the figures. The cup is so named as it depicts the myth of Lycurgus entwined in a vine © Flickr / Carole Raddato

The images of small glass sculptures portrayed in the chalice depict scenes from the death of King Lycurgus of Thrace. Although the glass appears to the naked eye to be a dull green colour when a light is placed behind it, they show a translucent red colour; effect achieved by the embedding of small particles of gold and silver in the glass, as reported by the Smithsonian Institution.

Lycurgus cup
When viewed in reflected light, as in this flash photograph, the cup’s dichroic glass is green in colour, whereas when viewed in transmitted light, the glass appears red © Johnbod

The tests revealed interesting results

When British researchers examined the fragments through a microscope, they found that the diameter to which the metal particles were reduced was equal to 50 nanometers – that is equivalent to one-thousandth of a grain of salt.

This is currently difficult to achieve, which would have meant a huge development absolutely unknown at that time. Furthermore, experts indicate that the “exact mixture” of precious metals in the composition of the object shows that the ancient Romans knew exactly what they were doing. Since 1958 the Lycurgus Cup remains in the British Museum.

Ancient nanotechnology that really works

But how that works? Well, when the light hits the glass, the electrons that belong to the metallic spots tend to vibrate in ways that alter the colour depending on the position of the observer. However, simply adding gold and silver to glass does not automatically produce that unique optical property. To achieve this, a process so controlled and careful is required that many experts rule out the possibility that the Romans could have produced the amazing piece by accident, as some suggest.

What’s more, the very exact mixture of metals suggests that the Romans came to understand how to use nanoparticles. They found that adding precious metals to molten glass could tint it red and produce unusual colour-changing effects.

But, according to the researchers in the study “The Cup of Lycurgus – Roman Nanotechnology”, it was too complicated a technique to last. However, centuries later the wonderful cup was the inspiration for contemporary nanoplasmonic research.

Gang Logan Liu, an engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said: “The Romans knew how to make and use nanoparticles to achieve beautiful art….. We want to see if this could have scientific applications.”

Lycurgus' madness
Upper register of this ritual water-vessel decorated with the scene of Lycurgus’ madness. The Thracian king, after having murdered his wife, threatens Dionysus with his sword. Aeschylus wrote a (lost) tetralogy on the legend of Lycurgus, and the Thracian king appears occasionally on ancient vase-paintings, slaughtering his wife or son.

The original fourth-century AD Lycurgus Cup, probably taken out only for special occasions, depicts King Lycurgus ensnared in a tangle of grapevines, presumably for evil acts committed against Dionysus – the Greek god of wine. If inventors manage to develop a new detection tool from this ancient technology, it’ll be Lycurgus’ turn to do the ensnaring.