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p759 Metallum

Article by Philip Smith, B.A., of the University of London
on pp759‑761 of

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

METALLUM (μέταλλον). The Greek word originally signified a pit or cave, where anything is sought for by digging, hence a mine, and hence any mineral found in a mine, especially metal. In Latin, the word means both a mine and metal, the latter sense, however, preponderating in use. The object of this article is to give a brief general view of the acquaintance which the Greeks and Romans had with the metals, and the uses to which they applied them.

The metals which have been more or less known from the earliest period of which we have any information are those which were long distinguished as the seven principal metals, namely, gold, silver, copper, tin, iron, lead, and mercury. (Some very interesting information, which does not fall within the province of this work, may be read in Beckmann's History of Inventions, by Johnston, vol. II pp23, &c. 4th ed.) If to this list we add the compound of gold and silver called electrum, the compound of copper and tin called χαλκός and aes (bronze), and steel, we have, in all probability, a complete list of the metals known to the Greeks and Romans, with the exception of zinc, which they do not seem to have known as a metal, but only in its ores, and of brass, which they regarded as a sort of bronze (see below).

The early Greeks were no doubt chiefly indebted for a supply of the various metals to the commerce of the Phoenicians, who procured them principally from Arabia and Spain, and tin from our own island and the East. In the Homeric poems we find an allusion to this traffic as one in which the Greeks of the western coast were already engaged; where Athena personates Mentes, the ruler of the Taphians, carrying shining iron to Temesa in Cyprus, to exchange it for copper (Od. I.184, comp. Nitzsch's note). The Homeric poems furnish ample proofs of how much more plentiful copper was than iron. The former is the common material of arms, instruments, and vessels of various sorts [Aes]; the latter is mentioned much more rarely, and is distinguished by an epithet implying the difficulty of working it (πολύκμητος, Il. VI.48), and its adjective is frequently used metaphorically to express the greatest stubbornness (Od. V.191, &c.: see Seiler and Jacobitz, s.vv. σίδηρος and σιδήρεος). Hesiod carried us back to a period when iron was unknown (Op. et Di. 150, 151):

τοῖς δ᾽ ἦν χάλκεα μὲν τεύχεα, χάλκεοι δέ τε οἶκοι,

χαλκῷ δ᾽ εἰργάζοντο· μέλασδ᾽ οὐκ ἔσκε σίδηρος,

and though the period thus described is mythical, yet the idea of it was clearly connected with the belief that iron had been the last discovered of all the metals (see Höckh, Creta, vol. I p260; Millin, Minéralogie Homérique). The importance of hardening the copper used for arms and armour, and so forth, is a presumption in favour of the knowledge and use of tin; but we have also definite mention of this metal (κασσίτερος) several times in the Iliad; and it seems not improbable thatº then, as now, it was generally plated on another metal (see Liddell and Scott, and Seiler and Jacobitz, s.v.; Beckmann, vol. II p206, foll.). The art of hardening copper by the admixture of tin was known before the historical period (comp. Aes). With respect to steel, it is a much disputed point whether this metal is the proper sense of the word κύανος in Homer (Il. XI.24, 35, Od. VII.87) and Hesiod (Scut. 143), but at all events it is highly probable that this is the meaning of ἀδάμας in Hesiod (Scut. 231, Theog. 161; see the lexicographers, s.vv., the commentators on Homer and Hesiod, in ll., and Beckmann, vol. II p324). It would appear from the manner in which Aeschylus refers to the Chalybes, taken in connection with the traditions respecting the early intercourse of the Greeks with the shores of the Baltic, that the iron and steel works of that people were known at a very early period, and that it was from them chiefly that the Greeks procured their iron and steel (Aesch. Prom. 720; Apollon. Rhod. II.1000; Xen. Anab. V.5 § 1; Ritter, Erdkunde, vol. II p776; Höckh, Creta, vol. I p294). Enough has already been said respecting the early knowledge of the precious metals, separately and in combination, under Argentum, Aurum, and Electrum. In drawing inferences, however, from Homer's allusions to these and the other materials of the useful and fine arts, we must be on our guard not to make the poet's imagination our standard of their actual abundance. (See further, concerning the real or supposed knowledge of metals and metallurgy in the earliest times, Plin. H. N. VII.56 s57.)

If we turn from the metals themselves to the art of working them, still taking the poems of Homer and Hesiod for our guide, we find the Greeks of that early period perfectly acquainted with the process of smelting the metal from the ore and of forging heated masses into the required shapes, by the aid of the hammer and tongs. It may, indeed, be doubted whether the χόανοι, into which Hephaestus throws the materials of the shield of Achilles, and which are worked by the blast of twenty pairs of bellows (φῦσαι) are smelting-furnaces or mere smith's forges (Il. XVIII.470), but the former sense seems to be required in the passage of Hesiod (Theog. 863). Both Homer and Hesiod refer to the smith's workshop (χαλκήϊος δόμος, χάλκειος θῶκος) as a common lounge and as a place of shelter to which the poor resorted for its warmth (Od. XVIII.328, Op. et Di. 491). The whole of Homer's description of the workshop of Hephaestus deserves careful study (Il. XVIII.369, &c.). The smith's instruments were the anvil (ἄκμων) with the block on which it rested (ἀκμόθετον), the tongs (πυράγρη), and the hammer (ῥαιστήρ, σφῦρα, Il. l.c., Od. III.433‑435). [Incus, Forceps, Malleus.] The arts of casting metals into moulds, and of welding, or even of soldering pieces of metal together, were as yet unknown. In large works, hammered plates were united by mechanical fastenings, nails, pins, rivets, cramps, or dovetails (δεσμοί, ἧλοι, περόναι, κέντρα), and specimens of this sort of work in the bronze statues p760of the earliest period were still to be seen in the time of Pausanias (Il. XI.634, XVIII.379; Paus. X.16 § 1). The art of embossing, or fastening pieces of one metal on to the surface of another (ἐμπαιστικὴ τέχνη), is referred to several times in Homer (Il. XI.24, 35; Lobeck, ad Soph. Aj. 846, &c.). Gilding was commonly practised; one interesting example is the gilding of the horns of an ox about to be sacrificed (Od. III.425, &c.). This passage furnishes a striking instance of the use of words connected with χαλκός for working in any kind of metal: thus, the artificer is called by the generic term, χαλκεύς (432), as well as by the specific name, χρυσοχόος (425), and his tools are the ὄπλα χαλκήϊα, οἷσίν τε χρυσὸν εἰργάζετο (vv. 433, 435). Lastly, the images used to describe the hissing of the burning stake when plunged in the eye of Polyphemus, shows an acquaintance with the process of dipping red-hot iron in water to harden it (Od. XI.391, comp. Soph. Ai. 720).

The advances made in the art of metallurgy in subsequent times are chiefly connected with the improvements in the art of statuary. The method of working, as described in Homer, seems to have long prevailed, namely by beating out lumps of the material into the form proposed, and afterwards fitting the pieces together by means of pins or keys. It was called σφυρήλατον, from σφῦρα, a hammer. Pausanias (III.17 § 6) describes this process in speaking of a very ancient statue of Jupiter at Sparta, the work of Learchus of Rhegium. With respect to its supposed antiquity, Pausanias can only mean that it was very ancient, and of the archaic style of art. The term σφυρήλατος is used by Diodorus (II.9) in describing a very ancient golden table which was said to have decorated the celebrated gardens of the palace of Ninus and Semiramis, at Babylon. Pliny (H. N. XXXIII.4 s24) mentions a golden statue of Diana Anaitis worked in the same way, which he calls holosphyraton. A statue of Dionysus by Onassimedes, of solid bronze, is mentioned by Pausanias (IX.12 § 3) as existing at Thebes in his time. The next mode, among the Greeks, of executing metal works seems to have been by plating upon a nucleus, or general form, of wood — a practice which was employed also by the Egyptians, as is proved by a specimen of their art preserved in the British Museum. The subject is a small head of Osiris, and the wood is still remaining within the metal. It is probable that the terms holosphyraton and sphyraton were intended to designate the two modes of hammer-work; the first on a solid mass, and the other hammering out plates (comp. Malleus).

It is extremely difficult to determine at what date the casting of metal was introduced. That it was known at a very early period there can be no doubt, although it may not have been exercised by statuaries in European Greece till a comparatively late date. The art of founding may be divided into three classes or stages. The first is the simple melting of metals either from the solid form, or from the ore; the second, casting the fused metals into prepared forms or moulds; and the third, casting into a mould, with a core or internal nucleus, by which the metal may be preserved of a determined thickness. The first stage must have been known at a period of which we have no record beyond a passage in the book of Job (XXVIII.1, 2), which establishes the fact that some of the processes of metallurgy, which as the reduction of gold, silver, iron, and copper from their ores, were well known when that book was composed. The casting of metal into moulds must also have been practised very early. There are no means of knowing of what material or composition the forms or moulds were made, but in all probability clay (dried, and then perhaps baked) was employed for the purpose. The circumstance of a spot where clay abounded having been chosen for the founding of the bronze works for the temple of Solomon supports this supposition (1 Kings, vii.46). Of course all the earliest works produced in this stage of the art must have been solid. The third process, that of casting into a mould with a core, was an important step in the statuary's art. Unfortunately there is no better record of the time, nor of the mode in which this was effected by the ancients, than the statements of Pausanias and Pliny, according to whom the art of casting in bronze and in iron was invented by Rhoecus and Theodorus of Samos, who probably lived in the sixth and fifth centuries before our era (Paus. III.12 § 8, VIII.14 § 5; Plin. H. N. XXXV.12 s43; Dict. of Biog. s.vv. Rhoecus, Theodorus).

The ancients used something answering the purpose of a solder for fastening the different pieces of metal together; but it is difficult to determine whether the term κόλλησις means a solder or only a species of glue. Pausanias distinctly speaks of it as something different from nails or cramps, and gives us the name of its inventor, Glaucus of Chios, who appears to have lived earlier than the Samian artists just referred to (Herod. I.25; Paus. X.16 § 1; Plut. de Def. Or. 47, p436; Dict. of Biog. s.v.). Pliny in like manner speaks of a solder under the title of plumbum argentarium (H. N. XXXIV.17 s48). Many of the works in the British Museum, as well as in other collections, are composed of pieces of metal which have been joined together, but whether by clamps, rivets, or soldering, it is now impossible to determine accurately, on account of the rust about the edges of the plates. The modern practice of welding pieces of metal together seems to have been altogether unknown to the ancients.

Respecting the supply and use of metals in the historical period, little remains to be added to what has been said under Aes, Argentum, Aurum, Caelatura, Electrum, Statuaria, &c. Iron was found chiefly in Laconia and on the shores of the Black Sea, and was brought especially from Sinope. Stephanus Byzantinus, who mentions this fact, states the purposes for which the two sorts of iron were considered respectively better fitted (s.v. Λακεδαίμων). The whole subject of metals and metal-work is treated of by Pliny in the thirty-third and thirty-fourth books of his Historia Naturalis.

One point not yet noticed is the question, whether the ancients possessed a knowledge of zinc. That they rarely if ever used it as an alloy of copper is proved by the analysis of existing specimens of their bronze [Aes]; but that they were absolutely ignorant of it can easily be disproved. One of the most important passages on the subject is in Strabo (XIII. p610), who says that "in the neighbourhood of Andeira (in the Troas) there is a certain stone which, on being burnt, becomes iron; then, on being smelted with a certain earth, it distils ψευδάργυρος, and with the addition of copper it becomes what is called κρᾶμα (which may mean p761either an alloy in general, or a particular kind of alloy), which some call ὀρείχαλκος; and ψευδάργυρος is also found about Tmolus." In all probability the stone here mentioned is the common zinc ore called calamine, which Pliny and other writers call cadmium. If so, ψευδάργυρος must be metallic zinc, and ὀρείχαλκος brass. For a further discussion of this subject, into which we have not space to enter, the reader is referred to Beckmann, vol. II pp32, &c.

Respecting the use of metals for money, see Nummus.

Only a few words are necessary on the word metallum in its other sense. Nearly all that is known on the subject of the Greek mines, the mode of working them, and the revenues derived from them is contained in Böckh's Essay on the Silver Mines of Laurion appended to his Public Economy of Athens. Respecting the Roman mines, see Vectigalia.

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