The Chalice Of Lycurgus: a 1,600-year-old Cup of Roman Nanotechnology

The Lycurgus Cup, lit from behind, with a modern foot and rim.
The Lycurgus Cup, lit from behind, with a modern foot and rim.

The Chalice Of Lycurgus

In the 1950s, the British Museum came into possession of an ancient glass cup called the Lycurgus Cup, so named because it features Dionysus’s triumph over King Lycurgus of Thrace, shown as being caught up in vines, on the outside of the cup.

Lycurgus’ chalice 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.

Side by side comparision of the Glowing phenomenon of the Chalice of Lycurgus
Side-by-side comparison of the Glowing phenomenon of the Chalice of Lycurgus

In the cup image, Lycurgus is attacking Ambrosia, a devotee of the Dionysus Cult, who traps him in the vines, killing him in the style of a Laocoön. Lycurgus cup appears to be a jade-green colour when lit from the front, but blood-red when lit from behind.

This kind of cup also called the 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 Lycurgus Cup is also a very rare example of a full Roman cage-cup, or diatretum, in which the glass has been carefully trimmed off and ground down, leaving just a decorative cage on the original surface level.

Like another impressive Roman glass piece in the British Museum, the Portland cameo glass vase, the Lycurgus Cup represents, in part, an extension of skills developed in cutting gem-engraved cutlets, or the larger carved stone vessels in semiprecious stones, both luxury arts of great prestige in ancient Rome.

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 Myth

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.

c. 400 BC red-figure vase depicting an episode from the myth of Lycurgus, King of the Thracians—Staatliche Antikensammlungen Museum, Munich
c. 400 BC red-figure vase depicting an episode from the myth of Lycurgus, King of the Thracians—Staatliche Antikensammlungen Museum, Munich

History

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.

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.
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.

 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.

Roman Nanotechnology

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.

Modern day modern thermochromic cups (Heat-changing mugs)
Modern-day modern thermochromic cups (Heat-changing mugs)

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?

Diatretic Cup ‘As dispayed in the British Museum, Shows the legend of Lycurgus and Ambrosia

3 thoughts on “The Chalice Of Lycurgus: a 1,600-year-old Cup of Roman Nanotechnology

  1. “The Chalice Of Lycurgus: a 1,600-year-old Cup of Roman Nanotechnology” what a captivating title to an amazing article. Read it twice and was intrigued by its choice of words absolutely incredible I loved it. It was also informative and educative didn’t know about this before. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I am fascinated with ancient civilizations, especially the civilization of the Roman Empire. They have great achievements such as: architecture, culture, art and military… Thank you for the article has provided useful knowledge about ceramic technology of that time.

  3. The Chalice Of Lycurgus: a 1,600-year-old Cup of Roman Nanotechnology” what a captivating title to an amazing article. Thank you for the article has provided useful knowledge about ceramic technology of that time.

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