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p871 Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp871‑872 of

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

PATERA, dim. PATELLA (φιάλη), a round dish; a plate; a saucer. Macrobius (Sat. V.21), explaining the difference between the patera and the Carchesium, says that the former received its name from its flat expanded form (planum ac patens). The paterae of the most common kind are thus described by Festus (s.v. Patellae), "Vasa picata parva, sacrificiis faciendis apta." (Nigra patella, Mart. V.120; Rubicunda testa, XIV.114). They were small plates of the common red earthenware, on which an ornamental pattern was drawn in the manner described under the article of Fictile, and which were sometimes entirely black. Numerous specimens of them may be seen in the p872British Museum, and in other collections of ancient fictile vases. The more valuable paterae were metallic, being chiefly of bronze; but every family, raised above poverty, possessed one of silver (ἀργυρίς), together with a silver salt-cellar. [Salinum] (Plin. H. N. XXXIII.12 s54). In opulent houses there was a plate of gold (χρυσίς, Athen. XI pp497, 502; Pind. Ol. VII.1‑3; Virg. Georg. II.192). These metallic plates were often adorned with figures, engraved or embossed upon them (Cic. Verr. IV.21; Xen. Anab. IV.7 § 27, VII.3 § 27). A beautiful specimen is presented in the woodcut to the article Libra; and the accompanying woodcut exhibits a highly ornamented dish, also of bronze, designed to be used in the worship of Mars, and found at Pompeii (Donaldson's Pomp. vol. II pl. 78). The view of the upper surface is accompanied by a side-view, showing the form and depth of the vessel.

[image ALT: An engraving of an elaborately chased metal saucer with a long straight handle. It is an example of a type of ancient Roman vessel or dish called 'patera' in Latin, and is discussed in the text of this webpage.]

The ornamental paterae sometimes represented leaves of fern, which probably diverged from the centre (filicatae, Cic. Parad. I § 2). Gems were set in others (Cic. Verr. IV.24; Virg. Aen. I.728, 739). We read also of an amber dish (electrinam), having in the centre the countenance of Alexander the Great, and his history represented on the border (Treb. Poll. Trig. Tyr. 13). The annexed woodcut contains a view and section of a plate of white marble in the British Museum, which was found in the ruins of Hadrian's Villa, and purchased by Mr. Townley. It is 14 inches in diameter, and 1¾ high. It is cut with skill and delicacy, the marble not being much more than a quarter of an inch thick. In the centre is sculptured a female bacchante in a long tunic and with a scarf [Chlamys] floating over her head. This centre-piece is encircled by a wreath of victory. The decorations indicate the appropriation of the plate to the worship of Bacchus.

[image ALT: An engraving of a shallow footed dish, the inside of which is sculptureed with the figure of a woman dancing with a long shawl, with a border of vines. It is an example of a type of ancient Roman vessel or dish called 'patera' in Latin, and is discussed in the text of this webpage.]

Plates were sometimes made so as to be used with either side downward, and were then distinguished by the epithet ἀμφίθετος (Hom. Il. XXIII.270, 616). In these the under surface was ornamented as well as the upper. The Massilians and other Ionic Greeks commonly placed the under surface uppermost. Plates were further distinguished from one another by being either with or without a base (πυθμήν), a boss in the middle (ὀμφαλωτὴ, (μεσόμφαλος, (φθοῖς), feet (βαλανωτὴ), and handles (Athen. XI pp501, 502). In the preceding woodcuts the bronze patera has one handle; both the paterae are made to stand upon a low base.

Small plates were sometimes used in cooking (Plin. H. N. XXX.8 s21), an operation more commonly performed in pots [Olla] and basins or bowls. [Patina.] They were used at meals to eat upon as we use them (Varro, Eumen. ap. Non. Marc. XV.6; Hor. Epist. I.5.2), although it appears that very religious persons abstained from this practice on account of the customary employment of them in sacrificing to the gods (Cic. de Fin. II.7). A larger plate, in fact, a round dish, was used to bring to the table such an article of food as a flat fish (Mart. XIII.81). Mustard (Plin. H. N. XIX.8 s54) and ointments (Xenophanes, p68, ed. Karsten) were brought in saucers. The Greeks also drank wine out of plates or saucers (Xen. Conv. II.23), as we see in the woodcut under Symposium, which represents a symposium, and in which the second and third figures from the right hand have each a saucer.

The use of paterae at meals no doubt gave origin to the employment of them in sacrifices. On these occasions they held either solid food (μικρὸν κρέας, Varro, Man. ap. Non. Marc. l.c.; cibos, Ovid, Fast. VI.310), or any liquid intended to be poured out as a libation (Virg. Aen. III.67, IV.60, V.98, VI.249, VII.133, XII.174; Ovid. Met. IX.160, Fast. II.634, IV.934; Val. Flacc. V.192; Juv. III.261;º Heliodor. Aethiop. II p98; Athen. XI p482). We find them continually represented in conjunction with the other instruments of sacrifice upon coins, gems, altars, bas-reliefs, and the friezes of temples. In the ancient Doric temple at Rome, now dedicated to St. Adrian, the tasteful patera and the cranium of the bull are alternately sculptured on the metopes (Labacco, Ant. di Roma, 16, 17).

Plates of the most precious materials and of the finest workmanship were sometimes given as prizes at the public games (Hom. Il. XXIII.270; Pind. Isth. I.20; Schol. in Pind. Nem. IX.121, 123).

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Page updated: 20 Aug 12