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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Classical Review
Vol. 3 (1888), p84

The text is in the public domain:
William C. F. Anderson died in 1935.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p322  The Meaning of 'Fulcrum' and 'Fulcri Genius'

In the British Museum there is a group of bronze ornaments which, though hitherto unnoticed, are highly interesting, from a philological no less than an artistic point of view.

They all represent the head and shoulders of a mule or ass, turning sideways and backwards, with ears put down and a vicious expression, which is rendered in a peculiarly natural manner. The head is in almost every case decorated with a garland of vine-leaves entwined with tendrils and bunches of grapes, while the shoulders are covered  p323 with a curious leather collar, the top of which is turned down just where it joins the shaggy skin of some wild animal, which is thrown over it. This collar seems to be almost unique in its kind, and well deserves investigation, for it is evidently borrowed from actual life and is of a fixed type in all these bronzes. The workmanship in all cases is very careful, and in one specimen from France rises to a high artistic level. As for the purpose of these ornaments, there can be no doubt whatever, for they have been found in situ, surmounting a characteristic part of many Roman couches and chairs. This part, or more properly parts, for they are always found in pairs, has been generally regarded as ornamenting the space between the seat and the crossbar below which joined the legs. They are to be seen restored in this fashion in the two Pompeian chairs in the Museo Borbonico, II.31 (Smith's Dictionary of Antiquities, illustration to art. Sella, and in many other places), and in the chair from the Hamilton Collection in the British Museum. Measurement has shown that such a restoration is quite incorrect, and the true position of these ornaments has been proved by the bed discovered at Pompeii in 1868 (Blümner, Kunstgewerbe, II Fig. 20, and Baumeister, Denkmäler, p314), which shows beyond a doubt that they formed the ends of the framework on which the pillows of a couch or the cushions of a chair were placed, a purpose for which their shape fits them admirably, for they are in fact not unlike the head of a modern sofa. They are invariably ornamented with inlaid bronze, which is sometimes of the richest kind, as in the case of the bisellium described by Castellani in the Bullettino della Commissione Archeol. Municipale, 1874, p22, from which the following cut is taken, and are always surmounted by bronze ornaments of the type described above, the ass's head being supplanted by a boy's head or a goose's head and neck in only a few stray instances. The lower part is decorated with a round boss of some size, from which springs a bust of a Genius in full relief or of some jovial young deity, like Bacchus or Hercules. Such bosses are undoubtedly prophylactic and bear a close resemblance to phalerae of the Lauersfort type, but are larger. They have been found in situ, but are much more common alone, and indeed form one of the best represented classes of bronze busts springing from a vertical base. By a fortunate chance, a passage in Juvenal describes the framework to which these ornaments were attached so accurately that its identification with the fulcrum is absolutely certain.

In the eleventh Satire Juvenal says, speaking of the good old times: —

Nemo inter curas et seria duxit habendum

Qualis in Oceano fluctu testudo nataret

Clarum Trojugenis factura et nobile fulcrum

Sed nudo latere et parvis frons aerea lectis

Vile coronati caput ostendebat aselli.


Here the aerea frons is plainly identical with the fulcrum, that it is the framework we have been describing will be denied by no one who compares the coronati caput aselli with the specimens in the British Museum. By a very curious coincidence Juvenal supplies us also with a reference to the other ornament of the couch, the little  p324 genius who lurked at the lower end. In the sixth Satire he says: —

Antiquum et vetus est alienum, Postume, lectum

Concutere et sacri genium contemnere fulcri —


a passage which gains new meaning when we see the little urchins, whom he makes guardians of the inviolability of wedlock.

There is no doubt a reference to the same genius fulcri in Propertius IV.8.68, where he says: —

Lygdamus ad plutei fulcra sinistra latens

Eruitur geniumque meum prostratus adorat —

and there is perhaps a possibility that something similar is intended by Virgil's use of genialis in Aen. VI.603‑604, lucent genialibus altis aurea fulcra toris. This meaning of fulcrum is of course not that of the dictionaries, which all agree in taking the equal as meaning, (1) 'the post or foot of a couch, a bedpost,' (2) — pars pro toto — 'the bed itself' — and (3) a conjecture of Forcellini's, 'a staff' (though this last is only to explain Ovid, P. 3.3.13).

It would be interesting to know how the mistake arose, for the true meaning was known to Isidorus, who says: — Fulcra sunt ornamenta lectorum dicta, quod in iis fulcimur, vel quod toros fulciunt sive caput, quae reclinatoria vulgus appellat, which is a perfectly plain and unmistakable description of the framework as seen in the specimens in our Museum. The mistake of the dictionaries is all the more curious because almost all the passages quoted to support their view are manifestly inconsistent with it. Thus, they cite Pliny's phrase tricliniorum pedibus fulcrisque (N. H. 34.2.4) and yet maintain that the fulcra are, in a general way, identical with the pedes. This however is all of a piece with their other citations, for they also appeal to Aulus Gellius (N. A. 10.15.2) who describes the couch of the Flamen Dialis as follows: — Pedes lecti in quo cubat luto tenui circumlitos esse oportet — neque apud ejus lecti fulcrum capsulam esse cum strue atque ferto oportet; a passage which places the difference of the pedes and the fulcrum beyond a doubt. The consequences of this carelessness on the part of the lexicographers have been far‑reaching, and have led to the misunderstanding of most of the passages where fulcrum occurs. The most flagrant instance is undoubtedly Ovid, P. 3.3.13: — Stabat Amor vultu non quo prius esse solebat Fulcra tenens laeva tristis acerna manu, because it is impossible to regard the fulcra as identical with pedes, or to resort to the commentators' deus ex machina and treat it as pars pro toto. Indeed so perplexing did Forcellini find the lines that he ventured a conjecture that fulcra meant a staff, which none of his followers have felt able to accept. Most of them have been fain to risk an anachronism and to assume that the Roman bed had posts. Such an interpretation is however put absolutely out of court by Suetonius (Claud. 32), Adhibebat omni coenae et liberos suos cum pueris puellisque nobilibus qui more veteri ad fulcra lectorum sedentes vescerentur, for no commentator has yet had the hardihood to suggest that the Romans dined in fourposters. These passages however become perfectly simple when the true meaning is substituted, for what place can be more appropriate for love than the poet's pillow? — does not Propertius say Cynthia namque meo visa est incumbere fulcro(4.7.3) — and what can be more natural than for children to sit at the pillows on which their parents recline? But then a commentator probably never noticed a child breakfasting in bed.

One might have thought that the epithet plumeum given by Ammianus (28.1.47) to the fulcrum would have led the lexicographers on the right track, especially with Isidorus to tell them the traditional meaning, and the later Latin use of the word for the pommel of a riding saddle (Sid. Apoll. Ep. 3.90, quoted by Rich) to guide them, but their faith in the pars pro toto solution was too strong, and they still continue in their dogmatic chambers.

The writer is aware that several points yet remain to be answered, such, for instance, as the relation of the fulcra to the pluteus in one of the passages from Propertius, and the meaning of capsula, strue and ferto in that from Gellius, but this is owing to lack of monumental and literary evidence sufficient to solve the question, a want which he trusts may be supplied in time. As to the wider inquiry into the origin and history of the use of the ass's head suggested by Hyginus (Fab. 274, antiqui autem in lectis triclinioribus in fulcris capita asellorum vite alligata habuerunt) he has at present nothing to add to the notes in Mayor's Juvenal on XI.97, and would be sincerely glad to learn of any other passages bearing on the subject.

W. C. F. Anderson

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