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p256 Cataracta

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp256‑257 of

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

CATARACTA (καταῤῥάκτης), a portcullis, so called because it fell with great force and a loud noise. According to Vegetius (De Re Mil. IV.4), it was an additional defence, suspended by iron p257rings and ropes, before the gates of a city, in such a manner that, when the enemy had come up to the gates, the portcullis might be let down so as to shut them in, and to enable the besieged to assail them from above.


[image ALT: A schematic overhead view of a road traversing a double wall. It is meant as an illustration of a Roman gate and its portcullis system.]

In the accompanying plan of the principal entrance of Pompeii, there are two sideways for foot passengers, and a road between them, fourteen feet wide, for carriages. The gates were placed at A, A, turning on pivots [Cardo], as is proved by the holes in the pavement, which still remain. This end of the road was nearest to the town; in the opposite direction, the road led into the country. The portcullis was at B, B, and was made to slide in grooves cut in the walls. The sideways, secured with smaller gates, were roofed in, whereas the portion of the main road between the gates (A, A) and the portcullis (B, B) was open to the sky. When, therefore, an attack was made, the assailants were either excluded by the portcullis; or, if they forced their way into the barbican and attempted to break down the gates, the citizens, surrounding and attacking them from above, had the greatest possible facilities for impeding and destroying them. Vegetius speaks of the "cataracta" as an ancient contrivance; and it appears to have been employed by the Jews at Jerusalem as early as the time of David (Psal. xxiv.7, 9; compare Jer. xx.2 Sept.).


[image ALT: zzz. It is a view, straight up from the ground, of the remaining archway of a Roman gate in Spello, Umbria (central Italy).]

In this view, straight up from the ground, of the remaining archway of the Porta dell' Arce, a Roman gate in Spello (Umbria), the slot for the cataracta is quite clear.


Thayer's Note:

In keeping with its etymology, cataracta is also attested (Plin. Ep. X.61.4) to mean a sluice.


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Page updated: 7 Apr 11