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 p943  Porta

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp943‑944 of

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

PORTA (πύλη, dim. πυλίς), the gate of a city, citadel, or other open space inclosed by a wall, in contradistinction to Janua, which was the door of a house or any covered edifice. The terms porta and πύλη are often found in the plural, even when applied to a single gate, because it consisted of two leaves (Thucyd. II.4; Virg. Aen. II.330).

The gates of a city were of course various in their number and position. The ancient walls of Paestum, Sepianum, and Aosta, still remain and inclose a square: in the centre of each of the four walls was a gate. If, instead of being situated on a plain, a city was built on the summit of a precipitous hill, there was a gate on the sloping declivity which afforded the easiest access. If, in consequence of the unevenness of the ground, the form of the walls was irregular, the number and situation of the gates varied according to the circumstances. Thus Megara had 5 gates (Reinganum, Megaris, pp125, 126); Thebes, in Boeotia, had 7; Athens had 8 (Ersch u. Gruber, Encyc. s.v. Attica, pp240, 241); and Rome 20, or perhaps even more.

The jambs of the gate were surmounted, 1. by a lintel, which was large and strong in proportion to the width of the gate: examples of extremely massive jambs and lintels are presented by the gates in the so‑called Cyclopean Walls; see, for instance, the engraving of the celebrated Lion-Gate at Mycenae, under Murus, p770B. The lintel of the centre gate leading into the Athenian Acropolis, is 17 feet long. 2. by an arch, as we see exemplified at Pompeii, Paestum, Sepianum, Volterra, Suzaº, Autun, Besançon, and Treves.º 3. At Arpinum, one of the gates now remaining is arched, whilst another is constructed with the stones projecting one beyond another, after the manner represented in the wood-cut, at p125 (Keppel Craven, Excursions in the Abruzzi, vol. I p108).

At Como, Verona, and other ancient cities of Lombardy, the gate contains two passages close together, the one designed for carriages entering, and the other for carriages leaving the city. The same provision is observed in the magnificent ruin of a gate at Treves. (See the following woodcut, showing a view of it, together with its plan.) In other instances we find only one gate for carriages, but a smaller one on each side of it (παραπυλίς, Heliodor. VIII p394) for foot-passengers. (See the plan of the gate of Pompeii, p256). Each of the fine gates which remain at Autun has not only two carriage-ways, but exterior to them two sideways for pedestrians. (Millin, Voyage dans les Départemens, &c. vol. I ch. 22. Atlas, Pl. 18, Figs. 3, 4.) When there were no sideways, one of the valves of the large gate sometimes contained a wicket (portula, πυλίς: ῥινοπύλη), large enough to admit a single person. The porter opened it when any one wished to go in or out by night (Polyb. VIII.20, 24;º Liv. XXV.9).

The contrivances for fastening gates were in general the same as those used for doors [Janua], but larger in proportion. The wooden bar placed across them in the inside (μοχλός) was kept in its position by the following method. A hole, passing through it perpendicularly (βαλανοδόκη, Aen. Tact. 18), admitted a cylindrical piece of iron, called Βάλανος, which also entered a hole in the gate, so that, until it was taken out, the bar could not be removed either to the one side or the other (Thucyd. II.4; Aristoph. Vesp. 200; βεβαλάνωται, Aves, 1159). Another piece of iron, fitted to the Βάλανος and called βαλανάγρα, was used to extract it (Aen. Tact. l.c.). When the besiegers, for want of this key, the βαλανάγρα, were unable to remove the bar, they cut it through with a hatchet (Thucyd. IV.111; Polyb. VIII.23, 24º), or set it on fire (Aen. Tact. 19).​a

[image ALT: missingALT.]

The Porta Nigra at Trier
(Augusta Treverorum).

For photographs and good text on it,
see Roman Trier (CJ 29:3‑12) and the further links in the footer bar of that page.

The gateway had commonly a chamber, either on one side or both, which served as the residence of the porter or guard. It was called πυλών (Polyb. VIII.20, 23, 24).º Its situation is shown in the following plan (see wood-cut). But the gate-way was also, in many cases, surmounted by a tower, adapted either for defence (portis turres imposuit, Caes. B. G. VIII.9; Virg. Aen. VI.552‑554) or for conducting the general business of government. In the gates of Como and Verona this edifice is 3 stories high. At Treves it was 4 stories high in the flanks, although the 4 stories remain standing in one of them only, as may be observed in the annexed wood-cut. The length of this building is 115 feet; its depth 47 in the middle, 67 in the flanks; its greatest height, 92. All the 4 stories are ornamented in every direction with rows of Tuscan columns. The gateways are each 14 feet wide. The entrance of each appears to have been guarded, as at Pompeii (see p256), first by a portcullis, and then by gates of wood and iron. The barbican, between the double portcullis and the pair of gates, was no doubt open to the sky, as in the gates of Pompeii. This edifice was probably erected by Constantine  p944 (Wyttenbach's Roman Ant. of Treves, pp9‑39). Its rows of ornamental windows and the general style of its architecture, afford sufficient indications, that although very strong, it was not intended solely, nor principally, for the purposes of defence, but to be applied in time of peace to the various objects of civil government. To these latter purposes the gate house (πυλών) was commonly devoted, more especially in Eastern countries. Hence Polybius (XV.29) º calls a building at Alexandria τόν χρηματιστικὸν πυλῶνα τῶν βασιλείων, i.e. "the gate-house of the palace, used for the transaction of public business." In the Old Testament the references to this custom are very frequent. By metonymy "the gates" meant those who administered justice at the gates and wielded the powers of government (Hom. Il. IX.312; Matt. xvi.18).

Statues of the gods were often placed near the gate, or even within it in the barbican, so as to be ready to receive the adoration of those who entered the city (Paus. IV.33 §4; Lucret. I.314; Acts, xiv.13). The probable position of the statue was the point S in the above plan. The gate was sometimes much ornamented. Sculptured elephants, for example, were placed upon the Porta Aurea at Constantinople.

Thayer's Note:

a The writer misunderstood Aeneas, or, more likely, went too quickly: how could one burn a strong iron bar away, especially in such a confined space? At any rate, as the passage — in which there is no mention of fire — clearly shows, oil is mentioned not as an accelerant, but as a lubricant.

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