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 p895  Pharos​a

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on p895 of

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

PHAROS or PHARUS, a light-house. The most celebrated light-house of antiquity was that situated at the entrance to the port of Alexandria. It was built by Sostratus of Cnidos on an island, which bore the same name, by command of one of the Ptolemies, and at an expense of 800 talents (Plin. H. N. XXXVI.12; Steph. Byz. s.v. Φάρος; Achill. Tat. V.6). It was square, constructed of white stone, and with admirable art; exceedingly lofty, and in all respects of great dimensions (Caesar, Bell. Civ. III.112). It contained many stories (πολυόροφον, Strabo, XVII.1 §6), which diminished in width from below upwards (Herodian, IV.3). The upper stories had windows looking seawards, and torches or fires were kept burning in them by night in order to guide vessels into the harbour (Val. Flacc. VII.84; see Bartoli, Luc. Ant. III.12 [text plate]).

Pliny (l.c.) mentions the light-houses of Ostia and Ravenna, and says that there were similar towers at many other places. They are represented on the medals of Apamea and other maritime cities. The name of Pharos was given to them in allusion to that at Alexandria, which was the model for their construction (Herodian, l.c.; Suet. Claud. 20; Brunck, Anal. II.186). The pharos of Brundusium, for example, was, like that of Alexandria, an island with a light-house upon it (Mela, II.7 §13; Steph. Byz. l.c.). Suetonius (Tiber. 74) mentions another pharos at Capreae.

The annexed woodcut shows two phari remaining in Britain. The first is within the precincts of Dover Castle. It is about 40 feet high, octagonal externally, tapering from below upwards, and built with narrow courses of brick and much wider courses of stone in alternate portions. The space within the tower is square, the sides of the octagon without and of the square within being equal, viz., each 15 Roman feet. The door is seen at the bottom (Stukeley, Itin. Curios. p129).​b A similar pharos formerly existed at Boulogne, and is supposed to have been built by Caligula (Sueton. Calig. 46; Montfaucon, Supplem. vol. IV L. VI.3,4). The round tower here introduced is on the summit of a hill on the coast of Flintshire (Pennant, Par. of Whiteford and Holywell, p112).​c

[image ALT: A woodcut of two small towers of stone masonry in alternating courses of fine and larger stones. The one on the left is bell-shaped and battlemented, the one on the right is cylindrical, consisting of a ground story with a large irregular breach, a second story above it with three large windows visible, and above that two further very low stories: each story is slightly inset from the one below it. The left tower is a Roman Pharos at Dover, the other is a tower of unknown date in Flintshire. Further details are given in the text of this webpage.]

Thayer's Notes:

a Our dictionary's article is the merest sketch. Exhaustive information can be found in several pages of fine print in Daremberg & Saglio's Pharus (IV.427‑432, in French).

b Archaeologist Preston Boyles writes me that during the Anglo-Saxon period the lighthouse was repurposed as a belfry for the adjacent church of St Mary sub Castro, and that in the 15c the uppermost story was rebuilt.

[image ALT: A photograph of a old tower of rough masonry in alternating courses of stone and brick. Less than a meter to its right, an old stone church; in the background, a large square battlemented castle. The monuments are respectively the Roman lighthouse of Dover, the church of St Mary sub Castro, and Dover Castle.]

The Roman lighthouse of Dover, 13 meters tall in its present state. We are looking a few degrees west of due north; the coast is about 400 meters behind us. In the distance (175 m), the Great Tower of Dover Castle.

[A much larger version, in which the details of the Roman masonry can be seen quite well,
opens here (2.3 MB).]

Photo © Preston Boyles, by kind permission.

The diligent reader will notice that Stukeley's three attractive and more informative if confusingly captioned engravings show a markedly different tower; crude as our dictionary's woodcut is, it is more accurate.

c This second British tower is at Mynydd y Garreg, and is probably not a Roman structure: current consensus is that it is one of a series of towers built along that part of the Welsh coast in the 17th century, the purposes of which are still debated (watchtowers being the usual interpretation). Further information is provided at Cadw, the Welsh government heritage site. Smith's woodcut is clearly based on the more informative and utterly delight­ful engraving in Pennant, q.v.

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Page updated: 14 Apr 23