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 p1001  Sagitta

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp1001‑1002 of

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

SAGITTA (ὀϊστός, ἰός; Herod. τόξευμα), an arrow. The account of the arrows of Hercules (Hesiod. Scut. 130‑135), enumerates and describes three parts, viz. the head or point, the shaft, and the feather.

An engraving of 4 metal arrow-heads.

The use of barbed (aduncae, hamatae), and poisoned arrows (venenatae sagittae) is always represented by the Greek and Roman authors as the characteristic of barbarous nations. It is attributed to the Sauromatae and Getae (Ovid. Trist. III.10.63, 64, de Ponto, IV.7.11, 12); to the Servii (Arnoldi, Chron. Slav. 4 § 8) and Scythians (Plin. H. N. X.53 s115), and to the Arabs (Pollux, 1.137) and Moors (Hor. Carm. I.22.3). When Ulysses wishes to have recourse to this insidious practice, he is obliged to travel north of the country of the Thesprotians (Hom. Od. I.261‑263); and the classical authors who mention it do so in terms of condemnation (Hom. Plin.; Aelian, H.A. V.16). The poison applied to the tips of arrows having been called toxicum (τοξικὸν), on account of its connection with the use of the bow (Plin. H. N. XVI.10 s20; Festus, s.v.; Dioscor. VI.20), the signification of this term was afterwards extended to poisons in general (Plaut. Merc. II.4.4; Hor. Epod. XVII.61; Propert. I.5.6).

II. The excellence of the shaft consisted in being long and at the same time straight, and, if it was of light wood, in being well polished (Hes. Scut. 133). But it often consisted of a smooth cane or reed (Arundo donax or phragmites, Linn.), and on this account the whole arrow was called either arundo in the one case (Virg. Aen. IV.69‑73, V.525; Ovid. Met. I.471, VIII.382), or calamus in the other (Virg. Buc. III.12, 13; Ovid. Met. VII.778; Hor. Carm. I.15.17; Juv. XIII.80). In the Egyptian tombs reed-arrows have been found, varying from 34 to 22 inches in length. They show the slit (γλυφίς, Hom. Il. IV.122, Od. XXI.419) cut in the reed for fixing it upon the string (Wilkinson, Man. and Cust. &c. vol. I p309).

 p1002  III. The Feathers are shown on ancient monuments of all kinds, and are indicated by the terms alae (Virg. Aen. IX.578, XII.319), pennatae sagittae (Prudentius, Hamart. 498), and πτερόεντες ὀϊστοί (Hom. Il. V.171). The arrows of Hercules are said to have been feathered from the wings of a black eagle (Hes. l.c.).

Besides the use of arrows in the ordinary way, they were sometimes employed to carry fire. Juliusa Caesar attempted to set Antony's ships on fire by sending βέλη πυρφόρα from the bows of his archers (Dion Cass. L.34). A head-dress of small arrows is said to have been worn by the Indians (Prudentius, l.c.), the Nubians and Egyptians, and other Oriental nations (Claudian, de Nupt. Honor. 222, de 3 Cons. Honor. 21, de Laud. Stil. I.254).

In the Greek and Roman armies the sagittarii, more anciently called arquites, i.e. archers, or bowmen (Festus, s.v.), formed an important part of the light-armed infantry (Caesar, Bell. Civ. I.51,º III.44; Cic. ad Fam. XV.4). They belonged, for the most part, to the allies, and were principally Cretans. [Arcus; Corytus; Pharetra; Tormentum.]

Thayer's Note:

a Alert reader Cynthia Wolfe (thank you!) has caught a mistake by our author here: not Julius Caesar, but just plain Caesar: i.e.Augustus — as is clear from the passage in Dio.

The slip is one that I might have corrected tacit­ly, or with at most one of my little bulletsº; but from time to time it's useful to remind ourselves that just because we see something in a book doesn't mean it's true.

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Page updated: 29 Sep 18