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p380 Cyathus

Article by Philip Smith, B.A., of the University of London
on pp380‑381 of

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

CY′ATHUS (κύαθος), is one of the numerous words, containing the element κυ, and signifying something hollow: it is applied, for example, to the hollow of the hand. Its general meaning is a cup of any kind; and it constantly occurs as the name of a sort of drinking vessel used by the Romans, who borrowed it from the Greeks (Varro, De Ling. Lat. V.124, ed. Müller); but whether it designates the cup out of which the wine was drunk, or the small ladle by means of which it was transferred from the mixing-bowl into the drinking-cup, is a disputed point.a Orelli asserts that it is never used in the latter sense, and that the ladle was called ἐπίχυσις, or trulla vinaria (Ad Horat. Carm. III.8.13). But the passages in which the word occurs bear out the opinion of Becker, that the ladle was called cyathus p381(see the Lexicons of Scott and Liddell, Seiler and Jacobitz, and Facciolati; Becker, Charikles, vol. I p463).


[image ALT: An engraving of a ladle.]

Two of these cyathi are represented in the preceding woodcut, from the Museo Borbonico, vol. IV pl. 12. They were usually of bronze or silver. The cyathus is referred to as a measure of the quantity of wine which a person drank (Hor. Carm. III.8.13, 19.12). A slave was appointed to supply the drinking-cups of the banqueters by means of the cyathus (Hor. Carm. I.29.8; Suet. Caes. 49; Juv. Sat. IX.46).

Another sense in which the word occurs is, in surgery, for a cup for cupping (Aristoph. Lys. 444, Pax, 542; Aristot. Probl. IX.9).

The cyathus was a definite measure, with both the Greeks and the Romans, containing one-twelfth of the sextarius. It was the uncia, considered with reference to the sextarius as the unit; hence we have sextans used for a vessel containing the sixth of the sextarius, or two cyathi, quadrans for one containing three cyathi, triens for four cyathi, quincunx for five cyathi, &c. (Wurm. De Ponderibus, Mensuris, &c.; Hussey On Ancient Weights, &c.)


Thayer's Note:

a disputed point: At roughly the time this article was written, George Dennis disagreed and provides a very different engraving. As regards the shape of the cyathus, scholarly opinion has come down on Dennis's side and against our dictionary. The vessel can be considered a form of ladle, however: you scooped up your wine with it — then drank from it, in one swift, efficient operation; a man thing, like chugging milk from the carton.

For examples of the kyathos, to give it its Greek spelling, see this page at Perseus.

As a measure, at 1/12 of a sextarius, the cyathus was a small unit: 4.5 centiliters, or about 3 tablespoons U. S. kitchen measurement. See Smith's article Quadrantal.


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Page updated: 1 Oct 06