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p1007 Sambuca

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on p1007 of

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

SAMBUCA (σαμβύκη, or σαβύκη, Arcadius de Accent. p107), a harp. The preceding Latin and Greek names are with good reason represented by Bochart, Vossius, and other critics, to be the same with the Hebrew סַבְּכָא (sabeca), which occurs in Daniel (iii.5, 7, 10). The performances of sambucistriae (σαμβυκίστριαι) were only known to the early Romans as luxuries brought over from Asia (Plaut. Stich. II.3.57; Liv. XXXIX.6). The Athenians considered them as an exotic refinement (Philemon, p370, ed. Meineke); and the Rhodian women who played on the harp at the marriage-feast of Caranus in Macedonia, clothed in very thin tunics, were introduced with a view to give to the entertainment the highest degree of splendour. Some Greek authors expressly attributed the invention of this instrument to the Syrians or Phoenicians (Athen. IV p175D). The opinion of those who ascribed it to the Lyric poet, Ibycus, can only authorize the conclusion, that he had the merit of inventing some modification of it, the instrument as improved by him being called Ἰβύκινον (Athen. l.c.; Suidas, s.vv. Ἰβύκινον: Ἰβυκός: Σαμβύκαι). Strabo, moreover, represents σαμβύκην as a "barbarous" name (X.3 §17).

The sambuca is several times mentioned in conjunction with the small triangular harp (τρίγωνον), which it resembled in the principles of its construction, though it was much larger and more complicated. The trigonum, a representation of which from the Museum at Naples is given in the annexed woodcut, was held like the lyre in the hands of the performer (Spon, Misc. rud. Ant. p21), whereas the harp was sometimes considerably higher than the stature of the performer, and was placed upon the ground. The harp of the Parthians and Troglodytae had only four strings (Athen. XIV p633F). Those which are painted on the walls of Egyptian tombs (see Denon, Wilkinson, &c.) have from 4 to 38. One of them, taken from Bruce's travels, is here introduced. From the allusions to this instrument in Vitruvius (VI.1) we find that the longest string was called the "proslambanomenon," the next "hypate", the shortest but one "paranete," and the shortest, which had consequently the highest tone, was called "nete." [See Musica, p775]. Under the Roman Emperors the harp appears to have come into more general use (Pers. V.95; Spartian. Hadr. 26), and was played by men (σαμβυκισταὶ) as well as women (Athen. IV p182E).


[image ALT: An engraving of a harpist playing a floor-model harp; with an inset of a smaller hand-held triangular harp. They are illustrations of the ancient Hebrew and Greco-Roman sambuca.]

Sambuca was also the name of a military engine, used to scale the walls and towers of besieged cities. It was called by this name on account of its general resemblance to the form of the harp.a Accordingly, we may conceive an idea of its construction by turning to the woodcut and supposing a mast or upright pole to be elevated in the place of the longest strings, and to have at its summit an apparatus of pulleys, from which ropes proceed in the direction of the top of the harp. We must suppose a strong ladder, 4 feet wide, and guarded at the sides with palisades, to occupy the place of the sounding-board, and to be capable of being lowered or raised at pleasure by means of the ropes and pulleys. At the siege of Syracuse Marcellus had engines of this description fixed upon vessels, which the rowers moved up to the walls so that the soldiers might enter the city by ascending the ladders (Polyb. VIII.5; Plut. Marc. p558, ed. Steph.; Athen. XIV p634B; Onosandr. Strat. 42; Vitruvius X.16 §9; Festus, s.v. Sambuca; Athen. de Mach. ap. Math. Vet. p7). When an inland city was beleaguered, the Sambuca was mounted upon wheels (Bito, ap. Math. Vet. pp110, 111; Veget. IV.21).


Thayer's Note:

a This is not quite what Polybius says (Histories, 8.4.11), my emphasis:

εἰκότως δὲ τὸ κατασκεύασμα τῆς προσηγορίας τέτευχε ταύτης· ἐπειδὰν γὰρ ἐξαρθῇ, γίνεται τὸ σχῆμα τῆς νεὼς ταύτης καὶ τῆς κλίμακος ἑνοποιηθὲν παραπλήσιον σαμβύκῃ.

Or, in the Loeb translation:

The construction was appropriately called a sambuca, for when it is raised the shape of the ship and ladder together is just like the musical instrument.


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