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p988 Retis

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp988‑990 of

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

RETIS and RETE; dim. RETICULUM (δίκτυον), a net. Nets were made most commonly of flax from Egypt, Colchis, the vicinity of the Cinyps in North Africa, and some other places. Occasionally they were of hemp (Varro, de Re Rust. III.5). They are sometimes called lina (λίμα) on account of the material of which they consisted (Hom, Il. V.487; Brunck, Anal. II.494, 495). The meshes (maculae, Ovid. Epist. V.19; Varro, de Re Rust. III.11; Nemesiani, Cyneg. 302; βρόχοι, dim. βροχίδες, Heliodor. V p231, ed. Commelin.) were great or small according to the purposes intended; and these purposes were very various. But by far the most important application of net-work was to the three kindred arts of fowling, hunting, and fishing; and besides the general terms used alike in reference to all these employments, there are special terms to be explained under each of these heads.

I. In fowling the use of nets was comparatively limited (Aristoph. Av. 528); nevertheless thrushes were caught in them (Hor. Epod. II.33, 34); and doves or pigeons with their limbs tied up or fastened to the ground, or with their eyes covered or put out, were confined in a net, in order that their cries might allure others into the snare (Aristoph. Av. 1083). The ancient Egyptians, as p989we learn from the paintings in their tombs, caught birds in clap-nets (Wilkinson, Man. and Cust. vol. III pp35‑38, 45).

II. In hunting it was usual to extend nets in a curved line of considerable length, so as in part to surround a space into which the beasts of chace, such as the hare, the boar, the deer, the lion, and the bear, were driven through to opening left on one side (Aelian, H. A. XII.46; Tibullus, IV.3.12; Plin. H. N. XIX.2 §2).º This range of nets was flanked by cords, to which feathers dyed scarlet and other bright colours were tied, so as to flare and flutter in the wind. The hunters then sallied forth with their dogs, dislodged the animals from their coverts, and by shouts and barking drove them first within the formido, as the apparatus of string and feathers was called, and then, as they were scared with this appearance, within the circuit of the nets. Splendid descriptions of this scene are given in some of the following passages, all of which allude to the spacious enclosure of net-work (Virg. Georg. III.411‑413, Aen. IV.121, 151‑159, X.707‑715; Ovid. Epist. IV.41, 42, V.19, 20; Oppian, Cyn. IV.120‑123; Eurip. Bacchae, 821‑832). The accompanying woodcuts are taken from two bas-reliefs in the collection ancient marbles at Ince-Blundell in Lancashire.


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In the uppermost figure three servants with staves carry on their shoulders a large net, which is intended to be set up as already described (Tibullus, I.4.49, 50; Sen. Hippol. I1.44; Propert. IV.2.32). The foremost servant holds by a leash a dog, which is eager to pursue the game.


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In the middle figure the net is set up. At each end of it stands a watchman holding a staff (Oppian, Cyneg. IV.124). Being intended to take such large quadrupeds as boars and deer (which are seen within it), the meshes are very wide (retia rara, Virg. Aen. IV.131; Horat. Epod. II.33). The net is supported by three stakes (στάλικες, Oppian, Cyneg. IV.67, &c.; Pollux, V.31; ancones, Gratius, Cyneg. 87; vari, Lucan, IV.439). To dispose the nets in this manner was called retia ponere (Virg. Georg. I.307) or retia tendere (Ovid. Art. Amat. I45). Comparing it with the stature of the attendants, we perceive the net to be between five and six feet high. The upper border of the net consists of a strong rope, which was called σαρδών (Xen. de Venat. VI.9). The figures in the following woodcut represent two men carrying the net home after the chace; the stakes for supporting it, two of which they hold in their hands, are forked at the top, as is expressed by the terms for them already quoted, ancones and vari.


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Besides the nets used to inclose woods and coverts or other large tracts of country two additional kinds are mentioned by those authors who treat on hunting. All the three are mentioned together by Xenophon (δίκτυα, ἐνόδια, ἄρκυες, II.4), and by Nemesianus (Cyneg. 299, 300).

The two additional kinds were placed at interval in the same circuit with the large hunting-net or haye. The road-net (plaga, ἐνόδιον) was much less than the others, and was placed across roads and narrow openings between bushes. The purse- or tunnel-net (cassis, ἄρκυς) was made with a bag (κεκρύφαλος, Xen. de Venat. VI.7), intended to receive the animal when chased towards the extremity of the inclosure. Within this bag, if we may so call it, were placed branches of trees, to keep it expanded and to decoy the animals by making it invisible. The words ἄρκυς or cassis are used metaphorically to denote some certain method of destruction, and are more particularly applied, as well as ἀμφίβληστρον, which will be explained immediately, to the large shawl in which Clytemnestra enveloped her husband in order to murder him (Aeschyl. Agam. 1085, 1346, 1353, Choeph. 485, Eumen. 112).

III. Fishing-nets (ἁλιευτικὰ δίκτυα, Diod. Sic. XVII.43, p193, Wess.) were of six different kinds, which are enumerated by Oppian (Hal. III.80‑82) as follows:—

Τῶν τὰ μὲν ἀμφίβληστρα, τὰ δὲ γρῖφοι καλέονται,

Γάγγαμα τ᾽ ἠδ᾽ ὑποχαὶ περιηγέες, ἠδὲ σαγῆναι

Ἄλλα δὲ κικλήσκουσι καλύμματα.

Of these by far the most common were the ἀμφίβληστρον, or casting-net (funda, jaculum, retinaculum) and the σαγήνη, i.e. the drag-net, or sean (tragum, Isid. Hisp. Orig. XIX.5; tragula, verriculum). Consequently these two are the only kinds mentioned by Virgil in Georg. I.141, 142 and by Ovid in Ar. Amat. I.763, 764. Of the καλύμμα we find nowhere any further mention. We are also ignorant of the exact form and use of the γρῖφος, although its comparative utility may be inferred from the mention of it in conjunction with the sean and casting-net by Artemidorus (II.14) and Plutarch (περὶ εὐθυμ. vol. V p838, ed. Steph.). We know no more of the γάγγαμον (Hesych. s.v.; Aeschyl. Agam. 352). The ὑποχὴ was a landing-net, made with a hoop (κύκλος) fastened to a pole, and perhaps provided also with the means of closing the circular aperture at the top (Oppian, Hal. IV.251). The metaphorical use of the term ἀμφίβληστρον has been already mentioned. That it denoted a casting-net may be concluded both from its etymology and from the circumstances in which it is mentioned by various authors (Hesiod, Scut. Herc. 213‑215; Herod. I.141; Ps. cxli.10; Is. xix.8; Hab. i.15‑17 (LXX and Vulgate versions); St. Matt. iv.18; St. Mark, i.16). More especially the casting-net, being always pear-shaped or conical, was suited to the use mentioned under the article Conopeum. p990Its Latin names are found in the passages of Virgil's Georgics, and of the Vulgate Bible above referred to, in Plautus, Asinar. I1.87, Truc. I.1.14; and in Isid. Hisp. Orig. XIX.5.

The English term sean (which is also in the south of England pronounced and spelt seine, as in French), has been brought into our language by a corruption of the Greek σαγήνη through the Vulgate Bible (sagena) and the Anglo-Saxon (Ezek. xxvi.514, xlvii.10; St. Matt. xiii.47, 48; St. John xxi.6‑11). This net, which, as now used both by the Arabians and by our own fishermen in Cornwall, is sometimes half a mile long, was probably of equal dimensions among the ancients, for they speak of it as nearly taking in the compass of a whole bay (Hom. Od. XXII.384‑387; Alciphron, I.17, 18). This circumstance well illustrates the application of the term to describe the besieging of a city: to encircle a city by an uninterrupted line of soldiers was called σαγηνεύειν (Herod. III.145, VI.31; Plato, de Leg. III. sub fin.; Heliodorus, VII p304, ed. Commelini). The use of corks (φελλοὶ, cortices suberini, Sidon. Apollin. Epist. II.2; Plin. H. N. XVI.8 s13) to support the top, and of leads (μολιβδίδες) to keep down the bottom, is frequently mentioned by ancient writers (Ovid. Trist. III.4.11, 12; Aelian, H. A. XII.43; Pausan. VIII.12 §1), and is clearly exhibited in some of the paintings in Egyptian tombs. Leads, and pieces of wood serving as floats instead of corks, still remain on a sean which is preserved in the fine collection of garden antiquities at Berlin. (See Yates, Textrinum antiquum, Appendix C.)


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