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Amphora

p90 Article by Philip Smith, B.A., of the University of London
on pp90‑91 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.


[image ALT: An engraving of five ceramic jars, roughly cylindrical to conical, pointed at the bottom, widest towards the top but flaring in after that to form a short neck. They are examples of Greek or Roman amphoras.]
AMPHORA, (ἀμφορεύς, old form ἀμφιφορεύς, Hom. Il. XXIII.107; Od. X.164, et alib.; Schol. in Apoll. Rhod. IX.1187; Simon. in Anth. Pal. III.19). A large vessel, which derived its name from its being made with a handle on each side of the neck (from ἀμφί, on both sides, and φέρω to carry), whence also it was called diota, that is, a vessel with two ears (δίωτος, δίωτος στάμνος or κάδισκος, Plat. Hipp. Maj. p288d; Ath. XI p473; Moeris s.v. ἀμφορέα; Hor. Carm. I.9.8). The form and size varied, but it was generally made tall and narrow, and terminating in a point, which could be let into a standa or into the ground, to keep the vessel upright; several amphorae have been found in this position in the cellars at Pompeii. The following cut represents amphorae from the Townley and Elgin collections in the British Museum.

The usual material of the amphora was earthenware (Hor. de Ar. Poët. 21), whence it was also called testa Hor. Carm. I.20.2): but Homer mentions them of gold and of stone (Il. XXIII.92; Od. XXIV.74, XIII.105): and in later times glass amphorae were not uncommon (Petron. 34); several have been found at Pompeii: Nepos mentions, as a great rarity, amphorae of onyx, as large as Chian cadi (ap. Plin. H. N. XXXVI.7 s12). The amphora was often made without handles. The name of the maker, or of the place of manufacture, was sometimes stamped upon them: this is the case with two in the Elgin collection, Nos. 238 and 244. [Fictile.]

Amphorae were used for the preservation of various things which required careful keeping, such as wine, oil, honey, grapes, olives, and other fruits (Hom. Il. XXIII.170; Cato, R. R. 10.2; Colum. R. R. XII.16, 47; Hor. Epod. II.15; Cic. c. Verr. IV.74); for pickled meats (Xen. Anab. V.4 §28); and for molten gold and lead (Herod. III.96; Nepos, Hann. 9). There is in the British Museum a vessel resembling an amphora, which contains the fine African sand used by the athletae. It was found, with seventy others, in the baths of Titus, in 1772. Respecting the use of the amphora in the streets of Rome, see Petron. 70, 79; Propert. IV.5.73; Macrob. Sat. II.12; and the commentators on Lucretius, IV.1023. Homer and Sophocles mention amphorae as used for cinerary urns (Il. XXIII.91, 92; Soph. Fr. 303, Dind.); and a discovery was made at Salona, in 1825, which proves that they were used as coffins: the amphora was divided in half in the direction of its length to receive the corpse, and the two halves were put together again and buried in the earth: the skeletons were found still entire (Steinbüchel, Alterthum, p67). Amphorae of particular kinds were used for various other purposes, such as the amphora nasiterna for irrigation (Cato, R. R. II §3), and the amphora spartea, which was perhaps a wicker amphora for gathering grapes in (Ibid. §2).

The most important employment of the amphora was for the preservation of wine: its use for this purpose is fully described under Vinum. The following woodcut, taken from a painting on the wall of a house at Pompeii, represents the mode of filling the amphora from a wine-cart.


[image ALT: An engraving of a young man and a boy, in short tunics, filling up amphorae from a hose extending from a large bag on a cart.]

There is an interesting account of the use of the amphora among the Egyptians, in Sir G. Wilkinson's Ancient Egyptians, vol. II pp157‑160.

p91 The name amphora was also applied both by the Greeks and the Romans to a definite measure of capacity, which, however, was different among the two peoples, the Roman amphora being only two‑thirds of the Greek ἀμφορεύς. In both cases the word appears to be an abbreviation, the full phrase being in Greek ἀμφορεὺς μετρητής (the standard amphora), and in Latin amphora quadrantal (the cubic amphora). Respecting the measures themselves, see Metretes, Quadrantal. At Rome a standard amphora, called amphora Capitolina, was kept in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol (Rhemn. Fann. de Pond. 61; Capitol. Maxim. 4). The size of ships was estimated by amphorae (Cic. ad Fam. XII.15; Liv. XXI.63); and the produce of a vineyard was reckoned by the number of amphorae, or of culei (of twenty amphorae each), which it yielded.


Thayer's Note:

a a stand: for a woodcut of three types of amphora stands, see the article Incitega.


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Page updated: 28 Dec 06