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p373 Culter

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp373‑374 of

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


An engraving of an inscribed stone pedestal. Beneath the 4‑line Latin inscription (which reads: Q. TIBURTI Q. L. | MENOLANI | CULTRARI OSSA | HEIC SITA SVNT) two symmetrical down-pointing meat cleavers have been carved.
CULTER (probably from cello, percello; dim. cultellus, Engl. coulter; in southern Germany, das Kolter;º French couteau; Greek, μάχαιρα, κοπίς, or σφαγίς), a knife with only one edge, which formed a straight line. The blade was pointed and its back was curved. It was used for a variety of purposes; but chiefly for killing animals either in the slaughter-house, or in hunting, or at the altars of the gods (Liv. III.48; Scribonius, Compos. Med. 13; Suet. Aug. 19;º Plaut. Rud. I.2.45; Virg. Georg. III.492; Ovid. Fast. I.321). Hence the expressions — bovem ad cultrum emere, "to buy an ox for the purpose of slaughtering it" (Varro, De Re Rust. II.5); me sub cultro linquit, "he leaves me in a state like that of a victim dragged to the altar" (Hor. Sat. I.9.74); se ad cultrum locare, "to become a bestiarius" (Seneca, Ep. 87). From some of the passages above referred to, it would appear that the culter was carried in a kind of sheath. The priest who conducted a sacrifice never killed the victim himself; but one of his ministri, appointed for that purpose, who was called either by the general name minister, or the more specific popa or cultrarius (Suet. Calig. 32). A tomb-stone of a cultrarius is still extant, and upon it two cultri are represented (Gruter, Inscript. vol. p374II p640 No. 11), which are copied in the annexed woodcut.

The name culter was also applied to razors (Cic. De Off. II.7; Plin. VII.59; Petron. Sat. 108), and kitchen knives (Varro, ap. Non. III.32). That in these cases the culter was different from those above represented, and most probably smaller, is certain; since whenever it was used for shaving or domestic purposes, it was always distinguished from the common culter by some epithet, as culter tonsorius, culter coquinaris.º Fruit knives were also called cultri; but they were of a smaller kind (cultelli), and made of bone or ivory (Colum. XII.14, 45; Plin. XII.25; Scribon. c83). Columella, who gives (IV.25)a very minute description of a falx vinitoria, a knife for pruning vines, says that the part of the blade nearest to the handle was called culter on account of its similarity to an ordinary culter, the edge of that part forming a straight line. This culter according to him was used when a branch was to be cut off which required a hard pressure of the hand on the knife. The name culter, which was also applied to the sharp and pointed iron of the plough (Plin. H. N. XVIII.18.48), is still extant in English, in the form coulter, to designate the same thing. [Aratrum.]

The expression in cultrum or in cultro collocatus (Vitruv. X.10, 14) signifies placed in a perpendicular position.


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Page updated: 18 Oct 07