Greeks, Romans and Asbestos (a brief history of…)

Our earliest records of the use of asbestos dates back around 3,000 years ago in the lands around Scandinavia. Archeologists have found evidence of pottery and chinking of log houses that contained asbestos. The Egyptians and Persians also used asbestos to embalm and wrap their dead. Its use though became more prevalent at the height of Ancient Greek civilization. The word asbestos comes from the Greek word meaning ‘inextinguishable’ or ‘indestructible’.

The first quarries of asbestos likely came from the Greek island of Evvoia. At first, it was assumed Greeks wove asbestos into the clothing of their slaves, but once its extraordinary properties of fire resistance were discovered, the asbestos was incorporated into clothing for kings and queens, napkins and table clothes and as insulation in buildings and ovens. Asbestos was even incorporated into the wicks of the ‘eternal’ flames of vestal virgins.

The Romans also found the benefits of the use of asbestos  appealing. They mined asbestos from all over Europe and the Mediterranean. It was possibly used in hundreds of products seemingly because of its strength, insulation properties and resistance to corrosion and fire. Imagine eating out at a Roman restaurant where the tablecloths that you had used and soiled would be later thrown into a fire to remove food and debris and then placed back onto the table for the next customer.

Given the amazing use of asbestos identified by the Greeks and Romans, they were also well aware of its dangers. First, Greek geographer Strabo noticed a ‘sickness of the lungs’ in slaves that wove clothes and later, Pliny the Elder, a famous Roman naturalist, doctor and historian noted that slaves in mines would develop terrible respiratory problems or disease. He documented it as ‘disease of slaves’ and discouraged people from buying slaves who had worked in asbestos mines because of the high incidence of death. Pliny the Elder would also later recommend the use of respirators made of transparent bladder skins for slaves to wear in mines.

Thus, despite all the knowledge and warnings given to us about asbestos by the Ancients, we still largely for around 2,000 years continued to use it. Only today, in the last 20-30 years are we reducing the use of asbestos all around the industrial world. Many countries have banned its use and have strict regulations applying to its safe removal and or maintenance. Maybe, a little too late for all those poor victims over the course of history.

Photo credit: The header image is a depiction of slaves working in an ancient Greek mine. It is in the public domain.

9 comments on “Greeks, Romans and Asbestos (a brief history of…)

  1. Sam Pearce

    Hello Robert.

    I am creating an on line asbestos awareness training course in the UK and would like to use the pictures in your article in this project. Are you copy right holder for these photos?



  2. After some thought I have decide to remove the Asbestos Greek Lamp. I am unsure of it copyright or origins. Let me know how you go with your online awareness course. I would love to link it here. Happy to give you a plug on my blog.

  3. Sam Pearce

    I am also thinking of not using it. The course is pretty much complete. I just have the difficult task of ensuring all the copy right info is in place before I publish.
    I will definatly keep you offer in mind when we go live.

    Many thanks for your help.

  4. Brad Mueller

    Hi Robert,

    I teach a Health Hazards awareness class and would love to use this article there a few paragraphs in this paper that would help me get my point across. May have your permission to use this for additional information.


    Brad Mueller

  5. Jan van Zelm

    Hello Robert,
    To make people aware of the dangers of exhibition to asbestos-fibers -which is thé most dangerous when NOT being able to see what is IN the air- I try to develop more awareness to those who ‘ignore’ in The Netherlands.(see Facebook Asbestverhalen)
    Most people ONLY believe what they (can) see. So, asbestos fibers are ignored… Still. Until one’s relative is ‘dealing’ with the consequences people meet..’horror’.
    Awareness, awaking, learning, reacting and NO PANIC. Straight handling. NÓ risks, because it might(!) kill on the long term… That’s what people knew – YOU SHOWED IT IN THE TEXT – and shóuld know NOW !!
    You offer me a possibility to show people that KNOWLEDGE EXISTS ALLREADY A LONG TIME !! You allow me to show it? (I did see this picture before, but nót the text. (My father wás (..) a shipbuilder, worked/dealed with asbestos…and died of exposure to it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: