Roman dodecahedron

The platonic solids are of course quintessentially Greek (although a claim to their discovery has apparently been staked on behalf of rugged Scots — who certainly play rugby better, not that this should influence priority disputes). I was therefore quite intrigued to see today, in the Roman Museum of the town of Avenches, a very beautiful Roman dodecahedron:

The decorations are quite interesting; note for instance that the holes in the faces are not all of the same size. The accompanying text mentioned that at least 60 such objects have been found in what was ancient Roman territories north of the Alps, and that their purpose (if any) is not known. This one was found in a private house (the approximate date is not mentioned, but the old Roman city of Aventicum apparently flourished mostly during the first Century).

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I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

3 thoughts on “Roman dodecahedron”

  1. It resembles the shape and structure of Polyurethane open cells foams. Such plastic foams (obviously unknown during the Roman times) are formed by expanding existent nucleation centers with resulting cells that pack an available space to the best possible compactness; hence the dodecahedron. The face hole is the result of a burst due to the inner pressure created during heat expansion and the max. membrane elongation at break. Similarly, other cellular structures formed by expanding cells may produce such particular shapes.

  2. I have discussed a possible use of a Roman Dodecahedron, a bronze artifact of gallo-roman origin, for measuring distance. A dodecahedron, found at Jublains, the ancient Nouiodunum, dating from the 2nd or 3rd century AD, is used to create a model. Looking through the model, it is possible to test it for measurements of distance based on similar triangles.
    See my paper on arXiv,

  3. Roman Dodecahedron

    We have a easy to grip cast metal object with bubbles and circle on all sides of it that’s penetrated and made hollow with multiple large holes and sometimes just a single one, used ubiquitously in the colder climate of the Roman Empire and no treatise on its existence…. Hmmm?

    What we have here is a therapeutic bath water heater. The holes are to move it when it’s hot and to prevent buoyancy. The bubbles or knotted corners are for wet handling and quick retrieval via braille identification. The cast copper is superior for heating and durability. The artsy symbolism is of ripple and bubbling hot water.

    It lacks a treatise because is neither military, scientific nor medical. It is domestic and this is why it was prevalent.


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