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Bill Thayer

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LacusCurtius Educational Resource:
a Selection of Articles from

A 19th-Century Classical Encyclopaedia

[image ALT: The title page of this book includes a woodcut of a taurobolium: a Mithraic adept slaughtering a cow.]
	William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities
John Murray, London, 1875.

This single volume, of 1294 pages in rather fine print set in two columns and amounting to well over a million words, is a treasure trove of information on the ancient world, and was for many years a standard reference work, carried thru several British and American editions from the first in 1842 to the last in 1890‑91 with relatively few alterations. It shares one of its selling points with the Web: many illustrations. They are woodcuts, but often rather good ones, and sometimes clearer than photographs could be.

Like any encyclopedia of course, Smith's Dictionary should be used with caution: it is a secondary source, the field covered is very extensive, many authors are involved, and even when it was published could not for each article have represented the latest work. Also, the authors were classicists rather than technical experts in architecture and engineering, so that articles on these latter subjects are sometimes sorely deficient (for example, the article on bridges). Thus it was never absolutely first-rate, and I need not add that for scholarly work, especially where 150 years of archaeological investigation have by now intervened, it is superseded. Furthermore, the gentle reader is reminded that our authors were chiefly Englishmen, so the work tends to focus a bit more on matters important to the study of Roman Britain.

Finally, these articles need to be read not only with a grain of salt, but sometimes lightly and with a few grains of common sense as well. For example, in describing the objects or activities of Aug life, the authors will tell us that ancient doors were wide enough for people to walk thru and that their thresholds and lintels were meant to support weight, and so forth; some things don't change much, and the younger student especially will need to look at things simply and naturally, just as she does with the world around us in our own day.

But as an educational text, in view of the paucity of solid material (and the relatively large amount of nonsense) on the Web, almost all of what Dr. Smith and his collaborators have to say remains valuable: I eventually expect to put all the Roman articles online, mostly as background material for other webpages. With exceptions, I do not intend to put any of the Greek material online.

Having launched his career with this dictionary as a young man of 29, Dr. Smith went on to produce many valuable reference works in the fields of antiquity and early Christianity, for which he was knighted at the close of his life. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica includes a good biographical sketch of him.

I've modernized and simplified some of the punctuation, but have otherwise transcribed the text faithfully, and included the woodcuts. At the same time, I've tried to link the references to Latin texts or other sites on the Web, as appropriate; and have sometimes further illustrated the text with my own photographs. For citation purposes, the pagination of the original is indicated in the sourcecode as local links.

In the best medieval manner, I occasionally comment the text in a footnote, or when I manage to express myself succinctly, as Javascript annotations that you can read by placing your cursor over the little bullets,º or sometimes over the images.

About those bullets:

Finally, a word on the references given in the Dictionary. Just as we in the early 21c still find this work useful although published in 1875, Smith's Dictionary regularly refers to 17th- and 18th‑century works. Some are superseded, but others remain quite valid: it would be arrogance on our part, to say nothing of stupidity, to believe that our own generation invented everything. Finding these works is unfortunately a different matter; many of them are sitting unconsulted in the Rare Book Rooms of university libraries: I hope that librarians are giving thought to putting them online.

The citation of inscriptions is a special case. The collections of Gruter (1602) and Orelli (1828‑1856) are the most frequently referenced, but are now absorbed into the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. I do hope eventually to provide the CIL equivalents; for now, I can at least point the serious student — should there be any other kind? — to a Gruter‑CIL concordance at the CIL site itself.

The 1875 text of Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities is in the public domain, of course. My own photographs though, and technically my own notes as well as any reworked woodcuts (as when I've color-coded them or turned them into gifmaps), are not in the public domain. If you have doubts as to copyright, just ask.

Articles transcribed on my site
(major articles are in boldface)

A reminder also that articles continue to be added from time to time:
the What's New Page is here.

On the other hand, that's a sign that eventually the dictionary will be complete; you will be able to browse it letter by letter. For now, just the letters not greyed out:

A B C D E F G H I • J • K • L M
N O • P • Q R • S • T • U V • X • Z

General Topic Areas Entries
Agriculture & Mining

Olea (olive)


Aratrum (plow) • Capistrum Crates (wicker matting) • Culter (various kinds of knives, part of a plow, etc.) • Jugum (yoke) • Ligo (type of hatchet) • Oscillum Pala (spade) • Pedum (shepherd's crook) • Raster (hoe or rake) • Rutrum (also a hoe) • Stilus Torculum (press) • Tribula (threshing drag) • Vannus (winnowing fan)

land & property

mining & metals


public buildings



Later (brick) • Tegula (tile)


Arcus Triumphalis (triumphal arch) • Fons (fountain)

the Roman house

Domus Apotheca Cella Focus (hearth, brazier) • Pergula Triclinium (dining room)

decorative art

Abacus (panel) • Emblema (inlay)

Food, clothing, furnishings, entertainment, games, utensils, music, occupations, social customs, slavery, theatre, timekeeping, weights and measures: over 230 articles, some of them long and detailed, and many of them illustrated, are listed on

their own separate index page.

roads & bridges

tools & machinery

Machinae Cochlea (screw press, pump, revolving door) • Dolabra (chisel) • Fistuca (pipe) • Fornax (kiln, furnace) • Securis (axe) • Serra (saw)



Horologium (sundials, water clocks); see also Polus

writing, instruments
& materials

Atramentum (ink) • Calamus (reed pen) • Commentarius Liber (book) • Nota (shorthand) • Stilus (stylus) • Tabulae (tablets)

instruments of torture


Abacus Amussis Ascia (adze) • Asilla Buxum Calathus (women's work-basket) • Calculi Circinus (compass) • Colores (pigments) • Corbis (type of basket) • Cortina Ferculum Flabellum Forma (mold, cobbler's last) • Fuscina (trident) • Fusus (mold, spindle) • Incus (anvil) • Libra (scales) • Malleus (hammer) • Norma (T‑square) • Regula (ruler) • Retis (net) • Trutina (steelyard)

Over 260 articles, many of them long and detailed, are listed on
their own separate index page.
Medicina Medicus (the doctor or practitioner) • Chirurgia (surgery) • Aliptae Archiater

cast of characters


public relations

taxes and finance

Vectigalia Aerarium Aes Equestre (includes Aes Hordearium and Aes Militare) • Aes Uxorium Alimentarii Pueri et Puellae Annona Aurum Coronarium Centesima (sales tax) • Congiarium (welfare payments) • Decumae (land rental fee) • Fiscus Manceps Portorium (customs duties) • Publicani Quadragesima (excise tax on imports) • Quinquagesima (on the sale of slaves) • Scriptura (on grazing) • Tributum Vicesima

Over 200 articles, some of them quite long and detailed,
are listed on their own separate index page
(temples, priests, ritual, festivals, divination, magic etc.).

Ephebus Familia Gens Hospitium (hospitality) • Libertus (freedmen) • Nobiles Patricii (patricians) • Plebs

See also the law articles index.


food industry

Macellum (market) • Mola (mill) • Pistor (baker) • Salinae (saltworks)

money & coins


shops, etc.

Caupona (tavern) • Taberna (shop)

on land

postal system

Some 80 articles, some of them quite long and detailed,
are listed on their own separate index page
(the Roman army, ships, siege engines, weapons, etc.).

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Site updated: 6 Mar 14