Discover the Lycurgus Cup

Did you know the Romans (sort of) invented nanotechnology?

By Google Arts & Culture

The Lycurgus Cup (300 AD)British Museum

Though it measures just 15.9cm by 13.2cm, the Lycurgus Cup has been described as the most spectacular glass of its period. Housed in the British Museum, the beautiful piece is one of the most interesting surviving objects from the Roman Era.

It’s thought the cup was made in Alexandria or Rome between 290 and 325 AD. A gilt bronze rim and foot were added in around 1800 and it was acquired by the Rothschild family in the mid-19th century. The cup was sold to the British Museum in 1957.

The glass

Arguably, the most impressive thing about the Lycurgus Cup is its color. When it’s lit from behind, the cup appears red. However, when it’s lit from the front, it’s green. It's made of what's known as dichroic glass; the only complete example of this type of craftsmanship from the period. 

For years, scientists were baffled by this incredible color changing quality. In fact, it wasn’t until 1990, when broken fragments of glass were examined under a powerful microscope, that they understood exactly how the Romans had done it. 

The Lycurgus Cup (300 AD)British Museum

The effect is achieved by adding silver and gold to the glass during the manufacturing process. These particles are as small as 50 nanometers in diameter, less than one thousandth the size of a grain of table salt. This means that they are just coarse enough to reflect light without totally blocking its transmission. 

The careful quantities of gold and silver used to make the glass suggest that the Romans knew exactly what they were doing. It also means that they were pioneering nanotechnology an incredible 1,600 years ago. 

The image

The object is known as the Lycurgus Cup because it features an image of King Lycurgus. King of Edoni in Thrace, Lycurgus was driven mad by Dionysus in revenge for banning the god’s cult and disrespecting his followers. As well as Lycurgus, bound by a vine and naked apart from his boots, the cup also depicts one of Dionysus’ satyrs, the god Pan and a panther. 

Behind the main figures shown on the cup, the glass has been hollowed out so that it’s the same thickness as the glass in the rest of the piece. This helps to create an even color when light is passed through the object. 

The figures themselves were made by painstakingly cutting the glass and grinding it back to leave a decorative ‘cage’. Incredibly skilful, the method was used to create a number of beautiful glass objects during the Roman period. Most cage cups have a geometric design. The fact that the Lycurgus Cup features mythological figures makes the piece even more extraordinary. 

Find out more about the Lycurgus Cup, and the story behind the myth, here.

Credits: All media
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