The Chalice Of Lycurgus
In the 1950s, the British Museum came into possession of an ancient glass cup called the Chalice of Lycurgus or Lycurgus Cup, so named because it features Dionysus triumph over King Lycurgus of Thrace, shown as being caught up in vines, on the outside of the cup.
Not to be confused with Lycurgus of Sparta, the Lawgiver.
In Greek mythology, Lycurgus of Thrace was a king known for his hostility towards the god Dionysus. One of the most famous episodes involving Lycurgus of Thrace is the story of his resistance against the worship of Dionysus and the punishment he faced for his actions.
According to the myths, Lycurgus opposed the worship of Dionysus and even attacked the god’s followers, the Maenads, with an ox-goad. In retaliation, Dionysus punished Lycurgus by driving him into madness. During his madness, Lycurgus mistook his own son for a patch of ivy and killed him. The death of his son marked the end of Lycurgus’s madness.
Lycurgus’ Cup is a caged cup made of glass, but what makes it an absolute wonder is that when lit from the front, it appears to be a jade-green colour, but if lit from the back, it looks blood red – a property that has perplexed scholars for decades since the Museum acquired the cup in the 1950s.
In the cup image, Lycurgus is attacking Ambrosia, a devotee of Dionysus Cult, who traps him in the vines, killing him in the style of a Laocoön.
This kind of cup, also called “diatretum”, “diatretic cup” or “reticulated cup“, is a type of luxury Roman glass vessel that has a smooth interior bowl with an ornamental outer cage, made from carved glass. The glass has been carefully trimmed off and ground down, leaving just a decorative cage on the original surface level.
While Roman imperial glass objects are not rare, objects made from Dichroic glass are extremely rare, The Lycurgus Cup is just one of around 10 Roman dichroic glass objects. Among the handful of pieces of glass that they were able to manufacture, the Lycurgus Cup is an exceptional example, and is one of the most technically sophisticated pieces of glass made up until the Modern Era.
Today, dichroic glass is prevalent in the decorative arts, particularly in things such as decorative glass, created optic filters, and jewellery, though the processes used to make it are still very different from those used in the creation of the Lycurgus Cup.
The Chalice of Lycurgus is so-called because it represents a legend involving King Lycurgus of Thrace (Balkan Peninsula).
It is said that the king was a man of violent temper, who one day attacked Dionysius, the God of wine, along with one of his female followers, Ambrosia.
Ambrosia called out to Mother Earth for help, who transformed her into a vine. She then coiled herself about the king and held him captive, the scene captured on the Lycurgus Cup.
The change in colour from green to red on the vase could symbolize the red blood of Ambrosia or the red wine of the God Dionysius. The green could symbolize the ultimate triumph of Ambrosia by being turned into a green vine by Nature that imprisoned the red-wrathful Lycurgus.
The vase below shows the moment when Mother Earth arrives and will save Ambrosia from Lycurgus and his evil behaviour.
The original cup from Lycurgus dates from the 4th century AD, likely taken only on special occasions, showing the king of Thrace, Lycurgus, trapped by vines, probably because of an evil deed committed against Dionysus, the Greek god of wine.
The Chalice of Lycurgus is believed to have been made in Alexandria or Rome about 290-325 AD and likely have been intended for use at the Bacchic cult celebrations.
Its early history is unknown. It was acquired by the Rothschild family at some point between 1845 and 1857 and later sold to the British Museum for £20,000 in 1950.
The Chalice of Lycurgus stands at 158.80 millimetres in height, has a diameter of 132 millimetres and weighs 700 grams.
The construction process remains unclear to this day. The glass contains small portions of gold and silver dispersed in a colloidal form through the material. Most experts believed it was due to the accidental contamination of fine dust particles of gold and silver during its creation.
The tiny droplets in the chalice typically vary from 5-60 nm in size. Due to the microscopic size of these nanoparticles, is believed that Roman artisans probably added larger quantities of the metals, and then diluted adding more glass. The process was a trial and error until it achieved the perfect composition.
It is also believed that this diatretic cup could change to other colours besides red and green depending on the different liquids added to it. It could also react to temperatures in the way modern thermochromic cups change colour or display an image when a hot beverage is poured into them.
The creation of these new meta-materials by the Romans posits a lot of questions to modern technology.
Was the creation of the Lycurgus Chalice, along with other similar objects found, just an accident during the creation process?
Could this cup have been used to detect substances in the water or wine, such as poisons?
Or Did the Romans know how to control nanotechnology but the process was lost, just like indoor toilets and cement, for over 1,400 years as we entered the Dark Ages?
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