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Bill Thayer

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[image ALT: An engraving of two naked men sitting on their respective clouds left and right; one of them is holding a balance in the scales of which are two small figures of men. It is a Greek mythological scene depicting Apollo and Mercury weighing the genii of Achilles and Memnon.]

 p706  Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on p706 of

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

LIBRA, dim. LIBELLA (σταθμὸς), a balance, a pair of scales. The principal parts of this instrument were, 1. The beam [Jugum], whence anything which is to be weighed is said ὑπὸ ζυγὸν ἀναβλήθηναι, literally, "to be thrown under the beam" (Aelian, V. H. X.6). 2. The two scales, called in Greek τάλαντα (Hom. Il. VIII.69, XII.433, XVI.659, XIX.223, XXII.209; Aristoph. Ranae, 809) and πλάστιγγεςº (Aristoph. Ranae, 1425), and in Latin lances (Virg. Aen. XII.725; Pers. IV.10; Cic. Acad. IV.12) [Lanx]. Hence the verb ταλαντεύω is employed as equivalent to σταθμάω, and to the Latin libro, and is applied as descriptive of an eagle balancing his wings in the air (Philostrat. Jun. Imag. 6; Welcker, ad loc.). The beam was made without a tongue, being held by a ring or other appendage (ligula, ῥῦμα), fixed in the centre (see the woodcut). Specimens of bronze balances may be seen in the British Museum and in other collections of antiquities, and also of the steel-yard [Statera], which was used for the same purposes as libra. The woodcut to the article Catena shows some of the chains by which the scales are suspended from the beam. In the works of ancient art, the balance is also introduced emblematically in a great variety of ways. The annexed woodcut is taken from a beautiful bronze patera, representing Mercury and Apollo engaged in exploring the fates of Achilles and Memnon, by weighing the attendant genius of the one against that of the other (Winckelmann, Mon. Ined. 133; Millin, Peintures de Vases Ant. I pl. 19 p39). A balance is often represented on the reverse of the Roman imperial coins; and to indicate more distinctly its signification, it is frequently held by a female in her right hand, while she supports a cornucopia in her left, the words Aeqvitas Augusti being inscribed on the margin, so as to denote the justice and impartiality with which the emperors dispensed their bounty.

The constellation Libra is placed in the Zodiac at the equinox, because it is the period of the year at which day and night are equally balanced (Virg. Georg. I.208; Plin. H. N. XVIII.69; Schol. in Arat. 89).​a

The mason's or carpenter's level was called libra or libella (whence the English name), on account of its resemblance in many respects to a balance (Varro, de Re Rust. I.6; Columella, III.13; Plin. H. N. XXXVI.52). Hence the verb libro meant to level as well as to weigh. The woodcut to the article Circinus shows a libella fabrilis having the form of the letter A (Veget III.20), and the line and plummet (perpendiculum) depending from the apex.

Thayer's Note:

a For exhaustive information, with alternate names, discussion, and many further citations of ancient authors, see the entry Libra in Allen's Star Names.

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Page updated: 28 Aug 12