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Bill Thayer

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p283 Circinus

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on p283 of

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

[image ALT: A woodcut of a bas-relief sculpture, from a Roman tomb, of a ruler, a compass, a plumb-line, a T‑square, an adze, a chisel, and a pair of calipers or a second type of compass, further discussed in the text of this webpage.]

CIRCINUS, (διαβήτης), a compass. The compass used by statuaries, architects, masons, and carpenters, is often represented on the tombs of such artificers, together with the other instruments of their profession or trade. The annexed woodcut is copied from a tomb found at Rome (Gruter, Corp. Inscrip. t. 1 part II p644). It exhibits two kinds of compasses: viz. the common kind used for drawing circles and measuring distances, and one with curved legs, probably intended to measure the thickness of columns, cylindrical pieces of wood, or similar objects. The common kind is described by the scholiast on Aristophanes (Nub. 178), who compares its form to that of the letter Λ. [See cut under Norma.] The mythologists supposed this instrument to have been invented by Perdix, who was the nephew of Daedalus, and through envy thrown by him over the precipice of the Athenian acropolis (Ovid, Met. VIII.241‑251). Compasses of various forms were discovered in a statuary's house at Pompeii.a

Thayer's Note:

a As with many similar objects, the serious student is encouraged to look at John Ward's book, The Roman Era in Britain (this passage and the image linked there). Here is my own photo of a Roman compass, on the funerary inscription of P. Celerius Amandus in the Temple of the Shipwrights at Ostia (CIL XIV.321):

[image ALT: A low-relief carving of a compass and a rudder. It is a detail of a Roman inscription found at Ostia, central Italy.]

The other object is a rudder: the man was a ship's carpenter. For fuller details, see Tempio dei Fabri Navales at Ostia-Antica.Org.

For the constellation, see Allen's Star Names.

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Page updated: 8 Dec 07