How the Ancient Romans Used Braided Horsehair to Illuminate Their Streets


The ancient Romans were masters of innovation and ingenuity when it came to building their vast empire. One area where they particularly excelled was in devising clever ways to illuminate the streets of Rome at night. Unlike today where electric lighting is ubiquitous, the Romans had to rely on more basic methods to chase away the darkness. One of their most ingenious solutions was the use of braided horsehair to create inexpensive yet surprisingly effective outdoor lighting.

In this article, I will explore how horsehair was braided and prepared, the oil lamps it was used with, and the impact this simple technology had on daily life in ancient Rome. By the end, you'll appreciate how creative and pragmatic the Romans were even without today's modern conveniences. The use of braided horsehair for illumination is a fascinating glimpse into the world of ancient Roman technology and innovation.

How Horsehair Was Braided and Prepared

The Romans primarily used horsehair from the mane and tail to create their braided lighting wicks. Horsehair was preferred as it was naturally sturdy, resilient, and slow-burning. This made it ideal to be used repeatedly without quickly deteriorating.

To prepare the horsehair, it was first combed thoroughly to remove any knots and debris. The hair was then divided into bunches and soaked in vinegar for several hours. The vinegar acted as a cleaning agent to remove oils and dirt from the hair. This prevented unwanted odors and smoking when the braided wick was burned.

Once cleaned, the horsehair was braided tightly into cords approximately one centimeter in diameter. The braiding made the wick sturdy and prevented loose hairs from catching fire unevenly. The braided wick was then boiled in vinegar again and hung to dry completely. Once dried, it was ready to be used in oil lamps.

The Oil Lamps Used With Braided Horsehair Wicks

The Romans designed special oil lamps to hold the braided horsehair lighting wicks. These lamps were made from clay or bronze and comprised of three parts - a fuel reservoir, a nozzle for the wick, and a handle. Olive oil was most commonly used as fuel.

The braided horsehair wick was inserted into the lamp's nozzle. The nozzle kept the wick rigidly in place and also regulated the flow of oil to the wick. This allowed the horsehair to burn evenly for hours while illuminated. A single wick could provide light for 6-8 hours before needing to be trimmed.

These lamps were small, portable, and provided a warm yellow glow when lit. The top of the lamp was often decoratively shaped and featured intricate designs. Wealthier Romans used elaborate lamps made of bronze while simpler terracotta lamps were used by the masses. Either way, the design focused on keeping the wick steadily supplied with oil.

The Impact of Braided Horsehair Lighting on Life in Ancient Rome

The use of horsehair lighting allowed the Romans to enjoy many hours of artificial illumination indoors and out. This had a significant impact on Roman society:

So a simple braided horsehair wick enabled arguably the greatest civilization in ancient history to conquer the darkness. This ingenious use of available materials and Roman engineering was crucial in driving progress and development. Truly a testament to the innovative spirit and pragmatism of the ancient Romans!


The use of braided horsehair for illumination represents Roman ingenuity at its finest. By taking a common, available material and transforming it into a practical and affordable lighting solution, the Romans demonstrated their legendary ability to innovate. Braided horsehair wicks extended productive hours, facilitated military campaigns, and enabled innovations in lighting design across Roman society for centuries. This clever technology provides key insights into how the ancient Romans mastered their world and built an empire renowned for its groundbreaking engineering and pragmatic spirit.