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p567 Gausapa

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on p567 of

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

GAUSAPA, GAUSAPE, or GAUSAPUM, a kind of thick cloth, which was on one side very woolly, and was used to cover tables (Horat. Sat. II.11; Lucil. ap. Priscian. IX.870), beds (Mart. XIV.147), and by persons to wrap themselves up after taking a bath (Petron. 28), or in general to protect themselves against rain and cold (Senec. Epist. 53). It was worn by men as well as women (Ovid, Ars Amat. II.300). It came in use among the Romans about the time of Augustus (Plin. H. N. VIII.48), and the wealthier Romans had it made of the finest wool, and mostly of a purple color. The gausapum seems, however, sometimes to have been made of linen, but its peculiarity of having one side more woolly than the other always remained the same (Mart. XIV.138). As Martial (XIV.152) calls it gausapa quadrata, we have reason to suppose that, like the Scotch plaid, it was always, for whatever purpose it might be used, a square or oblong piece of cloth (see Böttiger, Sabina, II. p102).

The word gausapa is also sometimes used to designate a thick wig, such as was made of the hair of Germans, and worn by the fashionable people at Rome at the time of the emperors (Pers. Sat. VI.46). Persius (Sat. IV.38) also applies the word in a figurative sense to a full beard.


Thayer's Note:

Putting all this in plain English, it's clear that in its usual meaning, a gausapa was a high-quality plush towel. As for the second use of the word, I would hardly pay much attention to it: in modern American English, we too refer to a wig as a "rug" sometimes; notice that the writer is a satirist.

To me, the most interesting occurrence of gausapa is in Christian inscriptions enumerating the relics embedded in the altars of churches: an absorbent blanket or plush towel is exactly what you would have at hand and use for sopping up the blood of a martyr, and these relics appear regularly in ancient churches: see for example these two inscriptions in S. Lorenzo in Lucina (1 2), both of the 12c but recording relics of the city's first-century protomartyr S. Lawrence. Such a relic, by the way, should not be confused with so‑called "secondary" relics, as a cloth that once touched a saint: not only does the martyr's blood make these gausapae primary relics, i.e., actual remains of the saint's body; but since the blood was shed in the course of his martyrdom, they are actual witnesses (μαρτῦρες) to the event.


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Page updated: 27 Aug 04