The Ancient History of Petroleum

oil, roman, century, near, records, references, lighting and greeks

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The Greeks and Romans, too, were familiar with numerous occurrences of natural earth oil and its use for various purposes long before the birth of Christ, for many references to it are found in the works of their historians. In Greek literature there appears what is perhaps the first attempt to account for the origin of petroleum. Among the tales of the Argonauts, Appolonius of Rhodes re counts the fable of Prometheus, chained on the Caucasus mountains for having stolen the fire of heaven. From the day of his captivity, an eagle unceasingly devoured his liver, after which it vomited a blackish liquor called naphtha by the Greeks. This black liquor was to make Jason in vulnerable in his search for the Golden Fleece. The association of localities and ideas suggests that the occurrences of oil in the Caucasus district were familiar to the Greeks, and that this fable may be regarded as their mythical conception of its origin.

The works of practically all the important Greek writers refer to bitumen deposits in various places, two of which, at least, are worthy of special men tion. Plutarch records the discovery of petroleum on the banks of the Oxus River by a servant of Alexander the Great, during one of the campaigns made by that famous general. Other mention is made of bitumens secured at Epidamnos, Pieria, and in the island of Zante. But most interesting of all, is the description of what was appar ently a fairly regular industry in collecting petro leum from the pits of Susiana, a southern prov ince of ancient Persia. This account by Herodotus, written about 450 B.C., says that " at Ardericca is a well that produces three different substances, for asphalt, salt, and oil are drawn up from it in the following manner. It is pumped up by means of a swipe (sweep) and, instead of a bucket, half a wine skin is attached to it. Having dipped down with the swipe, a man draws it up, and pours the contents into a reservoir, and being poured from this into .another, it assumes these different forms: the asphalt and the salt immediately be come solid, but the oil they collect; it is black, and emits a strong odor." The oil described was unquestionably petroleum, and this account is entitled to the honor of being the first full description of a regular petroleum gathering industry.

The Roman records likewise contain frequent references to bitumens of one form or another, both in Roman territory and in other countries. Early in the Christian era, the Roman army, fol lowing the practices of the people of the East, is said to have used bituminous cements in the con struction of piers for bridges. But the chief in terest in the Roman accounts centers in the many references to the wells near ancient Agrigentum, the modern Girgenti, in Sicily. The oil which was

secured from this locality was known as Sicilian oil, and was burned in lamps in the temple of Jupiter about the beginning of the Christian era. The story of " Sicilian Oil " affords the first re corded instance of the use of petroleum as a source of light, and from that time until the present there has been more or less constant use of Italian pe troleum for lighting purposes. During the Dark Ages following the decline of the Roman Empire, the history of petroleum lapses for several cen turies,.but toward the end of the period reference to its use reappears in the records. For example, the oil occurring near Miano was used for light by the people of the vicinity, and as early as 1400 a concession was secured for the more extensive col lection of oil from wells near that place. The celebrated petroleum from Modena was regularly worked with wells fifty to sixty feet deep before the middle of the seventeenth century, and oil from the wells at Amiano was employed in lighting the city of Genoa at the beginning of the last century.

In other European countries, too, there are rec ords of petroleum being known and used for the past three or four hundred years. Early in the fif teenth century, the oil from the Tegern region of Bavaria was used in medicine, under the name of St. Quirinus Oil. The "earth balsam," or "moun tain balsam," as petroleum was called in Galicia, was known as early as the beginning of the six teenth century at least, and was likewise supposed to possess special medicinal value, particularly for rheumatism and for diseases of cattle. The oldest historical records of this region show that the oil was collected in rudely timbered wells or pits, the remains of which still exist, and was used as cart grease or in the preparation of leather. Illumina ing oil distilled from the crude petroleum is said to have been used in Prague as early as 1810, this making it the first ease on record where a refined oil was used for lighting.

Early in the seventeenth century, the natural oil springs near Gabian, in France, were discovered, and for many years the petroleum was skimmed from the surface of the springs to be sold as "Ga bian Oil," a remedy for every known ill. In fact, this spring became so famous that it attracted the people of all Languedoc, and to accommodate those who came to take the "cure," a sort of subter ranean pond, with tunnels, was constructed. But a company formed later to produce oil on a large scale never succeeded.

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