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 p1011  Sceptrum

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on p1011 of

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

SCEPTRUM is a latinised form of the Greek σκῆπτρον, which originally denoted a simple staff or walking-stick (Hom. Il. XVIII.416; Aeschyl. Agam. 74; Herod. I.195). The corresponding Latin term is scipio, springing from the same root and having the same signification, but of less frequent occurrence.

As the staff was used not merely to support the steps of the aged and infirm, but as a weapon of defence and assault, the privilege of habitually carrying it became emblematic of station and authority. The straight staves which are held by two of the four sitting figures in the woodcut at p98, while a third holds the curved staff, or Lituus, indicate no less than their attitude and position, that they are exercising judicial functions. In ancient authors the sceptre is represented as belonging more especially to kings, princes, and leaders of tribes (Hom. Il. II.186, 199, 265, 268, 279, XVIII.557, Od. II.37, 80, III.412): but it is also borne by judges (Hom. Od. XI.568), by heralds (Il. III.218, VII.277, XVIII.505), and by priests and seers (Hom. Il. I.15, Od. XI.91; Aeschyl. Agam. 1236). It was more especially characteristic of Asiatic manners, so that among the Persians whole classes of those who held high rank and were invested with authority, including eunuchs, were distinguished as the sceptre-bearing classes (οἱ σκηπτροῦχοι, Xen. Cyr. VII.3 §17, VIII.1 §38, 3 §15). The sceptre descended from father to son (Hom. Il. II.46, 100‑109), and might be committed to any one in order to express the transfer of authority (Herod. VII.52). Those who bore the sceptre swore by it (Hom. Il. I.234‑239), solemnly taking it in the right hand and raising it towards heaven (Hom. Il. VII.412, X.321, 328).

[image ALT: A woodcut of two ancient Greek warriors in armor, one walking behind the other. The first carries on his back an old man who holds a staff topped by a stylized flower very similar to a fleur-de‑lis. It is a depiction of Aeneas followed by Ascanius and carrying his father Anchises: the staff is a scepter of kingly power.]
The original wooden staff, in consequence of its application to the uses now described, received a variety of ornaments or emblems. It early became a truncheon, pierced with golden or silver studs (Il. I.246, II.46). It was enriched with gems (Ovid, Met. III.264), and made of precious metals or of ivory (I.178, Fast. VI.38). The annexed woodcut, taken from one of Sir Wm. Hamilton's fictile vases, and representing Aeneas followed by Ascanius and carrying off his father Anchises, who holds the sceptre in his right hand, shows its form as worn by kings.​a The ivory sceptre (eburneus scipio, Val. Max. IV.4 §5) of the kings of Rome, which descended to the consuls, was surmounted by an eagle (Virg. Aen. XI.238; Serv. ad loc.; Juv. X.43; Isid. Orig. XVIII.2). [Insigne.] Jupiter and Juno, as sovereigns of the gods, were represented with a sceptre (Ovid. ll. cc.).

Thayer's Note:

a The distinguishing feature of the sceptre in our woodcut, very typically, appears to be a lotus flower. It is interesting to notice how similar that looks to a fleur-de‑lis, and just maybe might provide an origin for that French royal symbol. Myth would have it that the origin of the fleur-de‑lis is a toad, of all things; that's never seemed very satisfactory to me; nor apparently to Dante, who goes off on a most extraordinary, if beautiful, flight of fancy (Paradiso, XVIII, lines 89‑114). In fact no one knows, and among the many ideas that have occurred to the fertile minds of antiquarians, is the plausible suggestion that the Gallic lily does in fact derive from the ancient scepter; and, for the conscious use of the idea in the early 14c by a sculptor steeped in the classical Roman tradition, see Lorenzo Maitani's Annunciation on the façade of the cathedral of Orvieto; but also, a century earlier, its use by a much less sophisticated artist in a Romanesque church at Montecchio di Giano).

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Page updated: 25 Mar 20