Inspired by the Lighthouse of Alexandria – The Roman Tower of Hercules

Inspired by the Lighthouse of Alexandria – The Roman Tower of Hercules

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The only still functioning Roman lighthouse stands in the north-west part of the Iberian Peninsula, in Galicia. It is called the Torre de Hércules - Tower of Hercules.

When Julius Caesar arrived to Galicia in Spain in the year 61 BC, he understood the importance of this territory. Perhaps due to his decision, the lighthouse was constructed as a maritime signal, assisting navigation for the ships that were (and are today) crossing the Atlantic corridor.

The Tower of Hercules is located on a rocky hill, named Punta Euras, and measures approximately 57 meters (187 feet) tall. The place where the Romans constructed the Tower was once a part of a sacred place for the tribes of pre-Roman period. In those times, the lighthouse was located far from the Roman city of Brigantium, which gave rise to A Coruña (La Coruña).

Location of the Tower of Hercules within Galicia. ( Wikimedia Map )

The Construction of the Lighthouse

Research shows that that Tower of Hercules, was built between the end of the 1st century BC and the beginning of the 2nd century AD. It was finished (or rebuilt) during the reign of the Emperor Trajan. The design was possibly Phoenician in origin, but it was modeled after the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

Archeologists discovered a votive inscription dedicated to the god Mars by architect Caio Sevio Lupo at the foot of the lighthouse. In the beginning, the connection between the inscription and the Tower wasn't obvious. However, some scholars have suggested that the mound where the lighthouse rises could have been a sacred place consecrated in earlier times to the god of war. However, over time, this hypothesis has been mostly forgotten.

During excavations in 1992, archaeologists discovered the existence of a golden-bronze statue near the inscription inside the Tower. This suggests that the architect was not dedicating the tower itself to Mars Augustus - it is more likely that he was dedicating a statue.

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The Glory of the Tower in Text

The Tower became a part of myths and legends very fast. According to the myth which blends Celtic and Greco-Roman elements, the hero Hercules, after three days and three nights of continuous battle, slew the giant Geryon. In a Celtic gesture, Hercules buried the head of his enemy with weapons and ordered a city to be built on that place. Thus, a skull and a crossbones representing the burial of the head of Geyron became the coat-of-arms of the city La Coruña.

The earliest known reference to the lighthouse at Brigantium is in Historiae adversum Paganos by Paulus Orosius (aka. Paulo Orosio ), written around 415-417 AD. It says: Secundus angulus circium intendit, ubi Brigantia Gallaeciae civitas sita altissimum farum et inter pauca memorandi operis ad speculam Britanniae erigit .

This means: “At the second angle of the circuit circumnavigating (Hispania), where the Gallaecian city of Brigantia is sited, a very tall lighthouse is erected among a few commemorative works, for looking towards Britannia.”

Historiae adversus paganos, Paulo Orosio.

The second of the most important legends connected with the Tower comes from the 11th-century collection Lebor Gabála Érenn , the Book of Invasions, written by Irish monks. This story speaks of the King Breogán, the founding father of the Galician Celtic nation. The manuscript explains that he built the highest tower of Galicia. According to this legend, he went from Galicia to Ireland. His descendants stayed in Ireland and became the Celtic ancestors of the current Irish people.

Whether this legend is real or not, the colossal statue of Breogán has been erected near the Tower of Hercules. Close to the statue is a description of the legendary origins of the peninsula's history.

Folio 53 from the Book of Leinster. Lebor Gabála Érenn is recorded in more than a dozen medieval manuscripts and the Book of Leinster is just one of the primary sources of text.

Destruction of the Tower of Hercules

During the Norman invasions, several references were made to the lighthouse. Due to the collapse of the Roman Empire, the lighthouse saw the beginning of a period of plundering, neglect, and ruin. The Crónica of King Alfonso III mentions a battle in 846, where troops from Asturias defeated the Norman army in the vicinity of Farum Brecantium – the Tower of Hercules. Other names used for the Tower include: The Faro or Farum Pregantium . The lighthouse was a very important part of the region, but after ten centuries, the Tower of Hercules stopped lighting the horizon. Nonetheless, it remained on the peninsula as an important site for more than just passing sailors.

The Hercules tower at the beginning of sunset.

In the 16th century, people saw the Tower of Hercules as a quarry to get stones for new buildings in the city. The legal owner of the lighthouse, the city council, tried to protect the tower, but many parts of the lighthouse disappeared during that period. In the 17th century, the city made the first steps to reconstruct the Tower. Once the first work was completed, the building became the main bastion for guiding ships in Galicia.

In the late 18th century, La Coruña became one of the most important ports in northern Spain. The city was finally rich enough to make investments in their infrastructure. One of the most important projects became the restoration of the old Tower.

On January 4, 1788, King Carlos III officially authorized the restoration of the Tower of Hercules, which was financed by the Consulado del Mar. In 1788, between March and June, military engineer Eustaquio Giannini and José Cornide designed the project so the works could begin. The project was as respectful as possible to not alter the existing remains. The result of this work was a paradigmatic example of architectural restoration and it was an innovative project at the time in that part of the world.

An illustration from the Don Joseph Cornide book "Investigaciones sobre la fundación y fábrica de la torre llamada de Hércules, situada a la entrada del puerto de La Coruña" with floor plan of the Tower of Hercules.

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The Modern Magnificence of the Roman Lighthouse

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the lighting system of the Tower was fixed. The old lamp was replaced by a new one made to order. Due to this change, the light of the Tower became stronger than ever before.

Apart from this, the Tower of Hercules became more popular and better appreciated by the tourists and by local Galicians. In this period, it also became a symbol of emigration to Latin America. Hundreds of Galicians saw this lighthouse while leaving the old land behind and crossing the Atlantic Ocean during their travel to the new continent. This image of the Tower was supported by the local media.

Breogan and the Tower of Hercules, A Coruña, Galicia, Spain ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The first archeological excavations were performed in 1990s and most of the artifacts discovered at the Tower of Hercules are currently located at the Archeological Museum in San Anton Castle in La Coruña.

Currently, The Tower of Hercules is also a museum and a working lighthouse, which still sends light to passing sailors. It now stands 120 meters (393.7 feet) above the sea and measures 59 meters (193.6 feet) tall. In the museum, one of the most precious artifacts is an original huge oil lamp that was a part of the lighthouse system in the roman period.

The Tower of Hercules is now recognized as a National Monument of Spain. On June 27, 2009 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After 2000 years, it is the second tallest lighthouse in Spain.

Featured image: The Tower of Hercules ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ES )

By Natalia Klimczak

He is completely amoral, as he told Clione that he doesn't care about what happened to Landsborough or "Chain" Noir despite them being completely loyal subjects of his. When engaging in battle, he always shouts "It's showtime!".

John hypothesized that he and Merry arrived in the real world at around the same time, almost a decade ago, but that his power hadn't started manifesting until very recently. In actuality, he came to reality only 9 years after Merry did.

A year before the story, he possessed Takateru Akiyanagi. He also forced Clione to possess Taka's younger sister so Clione could track down dream demons in the real world, furthering his cause.

Some of his minions included Landsborough and "Chain" Noir, though Merry successfully sent both back to the dream world.

Hercules has come to the human world to attract the other nightmares. To then make them fight and use their powers to harm both sides of the door for all the nightmares are forced to manifest in the real world without a vessel.

He has the plan to eliminate the Gate that separates reality from the Dream World so that dream demons can roam Earth without the need for vessels.  

He arrived on Earth a year ago, bringing "Sonar" Clione with him and they both wound up possessing the Akiyanagi siblings. John Doe assumed that when Hercules arrived with "a female" it was Merry. However, Merry is revealed to have already disappeared by the time he walked through the Gate. As a matter of fact, it was because Hercules discovered the vacant Gate that the dream demon invasion began in the first place. 

Because his goal is to eliminate the Gate, he manipulated everyone in both worlds. He made dream demons come over from the dream World and fight each other in reality, making the shockwaves from those battles damage the Gate. He also made enemies of dream demons, slaying them so he could add their power to his "Memory Flame" technique. 

Eventually, it is revealed that he and Yumeji are "brothers" because they "share the same blood" from the same source, explaining their similar abilities. Engi obtains Patty's sword thanks to Hercules's technique (which backfired on him) and Merry sends him back to the Dream World through the Gate. 

Hercules loses his power and appears before the Gate in front of a mysterious naked figure, the true antagonist who granted him his powers. With one drop of blood, the figure kills Hercules. 

2 Answers 2

Nobody knows. Roman writer Pliny the Elder scoffed at the useless pyramids and considered many Roman buildings to be both greater and more useful. This implies that the taller and more impressive the Emperor built his tower the more the Romans would have complained about the waste of money unless it had some practical use as well.

If the emperor had a practical use for the tower then the Romans would have approved of it.

What sort of proportions would the tower have to have to be considered a tower and not a building? As tall as wide, twice as tall as wide?

1) I could imagine a city with a tall cliff at one side. There could be a tower perhaps hundreds of feet tall with a vast room in it used as a water tank maybe 100 feet in diameter and 100 feet high. An aqueduct would cross from the edge of the cliff to the tower and bring in water to the top of the water tank. The water would flow out the bottom of the water tanks, still at least fifty feet above street level, through pipes and be distributed around the city.

There could be a viaduct alongside the aqueduct so people could reach the top of the water tank. If the water tank had a concrete dome the walls would have to be very think, like 20 feet, and a ring of rooms about 20 feet wide could have been built on top of them to help buttress the dome. Or the water tank could have a flat wooden roof and rooms could have been built on it. Thus there could be rooms for parties on top of the water tank. And above the rooms could be a viewing platform that might be hundreds of feet above the city depending on how tall the water tank was and how high the water tank's bottom was above street level.

2) The Sanctuary of Fortuna at Palestrina built about 120 BC on a series of terraces on a hillside had a very impressive total vertical dimension. But I don't know what was the greatest height of open interior space as opposed to filled in terraces. Obviously an emperor could have built a similar structure which appeared to be a tower from the outside if it was built on narrow terraces on a narrow tall hillside.

3) The emperors built several platforms from the sides of the Palatine Hill on tiers of arches to support additions to the Palace. These platforms may have been 50 to 100 feet tall, and then palace buildings were built on top of them. Septimius Severus built the Septizodium or Septizonium in front of one such palace wing. Italian archaeloogist Rudolfo Lanciani believed the Septizodium had been seven 30 foot stories tall, and thus 210 feet tall, and had been built to screen that palace wing, that thus should have had a total height of 210 feet. Modern archaeologists believe the Septizodium was only three stories high.

4) Many medieval Italian towns and cities looked like Manhattan with many tall slender towers belonging to noblemen. The few remaining in Bologna out of about a hundred range from 32 meters (104.987 feet) to 97 meters (318.241 feet).

The Torre de Mangia in Siena is 102 meters (334.646 feet) tall. I would guess that a Roman Emperor could have built towers that tall.

5) The Donjon of the 13th century Chateau de Coucy was 35 meters (114.829 feet) in diameter and 55 meters (180.446 feet) tall. A Roman Emperor, with many thousands of times the wealth, could probably have constructed similar structures.

This plan of the donjon of Courcy shows it had three great rooms, one above the other.

6) That immediately makes me think of building a tower with three Pantheon sized rooms in it, one above the other, for a total height of 450 feet.

And then a fourth Pantheon room could have built on top, this time out of wood or at least with a wooden dome to save weight. The Romans could certainly build wooden domes with half the diameter of the Pantheon Dome, and so might have been able to build a Pantheon sized one. In fact I have read a theory that the original Pantheon of Agrippa had a wooden dome approximately the same size as the concrete dome of the present Pantheon.

If I was building such a building on top of a tower of Pantheons I would have inner and outer walls about 20 feet apart, the outer wall considerably higher than the inner wall, and build wooden domes on top of both the inner and outer walls. Since the outer doom would be 40 feet wider in diameter than the inner dome and would spring from a higher level there would be plenty of space between the two domes for wooden beans and trusses to connect and mutually support them.

And there would be space between the two domes for stairs leading up to the top and a viewing platform 600 feet high atop the tower of Pantheons. Of course, that building is imaginary and was never built.

7) The Colossus of Nero was a statue 106.5 Roman feet (30.3 meters or 99 feet) tall, or possibly 37 meters (121 feet) It stood in the vestibulum of Nero's Golden House, possibly a courtyard, or a niche in an exterior wall, or in a room. From Suetonius,

There was nothing however in which he was more ruinously prodigal than in building. He made a palace extending all the way from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which at first he called the House of Passage, but when it was burned shortly after its completion and rebuilt, the Golden House. Its size and splendour will be sufficiently indicated by the p137following details. Its vestibule was large enough to contain a colossal statue of the emperor a hundred and twenty feet high and it was so extensive that it had a triple colonnade a mile long.

This translation certainly makes it seem like the colossus was inside a room.

I have read that Nero had a life size painting of the colossus made, and hung it in the atrium of a villa built by Caligula on the outskirts of Rome. If the atrium was a courtyard or room it should have had a wall at least 100 to 120 feet tall to hang the painting.

8) I once read that the palace buildings Caligula built on the Palatine were built of wood, unlike most masonry Roman buildings. How tall a tower could a imperial megalomaniac like Caligula have built out of wood, if he wanted to?

The Yongning Pagoda was described in Record of the Buddhist Monasteries in Loyang to be 90 Zhang high and 100 Zhang with the spire, or 330 meters (1082.68 feet), but in the commentary of the Waterways Classic "only" 49 Zhang or 163 meters (534.777 feet). Archaeologist Yang Honxun who excavated its foundations believed it was about 147 meters (482.283 feet) tall.

See discussion here, page 9, posts 88 and 89.

Note that the Great pyramid is 138.8 meters (455.38 feet) tall and was 146.5 meters (480.643 feet) tall when completed. The facing stones were loosened in an earthquake in 1305 and later carried away, and the pyramidion at the top is missing. So if Calgula wanted to he could probably have built a wooden tower hundreds of feet tall.

9) The Legendary tomb of King Lars Porsena of the Etruscan city of Clusium was described in a way hard to visualize. it was supposed to be 200 meters (656.168 feet) tall.

If an Etruscan King of a city state could build such a structure about 500 BC I guess a Roman Emperor could have built something just as tall - however tall it really was.

10) There were a number of important ports in the Roman Empire, like Ostia and Portus, the ports of Rome. The Romans could have built tall towers as light houses at those ports, as tall as the Pharos at Alexandria. The Pharos at Alexandria is believed to have been about 120 to 137 meters (393.701 to 449.475 feet) tall. Or 115 to 135 meters (377.297 to 442.913 feet) feet tall.

In fact the Romans did convert the Pharos from a tower seen by day to a light house that could be seen at night, and did build some other light houses. The Roman light house or Pharos at Dover, England now stands only 60 feet high.

Today the pharos is only a four-storey building at 19 metres or around 60 feet high with the top floor section being a medieval restoration, but originally it was six levels high at 24 metres or 80 feet and, maybe even eight levels high, according to some Roman historians?

The Tower of Hercules in Corunna, Spain is an ancient Roman lighthouse.

he Tower of Hercules (Galician and Spanish: Torre de Hércules) is an ancient Roman lighthouse on a peninsula about 2.4 kilometers (1.5 mi) from the centre of A Coruña, Galicia, in north-western Spain. Until the 20th century, the tower itself was known as the "Farum Brigantium". The Latin word farum is derived from the Greek pharos for the Lighthouse of Alexandria. The structure is 55 metres (180 ft) tall and overlooks the North Atlantic coast of Spain. The structure, almost 1900 years old and and renovated in 1791, is the oldest Roman lighthouse in use today.

The tower is known to have existed by the 2nd century, built or perhaps rebuilt under Trajan, possibly on foundations following a design that was Phoenician in origin. It is thought to be modeled after the Lighthouse of Alexandria. At its base is preserved the cornerstone with the inscription MARTI AUG.SACR C.SEVIVS LVPVS ARCHTECTVS AEMINIENSIS LVSITANVS.EX.VO, permitting the original lighthouse tower to be ascribed to the architect Gaius Sevius Lupus, from Aeminium (present-day Coimbra, Portugal) in the former province of Lusitania, as an offering dedicated to Mars. The tower has been in constant use since the 2nd century and is considered to be the oldest existing lighthouse in the world.

In 1788, the original 34 metres (112 ft), 3-story tower was given a neoclassical restoration, including a new 21 metres (69 ft) fourth storey.14 The restoration was undertaken by naval engineer Eustaquio Giannini during the reign of Charles III of Spain, and was finished in 1791.14 Within, the much-repaired Roman and medieval masonry may be inspected.

It is kind of disappointing that it was originally only 34 metres (112 ft) tall.

This article suggests that the lighthouse built by Claudius at Ostia was probably taller than the Pharos at Alexandria.

If that is correct then a Roman Emperor did build a tower more than 300 feet tall, possibly more than 500 feet tall. There would be rooms and stairs up to the highest floor, which would be used for working the light house and not for events, of course.

The Cordouan Lighthouse built 1584-1611 in France was 162 feet (49 meters) tall and had a kings apartment on the second story.

Thus it is always possible that the pharos at Ostia had rooms sometimes used for imperial events, lower than the light room.

Lighthouse Devotions by JR

A lighthouse is a structure from which light is projected at night, or which serves as a marker by day, to guide ships sailing in coastal waters. Lighthouses are constructed at important points on a coastline, at entrances to harbors and estuaries, on rocky ledges or reefs, on islands, and even in the water. Lighthouses help identify a ship’s location, warn ships of potential hazards, and notify them that land is near. Lighthouses differ from smaller beacons in that a lighthouse includes living quarters for a lighthouse keeper. Today, however, most lighthouses use automatic electric lights that do not require a full-time resident operator. -James Hyland, President and founder, The Lighthouse Preservation Society


First lighthouse – Boston, MA (1716)

Oldest original lighthouse in service – Sandy Hook, NJ (1764)

Newest shoreside lighthouse – Charleston, SC (1962)

Only triangular-shaped lighthouse tower – Charleston, SC (1962)

Only lighthouse equipped with an elevator – Charleston, SC (1962)

Tallest lighthouse – Cape Hatteras, NC (191 ft)

First American-built West Coast lighthouse – Alcatraz Lighthouse (1854)

First lighthouse to use electricity – Statue of Liberty (1886)

First Great Lakes lighthouses – Buffalo, NY & Erie, PA (1818)

Most expensive lighthouse (adjusted cost) – St. George’s Reef, CA (1891)

First lighthouse built completely by the Federal Government – Old Cape Henry, VA (1792)

Founding of the U.S. Lighthouse Service – 7 August 1789

U.S. Lighthouse Service merged with the Coast Guard – 7 July 1939

Second most powerful lighthouse in the world (and most powerful in the Western Hemisphere) – Charleston, SC (1962)


Oldest lighthouse – Tower of Hercules. The oldest lighthouse in the world, the Tower of Hercules, also referred to as the Corunna Lighthouse or Farum Brigantium, was constructed sometime in the second century. It is located in northwest Spain outside the city of Corunna. The Roman-built tower is believed to have been based on the Lighthouse of Alexandria. [Read Still Standing Still Shining]

Tallest traditional lighthouse – The tallest traditional lighthouse is widely considered to be 271-foot-tall Île Vierge Lighthouse in France. Built in 1902, it’s made of granite and is the tallest stone lighthouse in the world today.

Tallest modern lighthouse – Lighthouse of Jeddah: The city of Jeddah has worldwide acclaim as a port city in the otherwise arid Saudi Arabia. The lighthouse of Jeddah is the tallest lighthouse and the first in this list of amazing lighthouses in the world at a staggering 436 feet. Unlike conventional lighthouses, the Jeddah lighthouse acts as a control room for the city’s port and harbour. [Read All Lights Matters]

Shortest lighthouse – The North Queensferry Light Tower. At only 11 ft., it is the world’s smallest operational lighthouse and it sits on the pier of a small town in Scotland.


Magnificent panoramic tour around the coast. Feel the power of the sea against the strength and stillness of the lighthouse and castles. Regain a sense of quietness, safety, homecoming and balance in the middle of the chaos created by nature´s rawest form of strength.

When Julius Caesar visited A Coruña he understood the importance of its privileged location. The Tower of Hercules, inspired by the lighthouse of Alexandria, is the only working Roman lighthouse in the world as is still in use today to assist ships crossing the Atlantic corridor.

A Coruña began as a Celtic settlement and is referenced in the Irish Book of Conquests. The story tells that the chieftain Breogan, who founded the Celtic nation of Galicia, climbed the Tower of Hercules from which he glimpsed the South of Ireland. His descendants sailed there and became the Celtic ancestors of the current Irish people.

A Coruña has always been the scene of important historical events. The Spanish Armada set sail from there to the Netherlands and England, in 1588. One year later, the most popular Sea Dog of Elizabeth I, Francis Drake, besieged A Coruña for 2 weeks. He was repelled by María Pita, a woman who took her dead husband’s spear, killed the British flag bearer and rallied support among the few men left, the women and the children who found new strength and defended the city with greater power than expected.

This episode prompted the construction of Santa Cruz castle, 15 minutes drive from the Centre of A Coruña. Santa Cruz is a small beach, with a small island and a small castle. Like an impressionist painting come to life.

The British troops came back to A Coruña in 1809 lead by the Scottish Sir John Moore, to help the Spanish against the Napoleon´s troops. Moore was fatally injured and died, the battle was eventually lost and the French captured A Coruña. When the French left, the people of A Coruña erected a grave in Moore´s honour in the peaceful garden of St. Carlos that overlooks the bay and the castle of San Anton.

This scenic tour will allow you to enjoy the local culture and walk through history, spectacular promenades, beautiful beaches of fine white sand, and stunning landscapes.

Standing Watch in the Shadows of History

The 1803/1854 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse as it appeared in this sketch made in 1870. National Archives.

One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over…. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and an example it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth. — W. E. B. Du Bois

They stood the long, lonely watch atop their lighthouse.

In the lantern room of the 10-story building, the men bravely and dutifully tended the light as the tower shook in the unrelenting wind with its frightening shrieks and howls.

The cotton wicks of the oil lamps danced in the night. Smoke smudged the lamp’s glass tubes and silvered reflectors that sent the yellow light out into the great expanse of darkness. Every few hours, the oily haze had to be wiped away if the lighthouse were to be seen by the strangers at sea, but the glass tubes were too hot to touch. Acrid air burned their lungs, and oftentimes forced them through the scuttle hatch to the landing below.

They labored during daylight hours too, through hurricanes, lightning strikes, stifling heat and humidity, and clouds of mosquitos. Up the rickety wooden stairway many times a day they climbed, lugging heavy tins of porpoise oil or whale oil, spending endless hours attending to a myriad of chores. They cranked up the weights for the rotation machinery, refueled the lamps, trimmed the wicks, polished the metalwork, wiped down the storm panes of the lantern, and swept the floors. Like sailors aboard a ship in a storm, they took their meals or slept in fits and starts.

Vigilantly they kept the light. But they were not official lighthouse keepers. They received no financial benefit for the work they performed, no recognition, nor awards.

A lighthouse keeper lighting a lamp mounted inside a parabolic reflector. Between 1815 and 1854, this would have been the lighting apparatus in the lantern room of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Author’s Collection.

While their masters’ names today are proudly etched on granite plinths and preserved in history books, these particular lighthouse workers’ names are mostly forgotten—in fact, their names were hardly known beyond the memories of their immediate families and on property deeds and estate records and have long since faded away.

They stand a lonely watch in the shadows of history. They were the black slave keepers of North Carolina’s lighthouses.

Many people are familiar with the historic all-black U.S. Life-Saving Service crew led by Richard Etheridge at Pea Island who were posthumously awarded Congressional gold lifesaving medals for rescuing nine survivors of the shipwrecked schooner E.S. Newman in 1896.

Mostly unknown or otherwise forgotten, however, are the courageous black men and women who, as slaves, tended lighthouses on the Carolina coast. We don’t know their names, we don’t know what they looked like, but we know that they were there. The practice, in fact, can be traced throughout world history.

Some years ago, Thomas Tag, the U.S. Lighthouse Society’s Technical Advisor, wrote a groundbreaking article titled, “Black Lighthouse Keepers.” Not surprisingly, the sources he could draw upon were meager.

The interior of an Federal octagonal-style lighthouse similar to the original Cape Hatteras Lighthouse established in 1803. Photo by the author.

Tag told of the black servant of Sir William Batten named Mingoe, who tended the two lighthouses in the 1660s at Harwich, England. After Batten’s death, Mingoe inherited the right to continue keeping the wooden harbor lights at the Essex harbor for £20 per year “during the Terme of his naturall life for his paines therein.”

But 1660 is not that long ago in terms of lighthouse history. A lighthouse historian could safely assert in general terms that, since antiquity, slaves and indentured servants of all races constructed and tended lighthouses, even centuries before the lighting of the 450-foot-tall Pharos of Alexandria built by the Greeks in the 3rd century B.C.

Near Coruña, Spain, Roman slaves no doubt hauled tons of firewood and maintained the signal fire at the summit of the Tower of Hercules established in 2 A.D. and still in service today and slaves also would have tended the Roman lighthouse built in the first century at Portus Dubris, now Dover, England.

Skipping ahead a couple of millennia, America’s comparatively young 300-year-old lighthouse history, extensively documented by scholars and celebrated by devotees and photographers, has mostly ignored the story of men and women of color, either free or slaves, who served in lighthouses.

The few names we know include Willis Augustus Hodges, a free man since his birth in 1815 in modern-day Virginia Beach. Hodges, a Republican with good political connections, was appointed the first official African-American keeper at the important Cape Henry Lighthouse in 1870.

A year later, records found by Thomas Tag reveal that J. McHenry Farley, an African-American minister, served as lighthouse keeper at the New Point Comfort Lighthouse in Virginia—an interesting coincidence, as many churches today feature lighthouse symbolism in their names or logos.

Aaron Carter, a free man who served as an assistant at Cape Florida Lighthouse, is most notable for having been killed on duty while attempting to repel an attack by Seminole Indians in 1836. Carter is believed to be the first U.S. Lighthouse Establishment employee killed in combat.

In a few instances, women of color also served in lighthouses. William H. Thiesen, the Coast Guard historian for the Atlantic Area, has noted that in 1826 at Cape Florida an African-American woman was left in charge of the lighthouse by the keeper who lived miles away, the first documented case of a minority female who supervised a Federal installation.

Lighthouse keeper Joseph Claud Jennett. Copied from an original provided by J. Charles Jennette, MD, to the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society.

There was also an elderly black woman who kept St. Simons Island Lighthouse lighted while its keeper was incapacitated with gout. Another unnamed black woman is known to have served as an assistant, presumably to her white master, at Point Comfort Lighthouse in Virginia before 1852.

Were slaves or free blacks involved in the construction or operation of lighthouses on the Carolina coast? Indeed they were.

Colonial America’s seventh lighthouse and the second tallest when it was completed near Charleston in 1768 was built partly by black brick masons and most certainly was serviced by slaves before it was utterly destroyed by Confederate saboteurs in December 1861.

North Carolina’s first lighthouse at Cape Fear, the architectural younger sibling of Charleston Lighthouse, began operating on December 24, 1794. Without direct evidence, it can still be safely assumed that slaves participated in its construction and in the early years of its operation.

Historical records for the 1803 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse are more revealing about black men serving in the stead of keepers who were also their masters. Accessing census records and a handful of lighthouse documents found at the National Archives, it is there that we tread on firmer ground in this story.

When the original Cape Hatteras Lighthouse first shined its light on or before October 29, 1803, the apparatus inside the ten-foot-tall lantern at the top of the lighthouse consisted of a pair of oil-filled pan lamps hanging by chains from the dome of the structure. The precarious pans of oil and dozens of burning rope wicks encompassed by the iron-framed lantern were susceptible to the tower’s shaking in high winds. Even with the most assiduous care and ballet-like maneuvers by the keeper to avoid bumping into the pan lamps, fires were an ever-present danger.

In January 1809, a fire broke out that severely damaged the top of the lighthouse. All of the glass storm panes were destroyed, and the lighthouse was out of commission for a lengthy period of time.

The keeper of the lighthouse then, appointed by President Thomas Jefferson, was 49-year-old Joseph Farrow. Not surprisingly for the time, information about Farrow is scant.

When the 1810 Federal census was taken, Cape Hatteras was part of Currituck County. Though the handwriting of the records is poor, it appears that Farrow, at that time, owned six slaves. (Farrow’s predecessor, Adam Gaskins, the first keeper at Cape Hatteras, had owned three slaves.)

Farrow had no assistant keeper on the payroll, and while the Treasury Department led by Secretary Albert Gallatin discouraged its lighthouse keepers from using slave labor to operate and maintain Federal property, keepers in remote locations like Cape Hatteras did so anyway.

Title page of the American Coast Pilot published in 1850. Author’s collection.

Based on the documented practices of Farrow’s successors at the lighthouse, it can be assumed, without further direct evidence, that one or more of his slaves kept the light burning at the top of the lighthouse.

Joseph Farrow had a tumultuous tenure during his 13 years as keeper. In 1817, after the light of the lighthouse had been observed suspiciously going out in the middle of the night, he was accused of colluding with local wreckers. The fact that Farrow “moonlighted” as the county’s commissioner of shipwrecks elevated the intrigue. More likely, the keeper’s slaves struggled to keep the lamps burning due to poor quality oil.

Farrow’s accusers also complained that the lighthouse service practiced nepotism in its hiring practices. When a number of mariners and merchants published complaints in an 1821 newspaper regarding the unreliability of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Farrow was fired and replaced with his cousin, Pharoah Farrow.

Census records reflect that Pharoah Farrow owned six African-American slaves in 1830. Federal lighthouse documents reveal that because the keeper lived some distance away from the lighthouse, his slaves functioned as the actual keepers of the light. When this information reached the offices of the Fifth Auditor of the U.S. Treasury, Pharoah Farrow was fired and replaced with Isaac Farrow, adding some validity to the nepotism allegations. (And there is an additional irony here—“pharos,” a Latin word, means “lighthouse.”)

In 1830, Isaac Farrow owned one slave. If Farrow’s slave served in any capacity in tending the lighthouse, the keeper wisely kept it under wraps. But to the credit of any Cape Hatteras light keeper prior to the employment of assistant keepers, it is impossible to explain how one man could perform all of the duties required to maintain the lighthouse day after day, year after year, without help, especially if he had other work to do as most Hatterasmen did, such as piloting, fishing, lightering, livestock keeping, and boat building.

One Cape Hatteras Lighthouse keeper had important business that kept him off the island for months at a time. His name was Joseph Claud Jennett, and he served as principal keeper for a total seven years during two periods in the 1840s and 1850s.

Arguably, no family on Hatteras Island more proudly represents their longstanding and exemplary association with the lighthouses at Cape Hatteras than the Jennett family.

William Jennett, Joseph’s father, was one of four siblings who, as children in 1798, sold the original four acres of land to the government for the construction of the first lighthouse. Jennett’s great-grandson, Unaka Benjamin Jennett, who retired in 1939, was the last of the long line of principal keepers of lighthouses at the Cape.

Between William and Unaka, (a span of 141 years), there were a remarkable number of Jennetts who, in the eloquent words of their descendant Dawn Taylor, were “called by the sea.”

The Jennett family tree is lush with lighthouse keepers, lifesavers, and soldiers who fought on the side of the Union during the Civil War to put an end to slavery.

A scattering of sources help to acquaint us with keeper Joseph Jennett. We find that he was a man devoted to his family, to his church, and to his community—especially to those in need.

Many times during the 1830s and 1840s, Jennett sailed across Pamlico Sound to Swan Quarter to attend meetings as a warden for the poor of Hyde County’s St. George’s Parish. Records show that, using his own sailing vessel, Jennett transported sick and indigent islanders to the mainland where they could be cared for, or delivered corn from mainland farms to the poor on Hatteras Island.

Some of those meetings and missions as warden for the poor corresponded with Jennett’s assignment as Cape Hatteras Lighthouse keeper.

According to the census, we know that Jennett had three slaves listed as part of his household in 1840. It stands to reason that, in his absence, at least one of those black men maintained the watch at the top of the lighthouse.

This, of course, presents a paradox that some readers may be pondering: How could a Christian man devoted to the poor own slaves? It is not possible to answer that question fairly without living in that time, and being able to pose the question to Jennett himself.

However, Jennett must have had complete trust in these men, as he relied on them to keep the lighthouse illuminated each night while he was off on the mainland. And, it should be remembered that even though lighthouse keeping was fraught with its own dangers, the work was far less deadly and wretched than other types of slave labor, the worst being canal digging in eastern North Carolina.

If only we could know what their life was like. Where did the slave lighthouse keepers live? Did they have families who helped them? Were they trained by the slaves of other keepers? This writer is not the only historian who has wished he owned a time machine. The British historian Simon Schama once wrote, “Historians are left forever chasing shadows …doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.”

Unfortunately, by 1850, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was receiving a substantial amount of scrutiny and derision after years of inconsistent and unsatisfactory performance, primarily due to the tower’s insufficient elevation above sea level and the poor quality of its lamps and reflectors.

Mariners, shipping interests, and their insurance companies had collectively criticized the lighthouse establishment for Cape Hatteras’s substandard light. “The light is notoriously a bad one, and so far as can be judged from external appearances, it is badly kept,” reported an inspector sent to the Cape by the New York publisher of the all-important American Coast Pilot.

We might imagine the scene in the autumn of 1850 when the inspector arrived at the lighthouse, inquiring for the keeper. “He’s not here, sir, and we don’t rightly know when he’ll be back,” Jennett’s unofficial assistant keeper may have said. Upon hearing this, the publisher of the American Coast Pilot was outraged and reported to Treasury Department officials that Keeper Jennett had been absent from the lighthouse for over three months.

Jennett’s immediate supervisor, the local superintendent at Washington, North Carolina, quickly came to the keeper’s defense, writing to superiors that he was aware that Jennett had a slave who “performs most of the labor of cleaning, lighting, [etc.], but under the constant personal inspection of the keeper.” Obviously, the superintendent was either unaware of Jennett’s frequent travels to the mainland or was providing cover for his keeper.

Jennett retired from lighthouse keeping in 1853, when lighthouse operations at Cape Hatteras were suspended for a number of months so that the tower could be raised with a 35-foot-high brick addition atop the original stoneworks. The lighthouse also had installed a French Fresnel lens, fresh from its exhibition at New York City’s Crystal Palace. (That lens can be seen at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum). Jennett continued his civic duties, serving as both justice of the peace and later as the Hyde County representative to the North Carolina House of Commons for the 1856-57 session.

Jennett’s successor was his son-in-law, William O’Neal. O’Neal had six African-Americans in his household, and likely continued, (after the lighthouse renovations were complete and the Federal engineers, contractors, and lampists had gone back north,) the tradition of delegating his lighthouse keeping responsibilities to one or more of his slaves. They had to learn an entirely new lighting system and daily wipe clean more than 1,000 pieces of glass of the lens.

In 1860, O’Neal was replaced by another son-in-law of Joseph Jennett, Benjamin T. Fulcher, who was also a slave holder. Fulcher’s lighthouse keeping career ended abruptly when he helped Confederates remove the historic Fresnel lens from the top of the lighthouse in the summer of 1861, so that it could be hidden on the mainland. Fulcher’s unnamed slave may have assisted in the arduous and nefarious task at the top of the lighthouse.

Thus concluded nearly half a century of African-Americans participating in various capacities of building and maintaining the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, as well as other North Carolina lighthouses. They performed their duties enduring conditions and difficulties that are, for us, unimaginable. Yet, this history mainly remains untold.

Their names may be unknown to us, but what they did to help guide mariners at sea around the deadly dangers of Diamond Shoals is not. The black keepers of our lighthouses ought to be remembered in some way so that they are no longer forsaken, so that they no longer stand in the shadows of history.

The Theatre of Marcellus – Rome, Italy

This open-air theatre was built during the last few years of the Roman Republic for the people to be able to watch lavish performances of dramas and music. The building was completed in 13 BC and inaugurated by Augustus in 12 BC. During its time of operation, it was the largest and most important theatre of Rome, with a capacity of up to 20,000 spectators. The building has been largely modified throughout its history and today its top portion serves as housing in the form of apartments.

Located on the grounds of Dover Castle in Kent, England, is a well preserved Roman lighthouse constructed from the orange-red tiles found throughout the Roman world, and from local flint and other stones. The original structure seems to have been erected about 50 AD with major reconstruction around130 AD, and was perfectly situated atop the high chalk cliffs of this area to help guide maritime traffic moving through the Channel between the ports of southeast Britain and what is now France, Belgium and the Netherlands. It was originally one of a pair, the other lighthouse having been situated on the cliffs about one thousand meters to the southwest. That structure did not survive the centuries and its foundation is now buried beneath 18th Century fortifications.

The lighthouse’s function is known with certainty due to its very close resemblance to other surviving lighthouses in Egypt and Spain and excavated examples in Italy, as well ancient depictions of the famous Pharos lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt. In its original form it would have been square inside and octagonal outside, with four levels. It stands about 75 feet tall today, with the top 19 feet being Medieval reconstruction. It owes its survival mainly to having been used as a church tower in the Middle Ages and a variety of other uses over the centuries. Adjacent to it is the church of St Mary in Castro, the original fabric of which was partly constructed of material recycled from the lighthouse and other nearby Roman remains by the Saxons around 600 AD. Roman tile and worked flint are clearly visible throughout the structure. The Saxon church is a significant monument in itself, though it has seen much rebuilding. It is still in use today.

Trains from London to Dover take between one and two hours, depending on time of day. The lighthouse can be accessed today with an admission ticket to Dover Castle. The site is managed by English Heritage. Dover Museum offers excellent exhibits covering the Roman and Saxon periods and these strongly complement a visit to the lighthouse and church. Views from this location are spectacular, with the French coast visible on a clear day, the harbor of Dover directly below and the expanse of the Channel and the Dover cliffs stretching off for miles.

Dover Roman Lighthouse. To the right is the Saxon period Church of St Mary in Castro. Note the use of Roman building material in the church’s fabric. In the distance at left is Dover Castle.

A close up view of Dover Roman lighthouse. The figure standing at bottom right between the lighthouse and church offers a sense of scale. Note the layers of Roman tile alternating with worked flint and stone.

View from inside the lighthouse, showing clearly the square interior plan and four levels.


In a lighthouse, the source of light is called the “lamp” (whether electric or fueled by oil) and the concentration of the light is by the “lens” or “optic”. Originally lit by open fires and later candles, the Argand hollow wick lamp and parabolic reflector were developed around 1781 in Europe and deployed on the Cordouan lighthouse in France in 1782, with a rotating element being added in 1790. In the U.S., whale oil was used with wicks as the source of light until the Argand parabolic reflector system was introduced around 1810 by Winslow Lewis. Colza oil replaced whale oil in the early 1850s, but U.S. farmers’ lack of interest in growing this caused the service to switch to lard oil in the mid-1850s. Kerosene started replacing lard oil in the 1870s and the lighthouse service was finally converted by the late 1880s. Electricity and carbide (acetylene gas) began replacing kerosene around the turn of the 20th century. [1] Carbide was promoted by the Dalén light which automatically lit the lamp at nightfall and extinguished it at dawn.


Before modern strobe lights, lenses were used to concentrate the light from a continuous source. Vertical light rays of the lamp are redirected into a horizontal plane, and horizontally the light is focused into one or a few directions at a time, with the light beam swept around. As a result, in addition to seeing the side of the light beam, the light is directly visible from greater distances, and with an identifying light characteristic.

This concentration of light is accomplished with a rotating lens assembly. In early lighthouses, the light source was a kerosene lamp or, earlier, an animal or vegetable oil Argand lamp, and the lenses rotated by a weight driven clockwork assembly wound bylighthouse keepers, sometimes as often as every two hours. The lens assembly sometimes floated in liquid mercury to reduce friction. In more modern lighthouses, electric lights and motor drives were used, generally powered by diesel electric generators. These also supplied electricity for the lighthouse keepers. [1]

Efficiently concentrating the light from a large omnidirectional light source requires a very large diameter lens. This would require a very thick and heavy lens if a conventional lens were used. The invention of the Fresnel lens (pronounced /freɪˈnɛl/) in 1822 by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel revolutionized lighthouses in the 19th century, focusing 85% of a lamp’s light versus the 20% focused with the parabolic reflectors of the time. Its design enabled construction of lenses of large size and short focal length without the weight and volume of material in conventional lens designs. Although the Fresnel lens was invented in 1822, it was not used in the U.S. until the 1850s due to the parsimonious administrator of the United States lighthouse establishment, Stephen Pleasonton. With the creation of the United States Lighthouse Board in 1852, all U.S. lighthouses received Fresnel lenses by 1860. [2]

Fresnel lenses are ranked by order, a measure of refracting power, with a first order lens being the largest, most powerful and expensive and a sixth order lens being the smallest. The order is based on the focal length of the lens. A first order lens has the longest focal length, with the sixth being the shortest. Coastal lighthouses generally use first, second, or third order lenses, while harbor lights and beacons use fourth, fifth, or sixth order lenses. [3]

Some lighthouses, such as those at Cape Race, Newfoundland, and Makapuu Point, Hawaii, used a more powerful hyperradiant Fresnel lens manufactured by the firm of Chance Brothers.

In recent times, many Fresnel lenses have been replaced by rotating aerobeacons which require less maintenance. In modern automated lighthouses, this system of rotating lenses is often replaced by a high intensity light that emits brief omnidirectional flashes (concentrating the light in time rather than direction). These lights are similar to obstruction lights used to warn aircraft of tall structures. Recent innovations are “Vega Lights”, and initial experiments with light-emitting diode (LED) panels. [1]

Light characteristics[edit]

In any of these designs an observer, rather than seeing a continuous weak light, sees a brighter light during short time intervals. These instants of bright light are arranged to create a light characteristic or, pattern specific to a lighthouse. [4] For example, the Scheveningen Lighthouse flashes are alternately 2.5 and 7.5 seconds. Some lights have sectors of a particular color (usually formed by colored panes in the lantern) to distinguish safe water areas from dangerous shoals. Modern lighthouses often have unique reflectors or Racon transponders so the radar signature of the light is also unique.

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