The Roman Oil Lamp

14 May

The Ancient Roman period is one of my favorite interests, so anything to do with these times has a special place for me . I have blogged about Roman pottery in archaeology, so I will now talk about the Roman oil lamp which is quite a fascinating subject. Although the pottery lamps were mostly the same shape there were also a variety of shapes made from different materials.


Oil lamps were one of the most  common household items of ancient times. Lamps made of stone or shell were used as early as the Stone Age. Ceramic lamps were used all over the Mediterranean area from 2000 B.C through the middle ages. They were used to burn oil , usually a plant oil such as olive oil that was abundant. Archaeologists find fewer lamps in areas like Britain, because oil was scarce and expensive there

Roman oil lamp. depicting a chariot

Roman oil lamp depicting a chariot

Roman Oil lamp depicting gladiators fighting

Roman Oil lamp depicting Gladiators fighting. ” One of my favorites ”

The lamps used a wick made from fibers such as linin or papyrus, that was inserted into the body of the lamp. The end of the wick rested in the nozzle. The oil was poured into the lamp through the filling hole on top of its body. The wick was lit and a small flame was emitted from the tip of the wick resting in the nozzle. The lamp could be set on any flat surface but was also portable and could be carried in a persons hand. They could also rest on a special stand.

Lamp Diagram


Aside from their basic functional use for indoor and outdoor illumination, lamps also served other purposes. They were buried in tombs and graves along with pottery, jewelry and other symbolic gifts. They could also be dedicated as votive offerings to the gods and goddesses in temples and sanctuaries.

Lamps were made using a two-part mold. Wet clay was pressed into each half of the mold and then the two halves were joined together. They were allowed to dry slightly, and then the molds were removed and the oil-hole and wick-hole were pierced  by hand. Finally the lamp was fired in a kiln for up to two days.The lamps could be decorated with almost any scene, from divinities  to animals to abstract decoration.


On the lamps base was usually the ” makers mark ” which was a symbol or name indicating the specific workshop that created the lamp. This can be very useful for archaeologists ,because  it can sometimes tell us where and when the lamp was made.

Roman Oil lamp Ceramic.

Roman oil lamps with makers mark on the base.

A horse headed Roman oil lamp dated to be 2000 yrs old.

A Horse-head Roman metal oil lamp probably used by the Rich.

Roman clay oil lamp.

Roman Oil lamp. Most likely used by the poor.

The Poor ancient Roman houses

Most Plebs  ( poor people) lived in apartments such as these. some were behind or above shops. All the family lived together. Their grandparents ,parents  and children. These apartments were noisy and dirty from the rooms being filled with smoke coming from the kitchen while cooking. You can imagine what little light there was in these homes.




Posted by on May 14, 2014 in Uncategorized


12 responses to “The Roman Oil Lamp

  1. Trapper Gale

    May 14, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    Thanks, I enjoyed reading this.


  2. ritaroberts

    May 14, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    Thank you, I’m pleased you enjoyed it.


  3. dorannrule

    May 14, 2014 at 5:13 pm

    This is so interesting. I will be looking now whenever I go antiquing for a Roman style oil lamp! Thanks so much for sharing.


    • ritaroberts

      May 15, 2014 at 2:13 pm

      Thanks for nice comment Dora. Of course there are reproductions of these lovely Roman lamps. I bought three some years ago.


  4. mbjssgpm

    May 19, 2014 at 11:54 am

    thank you for another great blog post Rita 🙂


  5. ritaroberts

    May 19, 2014 at 11:57 am

    Thank you for reading Gill. Glad you enjoyed it. !


  6. Silver in the Barn

    May 20, 2014 at 11:58 am

    Hello Rita. I, too, am fascinated with this time period. It seems whenever I’ve visited a historical reenactment or ancient site (from Pompeii to the Pilgrims) the presence of smoke in the household is mentioned. Imagine the health implications if you weren’t killed off by all the other things lurking about at that time. Our lives are so very easy now in terms of the basic needs. The gladiator lamp is wonderful.


    • ritaroberts

      May 20, 2014 at 12:51 pm

      Nice to meet you Barbara, Glad you enjoyed reading about the Roman Lamps. I was interested to learn you have visited Re enactments because I also was once a Re enactor when living in England and miss being part of them now that I am retired. There is nothing going on like this in Crete at all otherwise I would still be involved. Its a great life.


  7. nutsfortreasure

    May 20, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    I too will keep my eyes open here on Antique Alley 🙂

    Great post!


    • ritaroberts

      May 20, 2014 at 1:06 pm

      Thanks Eunice, I wish I had an Antique Alley. Sounds fun. Do let me know when you find anything interesting won’t you.


      • nutsfortreasure

        May 20, 2014 at 8:39 pm

        I may use my video camera and take you with me 🙂


  8. ritaroberts

    May 21, 2014 at 8:12 am

    What a good idea Eunice, that way we can spot things together..



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