A Curious Roman Artifact

The wealth of archaeological artifacts left behind by the Roman Empire throughout the world has answered many questions burning about the ancient civilization.  From the writings of Livius Andronicus to the philosophical musings of stoic philosophers like Seneca the Younger, the limits of Roman conquest and innovation was an unparalleled story of early civilization for centuries.  And yet some of the artifacts left behind leave more questions than answers.  Among some of the strangest unexplained Roman Artifacts are the Roman dodecahedrons.

The strange twelve sided hollow objects have been discovered in locations ranging from the former seat of the Roman Empire itself to the far reaches of Hungary where Roman explorers or engineers likely left them behind.  While they share different sizes, the rough shape is almost always the same, even if a few of the minimalist and unexplained details are different. 

Many of the objects are simply made of stone while other more ornate models have been found made of bronze.  Archaeologists have speculated that while the objects do seem to have a functional (if not unexplained) purpose, they could have been theoretically crafted from a number of additional materials including gold.  And as they attempt to uncover the meaning behind the strange artifacts, speculation has ranged from simple household appliances to more elaborate tools for measurement or other unknown religious purposes.

One of the clues may lie in the fact that Roman engineers were very fond of standardizing measurements for the purpose of engineering.  In a time when measurements were usually far from exact, the Romans standardized their armies in ways unseen previously in the world, even to the point of designing the shields of the Roman legions to be precisely the same measurement so they could be linked together to form some of the earliest armored transport systems.  And so it’s no surprise then that the dodecahedrons with their unexplained circular details may have been considered a tool for measuring.  Still, no article regarding them in surviving texts describes them as such.

Interestingly, the objects themselves are hollow and have a hole in each side of a slightly different measurement.  Wax discovered on the inside of one of the objects seems to add to the theory that it could have been a sort of candle holder.  But why the unconventional design for such a simple device?  Why the need to design a special object for candle holders?

What were they?  My guess is they were both candle holders and a means of marking the transition of time.  Special devices may have been important for measuring the passage of time at night when sundials would not have been possible.  And so the standard amount of time passed with the burning of candles with varying thickness may have been employed.  The candles would have been standardized or modified based on the individual’s needs and then burned down so that when light passed from within the device out of the holes at the bottom onto a flat plane an indicator that the allotted time was up would form as a flickering round circle on the table below. 

Different widths of candle would burn at different speeds, and therefore multiple time intervals could be recorded with accuracy centuries before the hourglass was introduced in the west.  By this time candle based clocks were certainly in use in China in times when the more elaborate clepsydra “water thief” clock wasn’t available.  And the prongs on all sides would have allowed for the object to remain stationary and secure with minimal chance of knocking over while additionally reducing the chance of melted wax influencing the time-keeping candle.  The truth is, the answer has been lost (even if temporarily) with time.