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Bill Thayer

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 p524  Fax

Unsigned article on p524 of

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

[image ALT: A woodcut depicitng a standing woman holding a torch; on either side of her, a naked angel holding a reversed torch. The illustration is explained in the text of this webpage.]

FAX (φανός), a torch. The descriptions of poets and mythologists, and the works of ancient art, represent the torch as carried by Diana, Ceres, Bellona, Hymen (woodcut, p238), Phosphorus, by females in Bacchanalian processions (p288), and, in an inverted position, by Sleep and Death. In the annexed woodcut, the female figure in the middle is copied from a fictile vase. The winged figure on the left hand, asleep and leaning on a torch, is from a funeral monument at Rome: the word "Somnus" is inscribed beside it. The other winged figure, also with the torch inverted, is taken from an antique gem, and represents Cupid under the character of Λυσέρως (Serv. in Virg. Aen. IV.520) or "Lethaeus Amor" (Ovid, Rem. Amor. 555). In ancient marbles the torch is sometimes more ornamented than in the examples now produced; but it appears to be formed of wooden staves or twigs, either bound by a rope drawn about them in a spiral form, as in the above middle figure, or surrounded by circular bands at equal distances, as in the two exterior figures. The inside of the torch may be supposed to have been filled with flax, tow, or other vegetable fibres, the whole being abundantly impregnated with pitch, rosin, wax, oil, and other inflammable substances. As the principal use of torches was to give light to those who went abroad after sunset, the portion of the Roman day immediately succeeding sun-set was called fax or prima fax (Gell. III.2; Macrob. Sat. I.2). Torches, as now described, appear to have been more common among the Romans than the Greeks. The use of torches after sun-set, and the practice of celebrating marriages at that time, probably led to the consideration of the torch as one of the necessary accompaniments and symbols of marriage. Among the Romans the fax nuptialis (Cic. pro Cluent. 6), having been lighted at the parental hearth, was carried before the bride by a boy whose parents were alive (Plaut. Cas. I.30; Ovid, Epist. XI.101; Servius, in Virg. Ecl. VIII.29; Plin. H. N. XVI.18; Festus, s.v. Patrimi). The torch was also carried at funerals (fax sepulchralis, Ovid, Epist. II.120), both because these were often nocturnal ceremonies, and because it was used to set fire to the pile. Hence the expression of Propertius (IV.12.46), "Vivimus insignes inter utramque facem." The torch-bearer turned away his face from the pile in setting it on fire (Virg. Aen. VI.224).

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Page updated: 13 Dec 06