How Ancient Romans Were Able to Illuminate Their Homes Without Electricity

Romans illuminated their homes in a variety of ingenious ways in the absence of electricity. From oil lamps to candles to harnessing natural light with windows, Romans found ways to bring light indoors to combat the darkness. Here is an in-depth look at how ancient Romans lit up their lives.

Oil Lamps

Oil lamps were one of the most common forms of artificial lighting in ancient Roman homes. These lamps consisted of a vessel to hold oil, a wick, and a nozzle for the wick. The wick drew up oil from the vessel and provided a flame when lit.

The Romans used olive oil to fuel their lamps, which gave off a bright, steady flame. Pottery and bronze lamps were the most common, decorated with artistic designs. Hanging lamps provided movable illumination, while stationary table lamps or wall sconces kept specific spaces bright.

Some advantages of oil lamps:

The biggest drawback was the smoke and smell produced from the burning oil and wick. Lamps needed regular maintenance like trimming the wick and filling with oil. But overall, olive oil lamps were an effective early form of artificial light.


The Romans also made simple candles out of tallow or beeswax to provide portable illumination. Tallow candles used rendered animal fat, while beeswax candles took advantage of the honey-making activities of Roman bees. Wicks were made from dried papyrus or linen.

Beeswax candles burned cleaner and brighter than tallow, producing a pleasant honey-like scent. But tallow candles were cheaper and accessible. The Romans ingeniously created candlesticks and wall sconces to hold candles in place.

Candles had advantages like:

But candles had drawbacks too:

Still, candles served a purpose as a portable and versatile light source in ancient Rome.

Windows and Natural Light

One free source of illumination that the Romans took full advantage of was natural sunlight coming in through windows. Roman architects intentionally designed homes to have large windows to allow daylight to stream inside.

This innovative use of windows and building orientation let the Romans effectively light up their dwellings using just the sun's rays. Homes were designed to welcome in natural light, mitigating the need for artificial light during daytime hours.


While Romans didn't have modern electrically-powered lighting, they successfully found ways to illuminate their homes and lives. Olive oil lamps, tallow and beeswax candles, and clever use of windows provided necessary indoor and outdoor lighting. Roman ingenuity and engineering allowed them to conquer the dark and live vibrant, well-lit lives, without electricity.