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p543 Follis

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on p543 of

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

FOLLIS, dim. FOLLICULUS, an inflated ball of leather, perhaps originally the skin of a quadruped filled with air: Martial (IV.19) calls it "light as a feather." Boys and old men among the Romans threw it from one to another with their arms and hands as a gentle exercise of the body, unattended with danger (Mart. VII.32,º XIV.45, 47; Athen. I.25). The emperor Augustus (Suet. Aug. 83) became fond of the exercise as he grew old (see Becker, Gallus, vol. I p271).

The term follis is also applied to a leather purse or bag (Plaut. Aul. II.4.23; Juv. XIV.281); and the diminutive folliculus to the swollen capsule of a plant, the husk of a seed, or anything of similar appearance (Senec. Nat. Quaest. V.18; Tertull. De Res. Carn. 52).

Two inflated skins (δύο φύσαι, Herod. I.68; ζώπυρα, Ephor. Frag. p188; πρηστῆρες, Apoll. Rhod. IV.763, 777), constituting a pair of bellows, and having valves adjusted to the natural apertures at one part for admitting the air, and a pipe inserted into another part for its emission, were an essential piece of furniture in every forge and foundry (Il. XVIII.372‑470; Virg. Aen. VIII.449). According to the nature and extent of the work to be done the bellows were made of the hides of oxen (taurinis follibus, Virg. Georg. IV.171), or of goats (hircinis, Hor. Sat. I.4.19), and other smaller animals. The nozzle of the bellows was called ἀκροφύσιον or ἀκροστόμιον (Thucyd. IV.100; Eust. in Il. XVIII.470). In bellows made after the fashion of those exhibited in the lamp here introduced from Bartoli (Ant. Lucerne, III.21), we may imagine the skin to have been placed between the two boards so as to produce a machine like that which we now employ.


[image ALT: An engraving of an ancient oil lamp in the shape of a bearded man, almost completely wrapped up in a kind of shawl, sitting on his haunches and working a bellows the tip of which is next to the hole for the wick.]

Thayer's Note:

The word follis also means a small coin: at first loosely (possibly 3d century: Hist. Aug. Heliog. 25.2 but note that the Historia Augusta was written much later), then after Diocletian's currency reforms in A.D. 296, a specific denomination, as far as I can make out, since Augustine writes twice about "asking 50 folles" for something (5th century: Civ. D. 22.8; adv. Crescent. 3.29). The origin of the word may well be that given by Isidore of Seville (Orig. XVI.18), even though he wrote nearly four hundred years later: small change named after the little leather purse you carried them in.

For a typically informative section on the follis, see Doug Smith's page on Roman coin denominations; also on his site, a splendid photograph of a follis of Constantine the Great along with some information very useful to any of you who might wish to collect these little coins.

In the later Roman Empire, by a further extension of the word, follis came to be a loose term for a type of property tax. For details, see Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire, ch. 2, p50 and his note.


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