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Bill Thayer

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p368 Crates

Article by Benjamin Jowett, M.A., Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford
on p368 of

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

CRATES (τάρσος), a hurdle, used by the ancients for several purposes. First, in war, especially in assaulting a city or camp, they were placed before or over the head of the soldier to shield off the enemy's missiles (Amm. Marc. XXI.12). From the plutei, which were employed in the same way, they differed only in being without the covering of raw hides. A lighter kind was thrown down to make a bridge over fosses, for examples of which see Caesar, B. G. VII.8186. By the besieged (Veget. IV.6) they were used joined together so as to form what Vegetius calls a metella, and filled with stones: these were then poised between two of the battlements; and as the storming party approached upon the ladders, overturned on their heads.

A capital punishment was called by this name, whence the phrase sub crate necari. The criminal was thrown into a pit or well, over which stones were afterwards heaped (Liv. I.51, IV.50; Tacit. German. 12).

Crates called ficariae were used by the country people upon which to dry figs, grapes, &c., in the rays of the sun (Colum. XII.15, 16). These, as Columella informs us, were made of sedge or straw, and also employed as a sort of matting to screen the fruit from the weather. Virgil (Georg. I.94) recommends the use of hurdles in agriculture to level the ground after it has been turned up with the heavy rake (rastrum). Any texture of rods or twigs seems to have been called by the general name crates.a

Thayer's Note:

[image ALT: A small area of an intarsio floor, depicting an old man emptying out a basket, prominently labeled 'CRATES', by turning it upside-down; jewels, pearls, and other precious objects are falling out of it. It is a small portion of the floor of the Duomo of Siena in Tuscany (central Italy).]

Third-party photograph (© 2004)
by kind permission.

a Cato mentions crates (the word is properly plural) four times in his manual on farming, the De Re Rustica: once as a basket for figs (48.2), once as a protective covering for harvested grapes (112.2), whether a basket or matting is not clear; and twice for carrying manure (10.3, 11.4): though the Loeb editor translates "basket", my own feeling is that Cato is in fact talking about a rush mat, on which the farm workers heaped as much manure as could then be carried off by two of them — a method that would be much more efficient. More efficient still would be a wheelbarrow, but I know of no indication anywhere that wheelbarrows were known to the Romans: feel free to repair my ignorance if you on the contrary do know of such.

The attached photograph shows a crates, neatly captioned for us, on the celebrated marble intarsio floor of the Duomo of Siena (mid‑14c to mid‑16c): by that time, crates had clearly come to mean mostly a basket.

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Page updated: 28 Aug 12