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p1212 Vitta

Article by William Ramsay, M.A., Professor of Humanity in the University of Glasgow
on pp1212‑1213 of

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

VITTA, or plural VITTAE, a ribbon of fillet, is to be considered, I. As an ordinary portion of female dress. II. As a decoration of sacred persons and sacred things.

I. When considered as an ordinary portion of female dress, it was simply a band encircling the head, and serving to confine the tresses (crinales vittae) the ends, when long (longae taenia vittae), hanging down behind (Virg. Aen. VII.351, 403; Ovid. Met. II.413, IV.6; Isidor. XIX.31 §6).º It was worn (1.) by maidens (Virg. Aen. II.168; Prop. IV.11.34; Val. Flacc. VIII.6; Serv. ad Virg. Aen. I.133); (2.) by married women also, the vitta assumed on the nuptial day being of a different form from that used by virgins (Prop. IV.3.15, IV.11.34; Plaut. Mil. Gl. III.1.914; Val. Max. V.2 §1).

The Vitta was not worn by libertinae even of fair character (Tibull. I.6.67), much less by meretrices; hence it was looked upon as an insigne pudoris, and, together with the stola and instita, served to point out at first sight the freeborn matron (Ovid. A. A. I.31, R.A. 386, Trist. II.247, Ep. ex Pont. III.3.51).

The colour was probably a matter of choice, white and purple are both mentioned (Ovid. Met. II.413, Ciris, 511; Stat. Achill. I.611). One of those represented in the cuts below is ornamented with embroidery, and they were in some cases set with pearls (vittae margaritarum, Dig. 34 tit. 2 s25 § 2).

The following woodcuts represent back and front views of the heads of statues from Herculaneum, on which we perceive the vitta (Bronzi d' Ercolano, vol. II tav. 72, 75).


[image ALT: An engraving of two sculpted heads of women, one from the front, the other from the back, each wearing a headband. They illustrate a Roman headband or 'vitta'.]

II. When employed for sacred purposes, it was usually twisted round the infula [Infula], and held together the loose flocks of wool (Virg. Georg. III.487, Aen. X.537; Isidor. XIX.30 §4; Serv. ad Virg. Aen. X.538; the expression of Lucan V.142, &c. is obscure). Under this form it was employed as an ornament for

  1. Priests, and those who offered sacrifice (Virg. Aen. II.221, VI.637, X.537; Tac. Ann. I.57).

  2. Priestesses, especially those of Vesta, and hence vittata sacerdos for a Vestal, κατ᾽ ἐξόχην (Virg. Aen. VII.418; Ovid. Fast. III.30, VI.457; Juv. IV.9, VI.50).

  3. Prophets and poets, who may be regarded as priests, and in this case the Vittae were frequently intertwined with chaplets of olive or laurel (Virg. Aen. III.81, VI.665; Stat. Silv. II.1.26, Achill. I.11, Theb. III.466).

  4. Statues of deities (Virg. Aen. II. 168, 296; Juv. VI.50; compare Stat. Silv. III.3.3).

  5. Victims decked for sacrifice (Virg. Georg. III.487, Virg. Aen. II. 133, 156, V.366; Ovid. Ep. ex Pont. III.2.74, Stat. Achill. II.301).

  6. Altars (Virg. Ecl. VIII.64, Aen. III.64).

  7. Temples (Prop. IV.9.27; compare Tacit. Hist. IV.53).

  8. The ἱκετήρια of supplicants (Virg. Aen. VII.237, VIII.128).

p1213 The sacred vittae, as well as the infulae, were made of wool, and hence the epithets lanea (Ovid. Fast. III.30) and mollis (Virg. Ecl. VIII.64). They were white (niveae, Virg. Georg. III.487; Ovid. Met. XIII.643; Stat. Theb. III.466), or purple (puniceae, Prop. IV.9.27), or azure (caeruleae) when wreathed round an altar to the manes (Virg. Aen. III.64).

Vitta is also used in the general sense of a string for tying up garlands (Plin. H. N. XVIII.2; Isidor. XIX.31.6), and vittae loreae for the leathern straps or braces by which a machine was worked (Plin. H. N. XVIII.74).º


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