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 p1185  Velum

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp1185‑1186 of

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

VELUM (ἀυλαία, Theophrast. Char. 5; Athen. V p196C; Pollux, IV.122; παραπέτασμα, Plato, Polit. p294, ed. Bekker; Synes. Epist. 4; καταπέτασμα, Matt. xxvii.51), a curtain; (ἰστιον), a sail. In private houses curtains were either hung as coverings over doors (Sueton. Claud. 10), or they served in the interior of the house as substitute for doors (Sen. Epist. 81). [Janua] In the palace of the Roman emperor a slave, called velarius, was stationed at each of the principal doors to raise the curtain when any one passed through (Inscript. ap. Pignor. de Servis, p470). Window-curtains were used in addition to window-shutters (Juv. IX.80). Curtains sometimes formed partitions in the rooms (Plin. Epist. IV.19), and, when drawn aside, they were kept in place by the use of large brooches (fibulae). Iron curtain-rods have been found extending from pillar to pillar in a building at Herculaneum (Gell, Pompeiana, vol. I. p160, London 1832).

[image ALT: A scene in an ancient Greek or Roman religious shrine, in which a woman is offering a round object to the statue of a female divinity on a tall cylindrical pedestal in front of which a fire is burning on a smaller similar pedestal. A second woman behind the first is holding a basket; she may be a servant. Behind the scene, a large curtain draped from a herm on the left, over a sort of wall-sconce in the shape of a lion's head, and on to the upper right-hand corner where it is gathered into a large knot secured by a ribbon tied around it. It depicts an offering in a temple, and is used here to illustrate the use of curtains in Antiquity.]

In temples curtains served more especially to veil the statue of the divinity. They were drawn aside occasionally so as to discover the object of worship to the devout (Apuleius, Met. XI. p127, ed. Aldi). [Pastophorus] Antiochus presented to the temple of Jupiter at Olympia a woollen curtain of Assyrian manufacture, dyed with the Tyrian purple and interwoven with figures. When the statue was displayed, this curtain lay upon the ground, and it was afterwards drawn up by means of cords; whereas in the temple of Diana at Ephesus the corresponding curtain or veil was attached to the ceiling, and was let down in order to conceal the statue (Paus. V.12 §2). The annexed woodcut is from a bas-relief representing two females engaged in supplication and sacrifice before the statue of a goddess. The altar is adorned for the occasion [Serta],º and the curtain is drawn aside and supported by a terminus (Guattani, Mon. Ined. per 1786, Nov. T. III).

[image ALT: A woodcut of a small patch of stone wall, showing eight courses of six or seven stone blocks each; in the wall four sturdy horseshoe-shaped rings have been fastened, two on the second course, two on the fifth; in each case about two blocks apart. It is an illustration of the rings by which the poles for the 'velum', or large awning, was attached to the walls of Theatre of Pompeii.]
In the theatres there were hanging curtains to decorate the scene (Virg. Georg. III.25; Propert. IV.1.15). The Siparium was extended in a wooden frame. The velarium was an awning stretched over the whole of the cavea to protect the spectators from the sun and rain (Juv. IV.121; Sueton. Calig. 26). These awnings were in general either woollen or linen; cotton was used for this purpose a little before the time of Julius Caesar (Plin. H. N. XIX.1 s6; Dion Cass. XLIII.24; Lucret. VI.108). This vast extent of canvass was supported by masts (mali, Lucret. l.c.) fixed into the outer wall. The annexed woodcut shows the form and position of the great rings, cut out of lava, which remain on the inside of the wall of the Great Theatre at Pompeii near the top, and which are placed at regular distances, and one of them above another, so that each mast was fixed into two rings. Each ring is of one piece with the stone behind it.

At Rome we observe a similar contrivance in the Coliseum; but the masts were in that instance ranged on the outside of the wall, rested on 240 consoles, from which  p1186 they rose so as to pass through holes cut in the cornice. The holes for the masts are also seen in the Roman theatres at Orange and other places.

Velum, and much more commonly its derivative velamen, denoted the veil worn by women (Prudent. c. Symm. II.147). That worn by a bride was specifically called flammeum [Matrimonium, p743A]: another special term was Rica. Greek women, when they went abroad, often covered their heads with the shawl [Peplum], thus making it serve the purpose of a veil. But they also used a proper head-dress, called καλύπτρα (Apollod. II.6 §6; Aelian, V.H. VII.9), which besides serving to veil their countenances, whenever they desired it, was graceful and ornamental, and was therefore attributed to Venus (Paus. III.15 §8; Brunck, Anal. II.45) and Pandora (Hes. Theog. 573). The veil of Ilione, the eldest daughter of Priam, was one of the seven objects preserved at Rome as pledges of the permanency of its power (Serv. in Virg. Aen. VII.188).

Velum also meant a sail (ἰστίον, Navis, p790A; λαῖφος, Callim. Epig. V.4; Eurip. Hec. 109). Sail-cloth was commonly linen, and was obtained in great quantities from Egypt; but it was also woven at other places, such as Tarquinii in Etruria (Liv. XXVIII.45). But cotton sail-cloth (carbasa) was also used, as it is still in the Mediterranean. The separate pieces (lintea) were taken as they came from the loom, and were sewed together. This is shown in ancient paintings of ships, in which the seams are represented as distinct and regular.

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Page updated: 30 Jun 13