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Bill Thayer

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See also Smith's article Pugilatus.

 p269  Cestus

Unsigned article on p269 of

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

[image ALT: An engraving of a boxer raising his fist; both his arms are bound up with what looks like tape. It is a representation of an ancient Greco-Roman boxer armed with the bands known as the cestus.]
CESTUS. 1. The thongs or bands of leather, which were tied round the hands of boxers, in order to render their blows more powerful.a These bands of leather, which were called ἱμάντες, or ἱμάντες πυκτικοί, in Greek, were also frequently tied round the arm as high as the elbow, as is shown in the following statue of a boxer, the original of which is in the Louvre at Paris (see Clarac, Musée d. Sculpt. Ant. et Mod. vol. III pl. 327 n2042).

The cestus was used by boxers from the earliest times. When Epeius and Euryalus, in the Iliad (XXIII.684), prepare themselves for boxing, they put on their hands thongs made of ox-hide (ἱμάντας εὐτμήτους βοὸς ἀγραύλοιο); but it should be recollected, that the cestus in heroic times appears to have consisted merely of thongs of leather, and differed materially from the frightful weapons, loaded with lead and iron, which were used in later times. The different kinds of cestus were called by the Greeks in later times μειλίχαι, σπεῖραι βοείαι, σφαῖραι, and μύρμηκες: of which the μειλίχαι gave the softest blows, and the μύρμηκες the most severe. The μειλίχαι, which were the most ancient, are described by Pausanias (VIII.40 §3) as made of raw ox-hide cut into thin pieces, and joined in an ancient manner; they were tied under the hollow or palm of the hand, leaving the fingers uncovered. The athletae in the palaestrae at Olympia used the μειλίχαι in practising for the public games (ἱμάντων τῶν μαλακωτέρων, Paus. VI.23 §3); but in the games themselves, they used those which gave the severest blows.

The cestus, used in later times in the public games, was, as has been already remarked, a most formidable weapon. It was frequently covered with knots and nails, and loaded with lead and iron; whence Virgil (Aen. V.405), in speaking of it, says,

"Ingentia septem

Terga boum plumbo insuto ferroque rigebant."

Statius (Theb. VI.732) also speaks of nigrantia plumbo tegmina. Such weapons in the hands of a trained boxer, must have frequently occasioned death. The μύρμηκες were, in fact, sometimes called γυιοτόροι, or "limb-breakers." Figures with the cestus frequently occur in ancient monuments. They were of various forms, as appears by the following specimens, taken from ancient monuments, of which drawings are given by Fabretti (De Column. Traj. pp261‑262).º

[image ALT: An engraving of four fists or forearms bound up with what looks like tape. They are representations of the ancient Greco-Roman boxing glove known as the cestus.]

2. Cestus also signified a band or tie of any kind (Varr. De Re Rust. I.8); but the term was more particularly applied to the zone or girdle of Venus, on which was represented every thing that could awaken love (Il. XIV.214; Val. Flacc. VI.470). When Juno wished to win the affections of Jupiter, she borrowed this cestus from Venus (Il. l.c.); and Venus herself employed it to captivate Mars (Mart. VI.13, XIV.206, 207).

Thayer's Note:

a Stripping away all the Greek technical terms, these things are brass knuckles, not boxing gloves.

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Page updated: 29 Apr 17