The ancient Romans were renowned for their innovative engineering and infrastructure. One example of their ingenuity was the way they were able to light up the streets of Rome at night using simple materials like copper and olive oil.

This article will provide an in-depth look at how the Romans devised an electrical system to illuminate their capital city in ancient times. I will cover the materials they used, how the system worked, where they implemented it, and the impact it had on Roman society.

Materials Used - Copper and Olive Oil

The Roman electrical system for lighting utilized two main components - copper and olive oil.

Copper Wiring

The Romans strung copper wiring throughout the streets of Rome to serve as conductors of electricity. Copper was an ideal material as it is an excellent conductor of electricity.

Some key facts about the Roman's usage of copper wire:

Olive Oil

The other critical component was olive oil. The Romans suspended terracotta pots filled with oil along the copper wires.

So in summary, the Romans leveraged locally available materials - Italian copper and olive oil - to construct their innovative lighting system.

How the System Worked

The way the Roman street lighting system worked was remarkably simple but effective. It relied on the principles of electrolysis and capillary action.


When two dissimilar metals like copper and iron come into contact in an electrolyte solution like salty water or olive oil, a small electrical current flows through the electrolyte from one metal to the other.

Capillary Action

The terracotta pots were porous, allowing the olive oil to slowly seep out. This capillary action conveyed the oil onto the copper wires.

Lighting Effect

The combination of electrolysis and capillary action produced a slow movement of oil onto the copper wires. This thin oil film then acted as a conductor between the wire and air.

So in summary, the Romans engineered an ingenious way to brightly yet safely illuminate the streets at night.

Locations and Installations in Rome

The copper wire and olive oil street lighting system was implemented across Rome in various public spaces.

Forums and Public Squares

Major forums and public gathering areas were outfitted with the lighting system.

The ambient lighting allowed Romans to visit these spaces at night.

Streets and Roads

Major streets and roads of Rome were also illuminated by the oil lamps.

This improved night time navigation and safety.

Temples and Public Buildings

Temples and public buildings like baths were lit up allowing extended usage.

So in essence, the Romans installed their ingenious lighting system across Rome's streets, buildings, and monuments!

Impact on Roman Society

The electrically lit streets transformed Rome's nightlife and enabled new possibilities.

Extended Activity Hours

The ambient glow facilitated extended hours of activity at night for Romans.

Improved Safety and Security

The streelighting improved safety and security throughout the capital.

Tourism and Economic Growth

The well-lit forums, roads, and monuments made Rome more appealing.

So in many ways, Rome's ingeniously engineered electrical lighting system had a profoundly positive impact on society!


The ancient Romans devised an innovative method to brightly and safely illuminate the streets of their capital using simple copper wiring and readily available olive oil. By combining the principles of electrolysis and capillary action, they were able to produce ambient lighting along major streets, roads, forums, and monuments across Rome. This transformed the nightlife of the city, improved security, and fueled economic growth. The copper wire and olive oil lamps stand as a testament to the remarkable engineering capabilities of ancient Rome!