Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

 p765  Mola

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp765‑766 of

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

Woodcuts are from Smith's Dictionary; any color photos are mine © William P. Thayer

MOLA (μύλος), a mill. All mills were anciently made of stone, the kind used being a volcanic trachyte or porous lava (pyrites, Plin. H. N. XXXVI.30; silices, Virg. Moret. 23‑27; pumiceas, Ovid. Fast. VI.318), such as that which is now obtained for the same purpose at Mayen and other parts of the Eifel in Rhenish Prussia. This species of stone is admirably adapted for the purpose, because it is both hard and cavernous, so that, as it gradually wears away, it still presents an infinity of cutting surfaces.

Every mill consisted of two essential parts, the upper mill-stone, which was moveable (catillus, ὄνος, τὸ ἐπιμύλιον, Deut. xxiv.6), and the lower, which was fixed and by much the larger of the two. Hence a mill is sometimes called molae in the plural. The mills mentioned by ancient authors are the following:—

I. The hand-mill, or quern, called mola manuaria, versatilis, or trusatilisa (Plin. H. N. XXXVI.29; Gell. III.3; Cato, De Re Rust. 10).

The islanders of the Archipelago use in the present day a mill, which consists of two flat round stones about two feet in diameter. The upper stone is turned by a handle (κώπη, Schol. in Theocrit. IV.58) inserted at one side, and has a hole in the middle into which the corn​b is poured. By the process of grinding the corn makes its way from the centre, and is poured out in the state of flour at the rim (Tournefort, Voyage, Lett. 9). The description of this machine exactly agrees with that of the Scottish quern, formerly an indispensable part of domestic furniture (Pennant, Tour in Scotland, 1769, p231; and 1772, p328). There can be no doubt that this is the flour-mill in its most ancient form. An engraving of an ancient rotary mill as described in the paragraph that follows. In a very improved state it has been discovered at Pompeii. The annexed woodcut shows two which were found standing in the ruins of a bakehouse. In the left-hand figure the lower millstone only is shown. The most essential part of it is the cone, which is surmounted by a projection containing originally a strong iron pivot. The upper millstone, seen in its place on the right hand of the woodcut, approaches the form of an hour-glass, consisting of two hollow cones, jointed together at the apex, and provided at this point with a socket, by which the upper stone was suspended upon the iron pivot, at the same time touching on all sides the lower stone, and with which it was intended to revolve. The upper stone was surrounded at its narrowest part with a strong band of iron; and two bars of wood were inserted into square holes, one of which appears in this figure, and were used to turn the upper stone. The uppermost of the two hollow cones served the purpose of a hopper. The corn with which it was filled, gradually fell through the neck of the upper stone upon the summit of the lower, and, as it proceeded down the cone, was ground into flour by the friction of the two rough surfaces, and fell on all sides of the base of the cone into a channel formed for its reception. The mill here represented is five or six feet high.

Amid the ruins of an ancient brick building of which the floor is now grass, a line of six stone devices, 2 to 4 meters tall, consisting of a roughly cylindrical base and a smaller hourglass-shaped piece with a pair of prominent square holes, diametrally opposite. They are ancient Roman flour mills at Ostia Antica, the port of Rome.

Industrial facilities had many mills.
Here, a commercial bakery in Ostia (Regio I, XIII.4),
in which the mills were probably turned by donkeys.

The hand-mills were worked among the Greeks and Romans by slaves. Their pistrinum was consequently proverbial as a place of painful and degrading labour; and this toil was imposed principally on women (Hom. Od. VII.104; Exod. xi.5; Matt. xxiv.41).

In every large establishment the hand-mills were numerous in proportion to the extent of the family. Thus in the palace of Ulysses there were twelve, each turned by a separate female, who was obliged to grind every day the fixed quantity of corn before she was permitted to cease from her labour (Od. XX.105‑119; compare Cato, de Re Rust. 56).

II. The cattle-mill, mola asinaria (Cato, de Re Rust. 10; Matt. xviii.6) in which human labour was supplied by the use of an ass or some other animal (Ovid. Fast. VI.318). The animal devoted to this labour was blind-folded (Apul. Met. IX). The mill did not differ in its construction from the larger kinds of hand-mill.

III. The water-mill (mola aquaria, ὑδραλέτης). The first water-mill, of which any record is preserved, was connected with the palace of Mithridates in Pontus (Strabo, XII.3 §30). That water-mills were used at Rome is manifest from the description of them by Vitruvius (X.5 ed. Schneider). A cogged wheel, attached to the axis of the water-wheel, turned another which was attached to the axis of the upper mill-stone; the corn to be ground fell between the stones out of a hopper (infundibulum), which was fixed above them (see also Brunck, Anal. II.119; Pallad. de Re Rust. I.42). Ausonius, as quoted below, mentions their existence on the Ruwer near Treves;º and Venantius Fortunatus, describing a castle built in the sixth century on the banks of the Moselle, makes distinct mention of a tail-race, by which "the tortuous stream is conducted in a straight channel" (Poem. III.10).

IV. The floating-mill. When Rome was besieged by the Goths, A.D. 536, and when the stoppage of the aqueducts rendered it impossible to use the public corn-mills (οἱ τῆς πόλεως μύλωνες) in the Janiculum, so that the citizens were in danger of starvation, Belisarius supplied their place by erecting floating-mills upon the Tiber. Two boats being moored at the distance of two feet from each other, a water-wheel, suspended on its axis between them, was turned by the force of the stream, and put in motion the stones for grinding the corn,º by which the lives of the besieged were preserved (Procop. de Bello Gothico, I.19).º

V. The saw-mill. Ausonius mentions mills situated  p766 on some of the streams falling into the Moselle, and used for cutting marble into slabs (Mosella, 362, 363).

VI. The pepper-mill. A mill for grinding pepper, made of boxwood, is mentioned by Petronius (molea buxea piper trivit, Sat. 74).

Thayer's Notes:

a The hand-mill, or quern, called mola manuaria, versatilis, or trusatilis: Our writer, or more likely his editor in condensing him, has wound up creating confusion.

Mola manuaria (from manus, hand) is any type of quern, covering both of these:

Mola trusatilis (from trudo, to push), a quern in which you push the upper stone against the lower one. The lower stone is usually shaped like a saddle — or in some, like a bench that you can sit on — so this type is normally called a saddle quern. A good photo can be seen here.

Mola versatilis (from verto, to turn), the rotary quern in which you, or in the large industrial versions an animal, turn the upper stone. This is the type described and illustrated in our article, and represents a major technological improvement: see Grain in Abu Hureyra for the medical consequences of working a saddle quern; village women must have clamored for the new time- and labor-saving household appliance.

For a photo of a small rotary quern, or at least of its upper stone, still more or less in situ in its old Roman village, see my page on the Umbrian town commonly identified as Urvinum Hortense.

For a more detailed discussion of querns as found in Roman England, see John Ward's chapter on stone utensils.

b The American reader is reminded that "corn" in British English means any kind of grain: usually wheat. What we Americans call "corn", they call "maize"; it's a New World plant that the Greeks and Romans did not know.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 29 May 20