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p364 Corvus

Article by Benjamin Jowett, M.A., Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford
on p364 of

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

CORVUS, a sort of crane, used by C. Duilius against the Carthaginian fleet in the battle fought off Mylae, in Sicily (B.C. 260). The Romans, we are told, being unused to the sea, saw that their only chance of victory was by bringing a sea-fight to resemble one on land. For this purpose they invented a machine, of which Polybius (I.22) has left a minute, although not very perspicuous, description. In the fore part of the ship a round pole was fixed perpendicularly, twenty-four feet in height and about nine inches in diameter; at the top of this was a pivot, upon which a ladder was set, thirty-six feet in length and four in breadth. The ladder was guarded by cross-beams, fastened to the upright pole by a ring of wood, which turned with the pivot above. Along the ladder a rope was passed, one end of which took hold of the corvus by means of a ring. The corvus itself was a strong piece of iron, with a pike at the end, which was raised or lowered by drawing in or letting out the rope. When an enemy's ship drew near, the machine was turned outwards, by means of the pivot, in the direction of the assailant. Another part of the machine which Polybius has not clearly described is a breastwork, let down (as it would seem) from the ladder, and serving as a bridge, on which to board the enemy's vessel (cf. Curtius, IV.2.4). By means of these cranes the Carthaginian ships were either broken or closely locked with the Roman, and Duilius gained a complete victory.

The word corvus is also applied to various kinds of grappling-hooks, such as the corvus demolitor, mentioned by Vitruvius (X.19) for pulling down walls, or the terrible engine spoken of by Tacitus (Hist. IV.30), which being fixed on the walls of a fortified place, and suddenly let down, carried off one of the besieging party, and then by a turn of the machine put him down within the walls. The word is used by Celsus for a scalpel.a It is hardly necessary to remark that all these meanings have their origin in the supposed resemblance of the various instruments to the beak of a raven.

Thayer's Note:

a No. Although Celsus very frequently mentions scalpels (scalpellus), he mentions a corvus only once in his whole work (de Med. VII.19.7, q.v.): it is a special kind of ferramentum or surgical tool made of metal, used for a very specific purpose, which the surgeon takes up after having used a scalpel for the bulk of the procedure before that.

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Page updated: 3 Sep 04