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p1162 Tripos

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp1162‑1163 of

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

TRIPOS (τρίπους), a tripod, i.e. any utensil or article of furniture supported upon three feet. More especially

I. A three-legged table [Mensa]. The first woodcut, at p308, shows such a table in use. Its three supports are richly and tastefully ornamented. Various single legs (trapezophora, Cic. ad Fam. VII.23), wrought in the same style out of white marble, red porphyry, or other valuable materials, and consisting of a lion's-head or some similar object at the top, and a foot of the same animal at the bottom, united by intervening foliage, are preserved in the British Museum (Combe, Ancient Marbles, I.3, I.13, III.38) and in other collections of antiquities. The tripod used at entertainments to hold the Crater had short feet, so that it was not much elevated. These tables were probably sometimes made to move upon castors (Hom. Il. XVIII.375).

II. A pot or caldron, used for boiling meat, and either raised upon a three-legged stand of bronze, as is represented in the woodcut, p827, or made with its three feet in the same piece. Such a utensil was of great value, and was sometimes offered as a prize in the public games (XXIII.264, 702, 703).

III. A bronze altar, not differing probably in its original form from the tall tripod caldron already described. In this form, but with additional ornament, we see it in the annexed woodcut, which represents a tripod found at Frejus (Spon, Misc. Erud. Ant. p118). That this was intended to be used in sacrifice may be inferred from the bull's-head with a fillet tied round the horns, which we see at the top of each leg.


[A woodcut of two Greco-Roman 'tripods': three-legged supports that hold a deep bowl. The tripods have animal feet and are variously decorated; they are discussed in detail in the text of this webpage.]

All the most ancient representations of the sacrificial tripod exhibit it of the same general shape, together with three rings at the top to serve as handles (οὔατα, Hom. Il. XVIII.378). Since it has this form on all the coins and other ancient remains, which have any reference to the Delphic oracle, it has been with sufficient reason concluded that the tripod, from which the Pythian priestess gave responses, was of this kind. The right-hand figure in the woodcut is copied from one p1163published by K. O. Muller (Böttiger's Amalthea, I p119), founded upon numerous ancient authorities, and designed to show the appearance of the oracular tripod at Delphi. Besides the parts already mentioned, viz. the three legs, the three handles, and the vessel or caldron, it shows a flat, round plate called ὅλμος, on which the Pythia seated herself in order to give responses, and on which lay a laurel wretched at other times. This figure also shows the position of the Cortina, which, as well as the caldron, was made of very thin bronze, and was supposed to increase the prophetic sounds which came from underneath the earth (Virg. Aen. III.92).

The celebrity of this tripod produced innumerable imitations of it (Diod. XVI.26), called "Delphic tripods" (Athen. V p199). They were made to be used in sacrifice, and still more frequently to be presented to the treasury both in that and in many other Greek temples (Athen. VI pp231F‑232D; Paus. IV.32 § 1). [Donaria] Tripods were chiefly dedicated to Apollo (Paus. III.18 § 5) and to Bacchus. Partly in allusion to the fable of the rape of a tripod from Apollo by Hercules, and the recovery of it by the former (Paus. III.21 § 7, X.13 § 4), the tripod was one of his usual attributes, and therefore occurs continually on coins and ancient marbles which have a relation to him. Of this we have an example in the bas-relief engraved on p117, which also exhibits two more of his attributes, the lyre and the serpent. In conformity with the same ideas it was given as a prize to the conquerors at the Pythian and other games, which were celebrated in honour of Apollo (Herod. I.144). On the other hand, the theatre at Athens being considered sacred to Bacchus, the successful Choragus received a bronze tripod as the appropriate prize. The choragic monuments of Thrasyllus and Lysicrates, the ornamental fragments of which are now in the British Museum, were erected by them to preserve and display the tripods awarded to them on such occasions. We find also that a tripod was sometimes consecrated to the Muses (Hes. Op. et Dies, 658) and to Hercules (Paus. X.7 § 3).

A tripod, scarcely less remarkable than that from which the Pythia delivered oracles, and consecrated to Apollo in the same temple at Delphi, was that made from the spoils of the Persian army after the battle of Plataeae. It consisted of a golden bowl, supported by a three-headed bronze serpent (Herod. IX.81; Thucyd. I.132; Schol. in loc.; Paus. X.13 § 5; Gyllius, Top. Const. II.13; Banduri, Imp. Orient. t. II p614). The golden bowl having been removed, the bronze serpent was taken to Constantinople, and is probably the same which was seen there by Spon and Wheler in 1675. The first figure in the annexed wood-cut is copied from Wheler's engraving of it (Journey into Greece, p185). He says it was about fourteen or fifteen feet high.

[A woodcut of two objects: on the right, a Greco-Roman 'tripods': a three-legged support that holds a deep bowl. The tripod has animal feet and are variously decorated; the legs are connected by struts and braces that allow it to be folded. Tripods are discussed in detail in the text of this webpage. The object on the left is not discussed in the text of the page: it is a tall thin coil of three serpents, looking overall much like the narrowing coil of a rope whip.]

The use of bronze tripods as altars evidently arose in a great degree from their suitableness to be removed from place to place. We have an example of this mode of employing them in the scene which is represented in the woodcut on p1045. To accommodate them as much as possible to this purpose, they are sometimes made to fold together into a small compass by a contrivance, which may be understood from an inspection of the preceding woodcut. The right-hand figure represents a tripod in the British Museum. A patera, or a plain metallic disk, was laid on the top, when there was occasion to offer incense. Many of these movable folding tripods may be seen in Museums, proving how common they were among the Romans.

Another species of tripods deserving of notice are those made of marble or hard stone. One was discovered in the villa of Hadrian, five feet high, and therefore unsuitable to be used in sacrifice. It is very much ornamented, and was probably intended merely to be displayed as a work of art (Caylus, Recueil, II. pl. 53).


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