Roman glass (not the legendary flexible glass). Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart.

An Unbreakable Story: The Lost Roman Invention of Flexible Glass

(Read the article on one page)

Imagine a glass you can bend and then watch it return to its original form. A glass that you drop but it doesn’t break. Stories say that an ancient Roman glassmaker had the technology to create a flexible glass, ‘vitrium flexile’, but a certain emperor decided the invention should not be.

Flexible glass is allegedly a type of unbreakable glass that was invented during the Roman period. Man-made glass (as opposed to a naturally occurring one such as obsidian) is widely accepted to have been invented by the Phoenicians. Over the course of the millennia, glass-makers honed their skills, improving the techniques used to produce this substance, as well as the glass itself. In the Roman Empire, glass became a commonly produced item, though special luxury glasses were also created. Arguably one of the most intriguing of these glass types is the so-called flexible glass.

Roman glass.

Roman glass. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

Tales of the Famed Roman Glass

Flexible glass is said to be a legendary lost invention dating to the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar. Whilst no physical evidence of such a glass has been found so far, there are two main written sources attesting to its existence. One of these is Pliny the Elder’s Natural History , whilst the other is the Satyricon, commonly attributed to the Roman courtier Petronius. Whilst Pliny’s work is encyclopaedic in nature, that of Petronius is a piece of satire - showing how this incredible story was picked up by writers of different genres.

In Natural History , Pliny reports that flexible glass was made by a glass-maker during the time of Tiberius Caesar. Instead of gaining the favor of the Roman emperor, said craftsman had his workshop shut down. This was meant to prevent the value of precious metals, i.e. gold, silver, and copper from being depreciated by this new material. A similar story is said to have been reported by Cassius Dio and Suetonius. Pliny expresses his doubts regarding the veracity of this story, as he mentions that “This story, however, was, for a long time, more widely spread than well authenticated.”

Tiberius Caesar.

Tiberius Caesar. (Sailko/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Petronius’ telling of the story in his Satyricon, on the other hand, may be described as a more dramatized version of the story told by Pliny. In the satirist’s account, the man who invented the flexible glass was granted an audience with the Roman emperor to show his work. After Tiberius examined the glass cup, he handed it back to the glass-maker, who proceeded to throw it with all his might on the floor. The emperor was shocked at what had happened, but the man calmly picked the cup up from the ground, showing the emperor that it was only dented. The glass-maker then took a little hammer to beat the glass, and in no time, the cup regained its original shape.

A Roman glass bowl.

A Roman glass bowl. (Ashley Dace/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

The Roman glass-maker was confident that he had impressed the emperor, and was probably waiting to be rewarded for his ingenious creation. When the emperor asked if anybody else knew how to make this kind of flexible glass, the craftsman answered with a negative. Instead of receiving the reward he had hoped for, the glass-maker was executed, thus taking the secret of making flexible glass with him to his grave. The reason for this was that this Roman invention would cause gold to be devalued, as mentioned by Pliny.

Is it Possible to Make Roman Flexible Glass?    

Today, the story of Roman flexible glass is mainly treated in the same manner as it had been by Pliny, i.e. with much doubt. Nevertheless, there have been some speculations on how this glass may have been made. One of these, for instance, is that the Roman glass-maker had somehow had access to boric acid or borax, both of which can be found naturally. By adding a small percent of boric oxide to the glass mixture, the end result would be something that was relatively unbreakable. It may be added that borax was imported from the East into Europe on a regular basis during the Middle Ages, and it was used by goldsmiths as a flux.

Comments

Great article. I first heard the story in a talk by the founder of modern world Libertarianism, the then precocious teen Michael Gilson De Lemos (called MG), who noted it as an example of the disastrous effects of coerced government regulation.

So they invented clear plastic.

While it likely can't be confirmed if this flexible glass was suppressed by Imperial Edict, a story like it appears in Bradbury's Anthology "Golden Apples of the Sun". There is a story of a Chinese inventor who invented a practical glider, and is seen by the emperor and his guards flying it. The Emperor is indeed amazed, but to the precocious aviator's surprise, is ordered to be beheaded and his glider destroyed. The Emperor explains that he's sad to have to give these orders, but while the inventor had only good intentions in building the glider, he was concerned that some day an evil man, with malice in his heart, would use the glider to drop stones on the Great Wall of China. The emperor felt it better to suppress knowledge than to risk that it would be used against his Empire.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Aristotle’s Masterpiece Completed in Two Parts.
A perverted "sex manual" featuring shocking magical and mythical X-rated content will be sold at a UK auction next month. The first edition of this sordid book entitled Aristotle's Masterpiece Completed In Two Parts, The First Containing the Secrets of Generation, was published in London in 1684.

Myths & Legends

Human Origins

Silhouettes (Public Domain) in front of blood cells (Public Domain) and a gene.
Most people who have the Rh blood type are Rh-positive. There are also instances, however, where people are Rh-Negative. Health problems may occur for the unborn child of a mother with Rh-Negative blood when the baby is Rh-Positive.

Ancient Technology

The Lycurgus Cup.
A strange chalice made its way into the British Museum’s collection in the 1950s. It is a 1,600-year-old jade green Roman artifact called the Lycurgus Cup. The image on the chalice is an iconic scene with King Lycurgus of Thrace...

Ancient Places

The highly-decorated tomb is built in a distinctive ‘L’ shape
A mysterious ancient tomb with “unusual and rare” wall paintings has been discovered in Egypt. Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Enany told BBC reporters the discovery of a 4,400-year-old tomb found during excavation work in Giza’s western cemetery “likely belonged to Hetpet, a priestess to Hathor, the goddess of fertility, who assisted women in childbirth.”

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article