The Roman oil lamp, originally called a ‘lychnus’, from the Greek ‘λυχνος’, has been almost unparalleled in its distribution throughout the Empire. First developed towards the end of the Hellenistic period, oil lamps were to keep their general shape longer than any other item of pottery throughout the Mediterranean. The vast trade networks set with the expansion of the Roman Empire allowed this item to be spread across Europe, Eastern Asia and Northern Africa.
Oil lamps were used by the Romans for mainly three reasons; to light private and public spaces, to give as offerings in temples to the gods and to be placed within a grave or funerary context. As well as linear, geometric and circular designs, favourite subjects for decoration of oil lamps included gods and mythological scenes, scenes from everyday life, gladiatorial depictions, drawings relating to entertainment and theatre, and various animals, fish and birds.