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Bill Thayer

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(also: Onerariae)

 p358  Article by Anthony Rich, Jun. B.A. of Caius College, Cambridge
on p358 of

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

CORBI′TAE, merchantmen of the larger class, so called because they hung out a corbis at the mast-head for a sign (Festus; Nonius, s.v.). They were also termed onerariae; and hence Plautus, in order to designate the voracious appetites of some women, says, "Corbitam cibi comesse possunt" (Cas. IV.1.20). They were noted for their heavy build and sluggish sailing (Lucil. ap. Non. s.v. Corbitae; Plaut. Poen. III.1.4), and carried passengers as well as merchandise, answering to the large "felucca" of the present day. Cicero proposed to take a passage in one of these vessels, which he opposes to the smarter class of packets (actuariola, ad Att. XVI.6).

Thayer's Note:

Smith's Dictionary is moving slowly into the past along with the classical world it covers: a felucca is probably as unknown to most of us as its Roman counterpart. The word is now used pretty much exclusively for a single-decked low-slung Egyptian sailing boat.

In modern terms, this heavy Roman boat is a freighter; Cicero didn't want to take a passenger liner. This is in fact still now in the 21c often a better way to travel: you often eat better, for one thing.

This type of boat is usually referred to in today's literature on Roman subjects as an oneraria; the word, like corbita, is not a technical term, merely meaning "transport". It appears regularly in Latin authors (Caes. B. G. 4.22, Liv. XXII.22, etc.)

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Page updated: 4 Sep 13