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.

The header image is a depiction of slaves working in an ancient Greek mine.