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Bill Thayer

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 p549  Velabrum

Article on pp549‑550 of

Samuel Ball Platner (as completed and revised by Thomas Ashby):
A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome,
London: Oxford University Press, 1929.

Velabrum: the low ground lying between the north-west slope of the Palatine and the Capitoline. The name is probably ancient, and originally it may well have been given to the whole district between these two hills, the forum valley and the river, but during the historical period it was somewhat more restricted. It was bounded approximately by the forum on the north, the slope of the Palatine and the vicus Tuscus on the east, the district traversed by the vicus Iugarius on the west, while the line of separation between it and the forum Boarium passed through the present church of S. Giorgio in Velabro and is marked by the arcus argentariorum (CIL VI.1035; cf. Varro, LL V.43; vi.24; Liv. XXVII.37.15; Plut. Rom. 5). According to tradition, which there seems to be no good reason to doubt, this district was originally very swampy, with sufficient water to float small boats (Varro, LL V.44; Plut. Rom. 5; Ovid. Fast. VI.405; Prop. IV.9.5; Tib. II.5.33), until it was drained by the construction of the cloaca Maxima and the connecting system of sewers. It was always, however, subject to inundation when the Tiber was very high.

The meaning and etymology of Velabrum are uncertain. Varro (LL V. 44, 156) derived it a vehendo (i.e. ratibus), and Plutarch (Rom. 5) also suggests a derivation from the vela carried in processions, but  p550 neither these nor those of modern scholars are satisfactory (cf. Jord. I.1.195; Gilb. I.103; Nissen, Templum, 84).​a

The Velabrum was an important centre of industrial and commercial activity, and in particular of the trade in food-stuffs, oil and wine (Plaut. Capt. 489; Cur. 483; Hor. Sat. II.3.229; Mart. XI.52.10; xiii.32; CIL VI.467, 9184, 9259, 9993, 33933). It was a locus celeberrimus urbis (Macrob. I.10.15), for all the traffic between the forum and the pons Sublicius passed through the streets that bounded it, the vicus Tuscus and the vicus Iugarius (cf. Liv. XXVII.37.15; Suet. Caes. 37, for the line of the pompa), but it seems to have contained only one shrine, that of Acca Laurentia (Cic. ad Brut. I.15.8). In two passages in poetry (Ovid, Propertius, locc. citt.) Velabra is used in the plural, and in Varro (LL V.156:º ab his palus fuit in minore Velabro, . . . ut illud maius de quo supra dictum est) a distinction is made between the Velabrum maius and Velabrum minus, but it is not possible to determine what this is (cf. Pais, Anc. Legends 329, n. 49, for a misinterpretation of the Varronian passage, and see also Eranos, 1923, 52).

Jord. I.1.126‑127, 194‑195; 2.473‑474; Gilb. I.69‑70; iii.439; Richter 181‑183. In the Middle Ages, the name was corrupted into Velum Aureum (or avreum) (HCh 255).

Thayer's Note:

a I don't know whether the following suggestions are among those aired by the scholars mentioned, but on the Web I find one further possibility, and to me maybe the most appealing — "where the wind blows", see Antonio Sciarretta's page for further details — and an e‑mail from a kind reader adds two more to the pot:

*velg-abrum: velg= 'fence, enclosure, stockade' (Dravidian & Indo-European) + abrum, thus "tree-stockade".

Etruscan vel-, 'middle', + -abrum, 'tree', cognate with Latin arbor, thus "the place amid the trees".

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Page updated: 10 Feb 18