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.

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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  • Hadeskabir

    “all nearly two centuries after master artisans used it to create a breathtaking work of art.” I think you mean two thousands years after.

    • P5ychoRaz

      Ha, right? Those must be some patient Romans to have waited that long. Just chilling, living for 2,000 years after the fall of their civilization just to make a cool color-changing cup

  • Hadeskabir

    I don’t understand one thing. What happened? Did the Romans simply forget about on how they did it?

    • King

      From what I gather from here and the Wikipedia page, it’s basically a result of mixing gold and silver with molten glass. The fact that they’re nano-particles isn’t particularly striking, a million things could cause that from it breaking down into smaller parts under high temperatures or even just having mixed it with water with a high concentration of ore (like downstream of a mine). The fact that there’s no other similar pieces suggests that it was either an accident, or that someone just mixed gold/silver with glass (curiosity?) but didn’t understand that that was what was causing it.

      • Hadeskabir

        Thank you for the explanation, you really are a king.

      • inconspicuous detective

        my money would be on curiosity, but the creation was probably gifted away due to how amazing it would have appeared to look. i agree they probably had no idea how they managed to pull it off, kinda like when you do something like make a food taste a certain way but are unable to ever really get the same taste again. you never know what you did (a humorous but all too true metaphor here).

  • mtkaod

    When I read the title all I could picture was the Ancient Alies guy using at as more proof

    • P5ychoRaz

      The cup was actually built by…

  • Efigee

    VERY cool!

  • Sharon Landau

    Gold and silver filings can be made into monoatomic particles by the use of a solution of reagent strength aqua regia. The acid is poured off after the metal turns into a fine clay like substance and is then dried out with methyl alcohol that is flamed off, leaving a fine powder that is essentially single atoms of precious metals.

  • WhiteExodus

    Here’s a link to a video showing the Lycurgus cup in all of its glory.
    *I don’t own the video by the way.

  • Errkism

    Something made that long ago and we just now figured out what is the cause. That to me is a perfect example of why people shouldn’t just assume the pyramids were built by, or with the help of, aliens. Just because we don’t understand, doesn’t make it magic or extraterrestrials. The power of the human mind is infinite.