The Romans Pioneered Nanotechnology In AD 400

“You cheer my heart, who build as if Rome would be eternal.” —Augustus Caesar

In A Nutshell

At first glance, the Lycurgus Cup looks like just another intricately crafted artifact on display at the British Museum. For a long time, that’s just what it was, until the discovery of how this color-changing cup works proved that the ancient Romans not only pioneered a technology that we think of as cutting-edge even today, but that it wasn’t an accident. And now, we’re using that technology as the basis for some modern miracles.

The Whole Bushel

When it’s just sitting on a table, the Lycurgus Cup is still a beautiful piece from the Roman world of 1,600 years ago. A style known as a cage cup, it features a blown-glass relief that surrounds the jade green cup it’s connected to only by a few delicate tendrils, giving the style its name. The relief itself features the Thracian king Lycurgus, in the middle of his torment by the god Dionysus. The story says that the king grew angry with the god and one of his nymphs, who then was changed into a vine. She ensnared the king, and left him open to the ridicule of the god and his satyrs. A breathtakingly delicate piece in itself, it becomes truly incredible when it’s held up to the light.

That’s when the solid green cup turns bright red.

How this works has been a complete mystery up until fairly recently, with only modern technology allowing scientists to unlock the answer of how it’s done.

Roman artisans clearly understood the reflective properties of many minerals and substances. The jade green color is given to the cup from the glass base it’s made from. The cup isn’t just glass, though—it’s also made from millions and millions of tiny particles of gold and silver. These particles are so tiny—about one one-thousandth the size of a grain of salt—that they’re well into the realm of nanotechnology. When light hits the particles, they reflect with different colors that overpower the green of the base and turn the chalice to different colors.

Our hesitance to muck about with such a valuable artifact also means that we almost hadn’t uncovered an even more brilliant use of the nanoparticles present in the cup.

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Once scientists were able to discover just how concentrated the nanoparticles were and just what materials they were made of, they could duplicate the material to see just what other effects the chalice might be able to produce. The results were stunning. The replicated surface also changed color based on what liquids it was exposed to—wine, water, salt, and oils all made the chalice display different colors with an amazing level of sensitivity.

Because of the precise nature of the cup’s creation, the percentages of metal to glass and the fact that the gold and silver dust isn’t visible to the naked eye, scientists have determined that the effects created weren’t just a happy coincidence. Roman artisans had to have known what they were doing, and it’s likely that only the most masterful of craftsmen, creating something to commemorate and be used on only truly special occasions, would have the necessary knowledge to create something like the Lycurgus Cup.

The ancient construction is so sensitive in being able to detect and change to such incredibly minute levels of a variety of substances that it might be the Romans have handed us our next advances in medical technology. The same color-changing technology is being implemented in medical diagnostic tools that will be able to detect minute biomarkers present in human tissue samples. And it’s promising to be so low-cost and easy-to-use that it can potentially bring a diagnostic tool to general practitioners and hospitals around the world.

It could also be the basis for a new anti-terrorism weapon, used to detect even minute traces of potentially dangerous substances—all nearly two millennia after master artisans used it to create a breathtaking work of art.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: This 1,600-Year-Old Goblet Shows that the Romans Were Nanotechnology Pioneers
The British Museum: The Lycurgus Cup
The world’s most sensitive plasmon resonance sensor inspired by ancient Roman cup

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