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p366 Cottabos

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp366‑367 of

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

COTTABOS (Ionic, κόσσαβος or ὄτταβος), a social game which was introduced from Sicily into Greece (Athen. XV p666), where it became one of the favourite amusements of young people after their repasts. The simplest way in which it originally was played was this:— One of the company threw out of a goblet a certain quantity of pure wine, at a certain distance, into a metal basin, endeavouring to perform this exploit in such a manner as not to spill any of the wine. While he was doing this, he either thought of or pronounced the name of his mistress (Etymol. Mag. s.v. Κοτταβίζω), and from the more or less full and pure sound with which the wine struck against the metal basin, the lover drew his conclusions respecting the attachment of the object of his love. The sound, as well as the wine by which it was produced, were called λάταξ or κότταβος: the metal basin had various names, either κοττάβιον, or κοτταβεῖον, or λαταγεῖον, or χάλκειον, or λεκάνη, or σκάφηa (Pollux, VI.109; Etymol. Mag. l.c.; Athen. XV p667 sub fin.) The action of throwing the wine, and sometimes the goblet itself, was called ἀγκύλη, because the persons engaged in the game turned round the right hand with great dexterity, on which they prided themselves. Hence Aeschylus spoke of κότταβοι ἀγκυλητοί (Athen. XV p667). Thus the cottabus, in its simplest form, was nothing but one of the many methods by which lovers tried to discover whether their love was returned or not. But this simple amusement gradually assumed a variety of different characters, and became, in some instances, a regular contest, with prizes for the victor. One of the most celebrated modes in which it was carried on is described by Athenaeus (l.c.) and in the Etymol. Mag., and was called δι᾽ ὀξυβάφων. A basin was filled with water, with small empty bowls swimming upon it. Into these the young men, one after another, threw the remnant of the wine from their goblets, and he who had the good fortune to drown most of the bowls obtained the prize (κοττάβιον), consisting either of simple cakes, sweet-meats, or sesame-cakes.

A third and more complicated form of the cottabus is thus described by Suidas (s.v. Κοτταβίζω).— A long piece of wood being erected on the ground, another was placed upon it in an horizontal direction, with two dishes hanging down from each end; underneath each dish a vessel full of water was placed, in each of which stood a gilt brazen statue, called μάνης. Every one who took part in the game stood at a distance, holding a cup full of wine, which he endeavoured to throw into one of the dishes, in order that, struck down by the weight, it might knock against the head of the statue which was concealed under the water. He p367who spilled least of the wine gained the victory, and thereby knew that he was loved by his mistress (See Schol. ad Lucian. Lexiph. 3 vol. II p325).

A fourth kind of cottabus, which was called κότταβος κατακτός (ἀπὸ τοῦ κατάγειν τὸν κότταβον), is described by Pollux (VI.109), the Scholiast on Aristophanes (Pax, 1172), and Athenaeus (XV p667). The so‑called μάνης was placed upon a pillar similar to a candelabrum, and the dish hanging over it must, by means of the wine projected from the goblet, be thrown upon it, and thence fall into a basin filled with water, which from this fall gave forth a sound; and he who produced the strongest was the victor, and received prizes, consisting of eggs, cakes, and sweetmeats.

This brief description of four various forms of the cottabus may be sufficient to show the general character of this game; and it is only necessary to add, that the chief object to be accomplished in all the various modifications of the cottabus was to throw the wine out of the goblet in such a manner that it should remain together and nothing be spilled, and that it should produce the purest and strongest possible sound in the place where it was thrown. In Sicily, the popularity of this game was so great, that houses were built for the especial purpose of playing the cottabus in them. Those readers who wish to become fully acquainted with all the various forms of this game, may consult Athenaeus (XV p666, &c.), the Greek Lexicographers, and, above all, Groddeck (Ueber den Kottabos der Griechen, in his Antiquarische Versuche, I. Sammlung, 1800, pp163‑238), who had collected and described nine forms in which it was played. Becker (Charikles, I p476, &c.) is of opinion that all of them were but modifications of two principal forms. (Compare also Fr. Jacobs, Ueber den Kottabos in Wieland's Attisches Museum, III.1 pp475‑496).


Thayer's Note:

a The last three names are in fact just generic: χάλκειονmade of bronze; whereas the λεκάνη and σκάφη were specific shapes of cups: the former (see the Dictionary's article under its Latin name Patina) was somewhat flatter than the σκάφη, which was a definite bowl. Similarly, the δι᾽ ὀξυβάφων mentioned further on involves oxybapha or punch cups.


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