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Bill Thayer

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 p236  Cancelli

Unsigned article on p236 of

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

CANCELLI, lattice-work, placed before a window, a door-way, the tribunal of a judge, or any other place (see e.g. Cic. pro Sest. 58; Varr. R. R. III.5; Ov. Am. III.2.64; Dig. 30 tit. 41 s10; Dig. 33 tit. 7 s10). Hence was derived the word Cancellarius, which originally signified a porter, who stood at the latticed or grated door of the emperor's palace.​a The emperor Carinus gave great dissatisfaction by promoting one of his Cancellarii to be Praefectus urbi (Vopisc. Carin. 16). The cancellarius also signified a legal scribe or secretary, who sat within the cancelli or lattice-work, by which the crowd was kept off from the tribunals of the judges (Cassiod. Var. XI.6). The chief scribe or secretary was called Cancellarius κατ’ ἐξοχήν, and was eventually invested with judicial power at Constantinople; but an account of his duties and the history of this office do not fall within the scope of the present work.​b From this word has come the modern Chancellor.

Thayer's Notes:

a originally a porter: but as the article makes clear, from a man who worked outdoors, as in the example in CIL I2.1259 (ap. Platner), a CANCELLARIUS PRIMI LOCI CAMPI BOARI (the gatekeeper of a cattle-pen), the cancellarius soon became an indoors man, an usher — and notice that usher is from French huissier, from huis (Lat. ostium), a door; or in the courts, what we in the U. S. call a bailiff. In Italian still today, cancello is any kind of gate, indoors or outdoors.

The following brief entry in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, reproduced in its entirety, is also useful:

Cancelli (plural of Lat. cancellus, dim. of cancer, a crossing bar), in architecture, the term given to barriers which correspond to the modern balustrade or railing, especially the screen dividing the body of a church from the part occupied by the ministers; hence "chancel" (q.v.). By the Romans cancelli were similarly employed to divide off portions of the courts of law (cf. the English "bar").

b A telltale passage of the Dictionary! The cancellarius was an important imperial officer in the later Roman empire: why should he lie beyond the pale?

Answer: Late Antiquity — not Cicero and the Republic, not Augustus and the Silver Age — decadent, hardly worth dignifying. It was an attitude of the 19c and much of the 20c; our own age, in part because of the affinity we feel to Late Antiquity, no longer thinks this way. (This being said, I've been unable to find anything online on cancellarii, including on my own site yet.)

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Page updated: 18 Apr 08