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p117 Aratrum

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp117‑119 of

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

ARA′TRUM (ἄροτρον), a plough. The Greeksa appear to have had from the earliest times diversities in the fashion of their ploughs. Hesiod (Op. et Dies, 432) advises the farmer to have always two ploughs, so that if one broke the other might be ready for use; and they were to be of two kinds, the one called αὐτόγυον, because in it the plough-tail (γύης, buris, bura) was of the same piece of timber with the share-beam (ἔλυμα, dens, dentale) and the pole (ῥύμος, ἱστοβοεύς, temo); and the other called πηκτόν, i.e. compacted, because in it the three above-mentioned parts, which were moreover to be of three different kinds of timber, were adjusted to one another, and fastened together by means of nails (γόμφοισιν) (Cf. Hom. Il. X.353, XIII.703).

The method of forming a plough of the former kind was by taking a young tree with two branches proceeding from its trunk in opposite directions, so that whilst in ploughing the trunk was made to serve for the pole, one of the two branches stood upwards and became the tail, and the other penetrated the ground, and, being covered sometimes with bronze or iron, fulfilled the purpose of a share. This form is exhibited in the uppermost figure of the annexed woodcut, taken from a medal.


[image ALT: An engraving of several wooden devices of various shapes: two rudimentary plows, a detail of the plow 'tooth', two types of yokes for the cattle, and a plow handle. They are illustrations of the ancient Graeco-Roman plow.]

The next figure shows the plough still used in Mysia, as described and delineated by Sir C. Fellows. It is a little more complicated than the first plough, inasmuch as it consists of two pieces of timber instead of one, a handle (ἐχέτλη, stiva) being inserted into the larger piece at one side of it. Sir C. Fellows p118(Excursion in Asia Minor, 1838, p71) observes that each portion of this instrument is still called by its ancient Greek name, and adds, that it seems suited only to the light soil prevailing where he observed it, that it is held by one hand only, that the form of the share (ὑννις) varies, and that the plough is frequently used without any share. "It is drawn by two oxen, yoked from the pole, and guided by a long reed or thin stick (κάτρινος), which has a spud or scraper at the end for cleaning the share." See the lowest figure in the woodcut.

Another recent traveller in Greece gives the following account of the plough which he saw in that country — a description approaching still nearer to the πηκτὸν ἄροτρον of Homer and Hesiod. "It is composed," says he, "of two curved pieces of wood, one longer than the other. The long piece forms the pole, and one end of it being joined to the other piece about a foot from the bottom, divides it into a share, which is cased with iron, and a handle. The share is, besides, attached to the pole by a short cross-bar of wood. Two oxen, with no other harness than yokes, are joined to the pole, and driven by the ploughman, who holds the handle in his left hand, and the goad in his right." (Hobhouse, Journey through Albania, &c., vol. I p140). A view of the plain of Elis, representing this plough in use, is given by Mr. S. Stanhope in his Olympia (p42).

The yoke and pole used anciently in ploughing did not differ from those employed for draught in general. Consequently they do not here require any further description. [Jugum] To the bottom of the pole, in the compacted plough, was attached the plough-tail, which, according to Hesiod, might be made of any piece of a tree (especially the πρῖνος, i.e. the ilex, or holm-oak), the natural curvature of which fitted it to this use. But in the time and country of Virgil pains were taken to force a tree into that form which was most exactly adapted to the purpose (Georg. I.169, 170). The upper end of the buris being held by the ploughman, the lower part, below its junction with the pole, was used to hold the share-beam, which was either sheathed with metal, or driven bare into the ground, according to circumstances.

To these three continuous and most essential parts, the two following are added in the description of the plough by Virgil:

  1. The earth-boards, or mould-boards (aures), rising on each side, bending outwardly, in such a manner as to throw on either hand the soil which had been previously loosened and raised by the share, and adjusted to the share-beam which was made double for the purpose of receiving them:

    "Binae aures, duplici aptantur dentalia dorso."

    According to Palladius (I.43), it was desirable to have ploughs both with earth-boards (aurita) and without them (simplicia).

  2. The handle (stiva), which is seen in Fellows's woodcut, and likewise in the following representation of an ancient Italian plough. Virgil considers this part as used to turn the plough at the end of the furrow. "Stivaque, quae currus a tergo torqueat imos." Servius, however, in his note on this line explains stiva to mean "the handle by which the plough is directed." It is probable that, as the dentalia, i.e. the two share-beams, which Virgil supposes were in the form of the Greek letter Λ, which he describes by duplici dorso, the buris was fastened to the left share-beam, and the stiva to the right, so that, instead of the simple plough of the Greeks, that described by Virgil, and used, no doubt, in his country (see the following woodcut), was more like the modern Lancashire plough, which is commonly held behind with both hands. Sometimes, however, the stiva (ἐχέτλη, Hes. Op. et Dies, 467) was used alone and instead of the tail, as in the Mysian plough above represented. To a plough so constructed the language of Columellab was especially applicable, "Arator stivae paene rectus innititur" (I.9); and the expressions of Ovid, "Stivaeque innixus arator" (Met. VIII.218), and "Inde premens stivam designat moenia sulco." (Fast. IV.825) In place of the "stiva", Ovid also uses the less appropriate term "capulus" (Ep. de Ponto, I.8.61); "Ipse manu capulum prensi moderatus aratri." When the plough was held either by the stiva alone, or by the buris alone, a piece of wood (manicula) was fixed across the summit, and on this the labourer pressed with both hands. Besides guiding the plough in a straight line, his duty was to force the share to a sufficient depth into the soil. Virgil alludes to this in the phrase "Depresso aratro" (Georg. I.45). The cross-bar, which is seen in Mr. Fellows's drawing, and mentioned in Sir J. C. Hobhouse's description, and which passes from the pole to the share for the purpose of giving additional strength, was called σπάθη, in Latin fulcrum. The coulter (culter, Plin. H. N. XVIII.48) was used by the Romans as it is with us. It was inserted into the pole so as to depend vertically before the share, cutting through the roots which came in its way, and thus preparing for the more complete loosening and overturning of the soil by the share.


[image ALT: An engraving of an ancient Graeco-Roman wheeled plow: a beam riding on a single spoked wheel, and from the beam, a tooth midway along it, and another extended into a tall handle.]

About the time of Pliny two small wheels (rotae, rotulae) were added to the plough in Rhaetia; and Servius (l.c.) mentions the use of them in the country of Virgil. The annexed woodcut shows the form of a wheel-plough, as represented on a piece of engraved jasper, of Roman workmanship. It also shows distinctly the temo or pole, the coulter or culter, the dentale or share-beam, the buris or plough-tail, and the handle or stiva (Caylus, Rec. d'Ant. V. pl. 83 No. 6) It corresponds, in all essential particulars, with the p119plough now used about Mantua and Venice, of which an engraving is given


[image ALT: A schematic of an ancient plow, explained in the accompanying text.]
	1: Buris
2: Temo
3: Dentale ("toothed part")
4: Culter
5: Vomer
6: Aures ("ears")
above.

Respecting the operation of ploughing, see Agricultura, p49.c


Thayer's Notes:

a Lest the plow appear too Greek here, for the record, it is not a Greek invention. Quintus Curtius (VII.7.18) attributes its invention — along with that of the arrow, the spear, and the plate — to the Scythians. Modern opinion generally lays it to the Mesopotamians, possibly before 3000 B.C.

As basic as the plow is and as simple in principle, people have continued to improve it. Among the many refinements since Roman days: wheels in the Middle Ages, the moldboard in the 18c. Americans will be pleased, as I was, to learn that the versatile Thomas Jefferson had a hand in this as in many other things.

b That author has a good deal more to say about the plow, or rather, on a subject barely touched upon by our article — to wit, the use of it; see R. R. II.2.22‑28.

c See also Fairfax Harrison, "The Crooked Plow," Classical Journal XI.323‑332.


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Page updated: 28 Aug 12