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 p532  Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp532‑534 of

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

FI′CTILE, (κεράμος, κεράμιον, ὄστρακον, ὀστράκινον), earthenware, a vessel or other article made of baked clay.

The instruments used in pottery (ars figulina) were the following:— 1. The wheel (τροχός, orbis, rota, "rota figularis," Plaut. Epid. III.2.35), which is mentioned by Homer (Il. XVIII.600), and is among the most ancient of all human inventions. According to the representations of it on the walls of Egyptian tombs (Wilkinson, Manners and Customs, III p163), it was a circular table, placed on a cylindrical pedestal, and turning freely on a point. The workman, having placed a lump of clay upon it, whirled it swiftly with his left hand, and employed his right in moulding the clay to the requisite shape. Hence a dish is called "the daughter of the wheel" (τροχηλάτος κόρη, Xenarchus, ap. Athen. II p64). 2. Pieces of wood or bone, which the potter (κεραμεύς, figulus) held in his right hand, and applied occasionally to the surface of the clay during its revolution. A pointed stick, touching the clay, would inscribe a circle upon it; and circles were in this manner disposed parallel to one another, and in any number, according to the fancy of the artist. By having the end of the stick curved or indented, and by turning it in different directions, he would impress many beautiful varieties of form and outline upon his vases. 3. Moulds (formae, τύποι, Schol. in Arist. Eccles. 1), used either to decorate with figures in relief (πρόστυπα) vessels which had been thrown on the wheel, or to produce foliage, animals, or any other appearances, on Antefixa, on cornices of terra cotta, and imitative or ornamental pottery of all other kinds, in which the wheel was not adapted to give the first shape. The annexed woodcut shows three moulds, which were found near Rome by M. Seroux d'Agincourt (Recueil de Fragmens, p88‑92). They are cut in stone. One of them was probably used for making antefixa, and the other two for making hearts and legs, designed to be suspended by poor persons "ex voto," in the temples and sanctuaries. [Donaria.] Copies of the same subject, which might in this manner be multiplied to any extent, were called "ectypa." 4. Gravers or scalpels, used by skilful modellers in giving to figures of all kinds a more perfect finish and a higher relief than could be produced by the use of moulds. These instruments, exceedingly simple in themselves, and deriving  p533 their efficiency altogether from the ability and taste of the sculptor, would not only contribute to the more exquisite decoration of earthen vessels, but would be almost the only tools applicable for making "Dii fictiles," or gods of baked earth, and other entire figures (Propert. III.3.25,º IV.1.5; Plin. H. N. XXXV.45, 46; Sen. Cons. ad Alb. 10; ἀγάλματα ἐκ πηλοῦ, ὀπτῆς γῆς, Paus. I.2 § 4, I.3 § 1, VII.22 § 6). These were among the earliest efforts of the plastic art, and even in times of the greatest refinement and luxury they continued to be regarded with reverence.

[image ALT: A woodcut of three ancient Roman pottery molds.]

Vessels of all kinds were frequently furnished with at least one handle (ansa, οὖας, ὦς). The Amphora was called Diota, because it had two. The name of the potter was commonly stamped upon the handle, the rim, or some other part. Of this we have an example in the amphora, adapted for holding grain or fruits, oil or wine, which is here introduced from the work of Seroux d'Agincourt. The figure on the right hand shows the name in the genitive case "Maturi," impressed on an oblong surface which is seen on the handle of the amphora.

[image ALT: A woodcut of an ancient Roman amphora, with an inset detail of a potter's stamp, as explained in the text of this webpage.]

The earth used for making pottery (κεράμικη γῆ, Geopon. II.49) was commonly red, and often of so lively a colour as to resemble coral. Vauquelin found, by analysis, that a piece of Etruscan earthenware contained the following ingredients:— Silica, 53; alumina, 15; lime, 8; oxide of iron, 24. To the great abundance of the last constituent the deep red colour is to be attributed. Other pottery is brown or cream-coloured, and sometimes white. The pipe-clay, which must have been used for white ware, is called "figlina creta" (Varro, Re Rust. III.9). Some of the ancient earthenware is throughout its substance black, an effect produced by mixing the earth with comminuted asphaltum (gagates), or with some other bituminous or oleaginous substance. It appears also that asphaltum, with pitch and tar, both mineral and vegetable, was used to cover the surface like a varnish. In the finer kinds of earthenware this varnish served as a black paint, and to its application many of the most beautiful vases owe the decorations which are now so highly admired (Plin. H. N. XXXVI.34). But the coarser vessels, designed for common purposes, were also smeared with pitch, and had it burnt into them, because by this kind of encaustic they became more impervious to moisture and less liable to decay (Hor. Carm. I.20.3; Plin. H. N. XIV.25, 27). Hence a "dolium picatum fictile" was used, as well as a glass jar to hold pickles (Colum., Re Rust. XII.18.54). Also the year of the vintage was inscribed by the use of pitch, either upon the amphorae themselves or upon the labels (pittacia, schedia) which were tied round their necks (Hor. Carm. III.21.1‑5). Although oily or bituminous substances were most commonly employed in pottery to produce by the aid of fire (εὖ δὲ μελανθεῖεν, Hom. Epig. XIV.3) the various shades of black and brown, the vessels, before being sent for the last time to the furnace [Fornax], were sometimes immersed in that finely prepared mud, now technically called "slip," by which the surface is both smoothed and glazed, and at the same time receives a fresh colour. Ruddle, or red ochre (μίλτος, rubrica), was principally employed for this purpose (Suidas, s.v. Κωλιάδος κεραμῆες). To produce a further variety in the paintings upon vases the artists employed a few brightly coloured earths and metallic ores [Pictura, No. 9].

As we might expect concerning an art so indispensable as that of the potter, it was practised to a great extent in every ancient nation; even the most uncivilized not being strangers to it, and sometimes displaying a surprising degree of dexterity. The remains of an ancient pottery have been found in Britain, and some of the potters' names preserved on their works, are probably British. We are told of a place called the Potteries (Figlinae) in Gaul. Numa instituted a corporation of potters at Rome (Plin. H. N. XXXV.46). Mention has already been made of Egypt, and there are frequent allusions to the art in the ancient writings of the Jews. We also read of its productions in Tralles, Pergamus, Cnidus, Chios, Sicyon, Corinth, Cumae, Adria, Modena, and Nola, from which city the exports of earthenware were considerable, and where some of the most exquisite specimens are still discovered. But three places were distinguished above all others for the extent and excellence of this beautiful manufacture.

1. Samos, to which the Romans resorted for the articles of earthenware necessary at meals, and intended for use rather than display (Plaut. Bacch. II.2.24, Stich. V.4.12; Tibull. II.3.51; Cic. pro Muren. 36; Plin. H. N. XXXV.46; Tertull. Apol. 25).

2. Athens, a considerable part of which was called Cerameicus, because it was inhabited by potters. In this quarter of the city were temples dedicated to Athena, as presiding over every kind of handicraft, and to the two fire-gods, Hephaestos and Prometheus, the latter of whom was also the mythical author of modelling. Various traditions respecting Coroebus and others point to the early efforts of the Athenian potters (Plin. H. N. VII.57, XXXV.45; Critias ap. Athen. I p28); and it is a remarkable circumstance that the enemies of free trade, and especially of Athenian influence at Aegina and Argos, imposed restrictions on the use of these productions (Herod. V.88). The Athenian ware was of the finest description; the masterpieces were publicly exhibited at the Panathenaea, and were given, filled with oil, to the victors at the games; in consequence of which, we now read on some of them, in the British Museum and other collections, the inscription Τῶν Ἀθήνηθεν or other equivalent expressions (Pind. Nem.  p534 X.35; Schol, and Böckh, ad loc.; Böckh, Corp. Insc. vol. I p49). Many other specimens were presents given to relations and friends on particular occasions, and often distinguished by the epithets καλός and καλή added to their names. A circumstance which contributed to the success of the Athenians in this manufacture, was a mine of fine potter's clay in the Colian Promontory, near Phalerum (Suidas, l.c.; Athen. XI p482). The articles made from it became so fashionable, that Plutarch (De Audit.), describing an act of extreme folly, compares it to that of the man who, having swallowed poison, refuses to take the antidote unless it be administered to him in a cup made of Colian clay. Some of the "Panathenaic" vases, as they were called, are two feet in height, which accords with what is said by ancient authors of their uncommon size (Athen. XI p495; Böckh, in Pind. Frag. No. 89). A diota was often stamped upon the coins of Athens, in allusion to the facts which have now been explained.

3. Etruria, especially the cities of Aretiumº and Tarquinii. Whilst the Athenian potters excelled all others in the manufacture of vessels, the Tuscans, besides exercising this branch of industry to a great extent though in a less tasteful and elaborate manner, were very remarkable for their skill in producing all kinds of statuary in baked clay. Even the most celebrated of the Roman temples were adorned, both within and without, by the aid of these productions. The most distinguished among them was an entire quadriga, made at Veii, which surmounted the pediment of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus (Plin. H. N. XXVIII.4, XXXV.45, XXXVI.2; K. O. Müller, Etrusker, IV.3.1, 2). The Etruscans also manifested their partiality to this branch of art by recurring to it for the purpose of interment; for whilst Pliny means (H. N. XXXV.46), that many persons preferred to be buried in earthen jars, and in other parts of Italy the bones of the dead have been found preserved in amphorae, Etruria alone has afforded examples, some of them now deposited in the British Museum, of large sarcophagi made wholly of terra-cotta, and ornamented with figures in bas-relief and with recumbent statues of the deceased.

Among many qualities which we admire in the Greek pottery, not the least wonderful is its thinness (λεπτά) and consequent lightness, notwithstanding the great size of the vessels and the perfect regularity and elegance of their forms. That it was an object of ambition to excel in this respect we learn from story of a master and his pupil, who contended which could throw the thinnest clay, and whose two amphorae, the result of the trial, were preserved in the temple at Erythrae (Plin. H. N. XXXV.46). The well-known passage of Hesiod (Καὶ κεραμεὺς κεραμεῖ κοτεεῖ, &c. Op. et Dies, 25) describes the emulation, which incited potters to excellence as well as architects and poets.

The Greeks and Romans contented themselves with using earthenware on all occasions until the time of Alexander the Great: the Macedonian conquests introduced from the East a taste for vessels of gold and silver, in which, however, the Spartans refused to indulge themselves. The Persians, on the contrary, held earthenware in so low estimation, that they condemned persons to drink out of fictile vessels as a punishment (Ath. VI. p229C, XI p464A, p483CD). But although the Romans, as they deviated from the ancient simplicity, made a great display of the more splendid kind of vessels, yet they continued to look upon pottery not only with respect but even with veneration (Ovid, Met. VIII.690; Cic. ad Att. VI.1; Juv. III.168, X.25). They called to mind the magnanimity of the Consul Curius, who preferred the use of his own earthenware to the gold of the Samnites (Florus, I.18); they reckoned some of their consecrated terra-cottas, and especially the above-mentioned quadriga, among the safeguards of their imperial city (Serv. ad Virg. Aen. VII.188); and, bound by old associations and the traditionsº of their earliest history, they considered earthen vessels proper for religious ceremonies, although gold and silver might be admitted in their private entertainments (Tertull, l.c.); for Pliny says (H. N. XXXV.46), that the productions of this class, "both in regard to their skilful fabrication and their high antiquity, were more sacred, and certainly more innocent, than gold."

Another term, often used as synonymous with fictile was testa. [Dolium; Later; Patera; Patina; Tegula.]

Thayer's Note:

a The younger student especially, landing on this article out of the blue, should realize that, like one or two other articles in Smith's Dictionary dealing with physical materials, artifacts or structures, it is unsatisfactory. While it provides a useful collection of references to pottery in classical literature, and some idea of its manufacture and uses and the places involved, it is incomplete and now hopelessly outdated. Even in such a relatively popular summary article such as this, some shortcomings could have been avoided at the time; others have been brought into sharp focus by over a hundred years of excavation since then.

To point to just a pair of the deficiencies: not a word about the largest pottery manufacturing complex in the Roman world, the terra sigillata or Samian ware production center at La Graufesenque near Millau in Gaul, unless it lurks under the passing mention of Gallic figlinae; not a word either about the usefulness of pottery forms, brick stamps, and potsherds generally, in dating architectural remains.

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Page updated: 21 Apr 18