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p671 Lectica

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp671‑673 of

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

LECTICA (κλίνη, κλινίδιον, or φορεῖον) was a kind of couch or litter, in which persons, in a lying position, were carried from one place to another. They may be divided into two classes, viz., those which were used for carrying the dead, and those which served as conveniences for the living.

The former of these two kinds of lecticae (also called lectica funebris, lecticula, lectus funebris, feretrum or capulum), in which the dead were carried to the grave, seems to have been used among the Greeks and Romans from very early times. In the beauty and costliness of their ornaments these lecticae varied according to the rank and circumstances of the deceased [Funus p559A.]. The lectica on which the body of Augustus was carried to the grave, was made of ivory and gold, and was covered with costly drapery worked of purple and gold (Dion Cass. LVI.34; cf. Dionys. Ant. Rom. IV.76; Corn. Nepos, Att. 22 §2; Tacit. Hist. III.67). During the latter period of the empire public servants (lecticarii) were appointed for the purpose of carrying the dead to the grave without any expense to the family to whom the deceased belonged (Novell. 43 and 59). Representations of lecticae funebres have been found on several sepulchral monuments. The following woodcut represents one taken from the tombstone of M. Antonius Antius Lepidus. (Cf. Lipsius, Elect. I.19; Scheffer, De Re Vehiculari, II.5 p89; Gruter, Inscript. p954.8; Böttiger, Sabina, vol. II p200; Agyafalva, Wanderungen durch Pompeii.)


[image ALT: A bed with on it a corpse bundled up in a sheet and tied at either end. It is an ancient depiction of a Roman funerary litter, or lectica.]

Lecticae for sick persons and invalidsa seem likewise to have been in use in Greece and at Rome from very early times, and their construction probably differed very little from that of a lectica funebris (Liv. II.36; Aurel. Vict. De Vir. Ill. c34). We also frequently read that generals in their camps, when they had received a severe wound, or when they were suffering from ill health, made use of a lectica to be carried from one place to another (Liv. XXIV.42; Val. Max. II.8 §2; I.7; Sueton. Aug. 91).

Down to the time of the Gracchi we do not hear that lecticae were used at Rome for any other purposes than those mentioned above.b The Greeks, however, had long been familiar with a different kind of lectica (κλίνη or φορεῖον), which was introduced among them from Asia, and which was more of an article of luxury than anything to supply an actual want. It consisted of a bed or mattress and a pillow to support the head, placed upon a kind of bedstead or couch. It had a roof consisting of the skin of an ox, extending over the couch and resting on four posts. The sides of this lectica were covered with curtains (αὐλαίαι). It appears p672to have been chiefly used by women (Suid. s.v. φορεῖον), and by men only when they were in ill health (Anacr. ap. Athen. XII p533, &c.; Plut. Pericl. 27; Lysias, De Vuln. Praem. p172; Andocid. De Myst. p30; Plut. Eumen. 14). If a man without any physical necessity made use of a lectica, he drew upon himself the censure of his countrymen as a person of effeminate character (Dinarch. c. Demosth. p29). But in the time subsequent to the Macedonian conquests in Asia, lecticae were not only more generally used in Greece, but were also more magnificently adorned (Plut. Arat. 17). The persons or slaves who carried their masters or mistresses in a lectica were called φορεαφόροι (Diog. Laert. V.4 §73), and their number was generally two or four (Lucian, Epist. Saturn. 28; Somn. s. Gall. 10; Cyn. 9; cf. Becker, Charikles, II. p71, &c.). When this kind of lectica was introduced among the Romans, it was chiefly used in travelling, and only very seldom in the city of Rome itself. The first trace of such a lectica is in a fragment of a speech of C. Gracchus, quoted by Gellius (X.3). From this passage it seems evident that this article of luxury was introduced into Italy from Asia, and that at the time scarcely any other lectica than the lectica funebris was known to the country people about Rome. It also appears from this passage that the lectica there spoken of was covered; otherwise the countryman could not have asked whether they were carrying a dead body (cf.  Cic. Philip. II.45; Plut. Cic. 48 ; Dion Cass. XLVII.10). The resemblance of such a lectica used by the Romans to that which the Greeks had received from Asia is manifest from the words of Martial (XI.98): lectica tuta pelle veloque. It had a roof consisting of a large piece of skin or leather expanded over it and supported by four posts, and the sides also were covered with curtains (vela, plagae, or plagulae; cf. Senec. Suas. I.6; Suet. Tit. 10). During the time of the empire, however, the curtains were not thought a sufficient protection for a lectica; and, consequently, we find that lecticae used by men as well as women, were closed on the sides with windows made of transparent stone (lapis specularis), whence Juvenal (IV.20) calls such a lectica an antrum clausum latis specularibus (cf. Juv. III.239). We sometimes find mention of a lectica aperta II.24), but we have no reason to suppose that in this case it had no roof, for the adjective aperta probably means nothing more than that the curtains were removed, i.e. either thrown aside or drawn up. The whole lectica was of an oblong form, and the person carried in it lay on a bed, and the head was supported by a pillow, so that he might read and write in it with ease. To what extent the luxury of having a soft and pleasant bed in a lectica was carried, as early as the time of Cicero, may be seen from one of his orations against Verres (V.11). Feather-beds seem to have been very common (Juv. I.159, &c.). The frame-work, as well as the other appurtenances, were, with wealthy persons, probably of the most costly description. The lectica, when standing, rested on four feet, generally made of wood. Persons were carried in a lectica by slaves (lecticarii) by means of poles (asseres) attached to it, but not fixed, so that they might easily be taken off when necessary (Sueton. Calig. 58; Juv. VII.132,º III.245; Martial, IX.22.9).º There can be no doubt that the asseres rested on the shoulders of the lecticarii, and not on thongs which passed round the necks of these slaves and hung down from their shoulders, as some modern writers have thought (Senec. Epist. 80, 100; Tertull. ad Uxor. I.4; Clem. Alex. Paedag. III.4; Juv. III.245,º IX.142). The act of taking the lectica upon the shoulders was called succollare (Plin. H. N. XXXV.10; Sueton. Claud. 10), and the persons who were carried in this manner were said succollari (Sueton. Otho 6). From this passage we also learn that the name lecticarii was sometimes incorrectly applied to those slaves who carried a person in a sella or sedan-chair. The number of lecticarii employed in carrying one lectica varied according to its size, and the display of wealth which a person might wish to make. The ordinary number was probably two (Petron. Sat. 96;º Juv. IX.142); but it varied from two to eight, and the lectica is called hexaphoron or octophoron, accordingly as it was carried by six or eight persons (Juv. I.64; Mart. II.81, VI.77; Cic. c. Verr. V.11, ad Quint. II.10). Wealthy Romans kept certain slaves solely as their lecticarii (Cic. ad Fam. IV.12); and for this purpose they generally selected the tallest, strongest, and most handsome men, and had them always well dressed. In the time of Martial it seems to have been customary for the lecticarii to wear beautiful red liveries. The lectica was generally preceded by a slave called anteambulo, whose office was to make room for it (Martial, III.46; Plin. Epist. III.14; cf. Becker, Gallus, I. p213, &c.).

Shortly after the introduction of these lecticae among the Romans, and during the latter period of the republic, they appear to have been very common, though they were chiefly used in journeys, and in the city of Rome itself only by ladies and invalids (Dion Cass. LVII.17). But the love of this as well as of other kinds of luxury increased so rapidly, that Julius Caesar thought it necessary to restrain the use of lecticae, and to confine the privilege of using them to certain persons of a certain age, and to certain days of the year (Sueton. Caes. 43).

In the reign of Claudius we find that the privilege of using a lectica in the city was still a great distinction, which was only granted by the emperor to his especial favourites (Suet. Claud. 28). But what until then had been a privilege became gradually a right assumed by all, and every wealthy Roman kept one or more lecticae, with the requisite number of lecticarii. The emperor Domitian, however, forbade prostitutes the use of lecticae (Suet. Domit. 8). Enterprising individuals gradually began to form companies (corpus lecticariorum), and to establish public lecticae, which had their stands (castra lecticariorum) in the regio transtiberina, and probably in other parts also, where any one might take a lectica on hire (Victor, De Regionib. Urb. Rom. in Graevii Thesaur. III. p49; Martial, III.46). The persons of whom these companies consisted, were probably of the lower orders or freedmen (cf. Gruter, Inscript. 599.11, 600.1).

The lecticae of which we have hitherto spoken, were all portable, i.e. they were constructed in such a manner that the asseres might easily be fastened to them whenever it was necessary to carry a person in them from one place to another. But the name lectica, or rather the diminutive lecticula, was also sometimes applied to a kind of p673sofa, which was not moved out of the house. On it the Romans frequently reclined for the purpose of reading or writing, for the ancients when writing seldom sat at a table as we do, but generally reclined on a couch; in this posture they raised one knee, and upon it they placed the parchment or tablet upon which they wrote. From this kind of occupation the sopha was called lecticula lucubratoria (Suet. Aug. 78), or more commonly lectulus (Plin. Epist. V.5; Ovid, Trist. I.11.38; cf. Alstorph, De Lecticis Veterum Diatriba, Amsterdam, 1704).


Thayer's Notes:

a For many years I thought that being carried across the landscape in a litter was the greatest of gentle luxuries; and maybe the ancients did, too: yet the modern reader can get a clearer feel for the true level of comfort of this mode of transportation, from a passage in an unexpected author. The Roman doctor Cornelius Celsus, writing in the 1c A.D. of a medical therapy technique of his time in which the patient is systematically "rocked", parenthetically says this (De Medicina, II.15.3):

The gentlest rocking is that on board ship either in harbour or in a river, more severe is that aboard ship on the high seas, or in a litter, even severer still in a carriage. . . .

Even more telling on the comforts of ancient transportation, I think, is this little passage (ch. 159) in Cato the Elder's On Agriculture, 1c B.C.; unfortunately there is no indication as to the exact mode of travel:

To prevent chafing: When you set out on a journey, keep a small branch of Pontic wormwood under the anus.

b This is not true, if Dio — writing 400 years later — is to be believed. In Zonaras' epitome of Book 18, a passage speaks of a law of 195 B.C. forbidding the use of them by women, presumably as a luxury since they are mentioned along with gold and embroidery.


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