The Legendary Flexible Glass Of Ancient Rome.The Story Of An Incredible Lost Invention

The ingenuity of the ancients will never cease to amaze us. We realize this every time we come across discoveries and inventions that manage to make us doubt that they were conceived and created centuries and centuries before us.

Take a glass, for example. Everyone knows that it is a fragile, inflexible material, which can easily break into a thousand pieces. Yet few people know that in Roman times there may have been a legendary invention that contradicted all of these characteristics of glass. The name, vitreum flexile, already says a lot about its nature: flexible, indestructible, produced by a mysterious craftsman and never released. That’s why we called it “legendary”. Its story deserves to be told.


image credit: Vassil/Wikimedia – Not the actual photo

According to historical studies, glassworking was a practice already known in the days of the ancient Egyptians and, later, the Phoenicians. The latter was certainly the most skilled at working it. However, even the Romans were apparently no slouch. Glass was a material that was used and worked, and the unknown craftsman in question certainly knew something about it.

Living during the time of Emperor Tiberius, this glassmaker would have been the author of an invention as ingenious as it was revolutionary. The conditional is however essential because all traces of its flexible glass have been lost over time. So far, no physical and tangible proof of its existence has been found; the only sources which describe this astonishing invention are those in writing. We are talking about the Natural History of Pliny the Elder and the Satyricon of Petronius.


image credit: Sailko/Wikimedia

Indestructible and above all super-flexible: these are the incredible characteristics of vitreum flexile. According to Pliny the Elder, Emperor Tiberius, worried about the success that this material could have had, to the point of devaluing gold, silver, and copper, had the craftsman’s workshop closed. But the story of Petronius is much more dramatic. In his Satyricon, we read that the glassmaker ended up being executed by Tiberius, shocked and almost frightened at the sight of such a prodigious material. The emperor, still afraid of the devaluation of precious metals, would have preferred to eliminate the inventor, the sole holder of the secret of flexible glass.


image credit: Carole Raddato/Wikimedia – Not the actual photo

Although no one is certain of the material’s real existence, this invention has always attracted the attention and curiosity of researchers. And there is no shortage of theories as to how it could have been achieved. “Miraculous” compounds, mysterious mixtures, and more or less fanciful hypotheses aside, there is no doubt that the story of this lost invention still exerts a great fascination. Who knows if, sooner or later, in honor of the ghostly and ingenious Roman craftsman, someone will invent a glass with amazing properties like his!

source used: Brett Cohen – Researchgate

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