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 p1014  Sella

Article by William Ramsay, M.A., Professor of Humanity in the University of Glasgow
on pp1014‑1016 of

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

SELLA. The general term for a seat or chair of any description. The varieties most deserving of notice are:—

I. Sella Curulis, the chair of state. Curulis is derived by the ancient writers from currus (Aul. Gell. III.18; Festus, s.v. Curules; Servius, ad Virg. Aen. XI.334; Isidor. XX.11 §11); but it is more probably connected with curvus. The sella curulis is said to have been used at Rome from a very remote period as an emblem of kingly power (hence curuli regia sella adornavit, Liv. I.20), having been imported, along with various other insignia of royalty, from Etruria (Liv. I.8), according to one account by Tullus Hostilius (Macrob. Sat. I.6); according to another by the elder Tarquinius (Flor. I.5); while Silius names Vetulonii as the city from which it was immediately derived (VIII.487). Under the republic the right of sitting upon this chair belonged to the consuls, praetors, curule aediles, and censors (Liv. II.54, VII.8, IX.46, X.7, XL.45; Aul. Gell. VII.9,º &c.); to the Flamen Dialis (Liv. I.20, XXVII.8) [Flamen]; to the dictator, and to those whom he deputed to act under himself, as the magister equitum, since he might be said to comprehend all magistracies within himself (Dion Cass. XLIII.48; Liv. II.31; Festus, s.v. Sellae curulis). After the downfall of the constitution it was assigned to the emperors also, or to their statues in their absence (Tacit. Ann. XV.29, Hist. II.59; Servius, l.c.); to the Augustales (Tacit. Ann. II.83), and, perhaps, to the praefectus urbi (Spanheim, de Praest. et Usu Numism. X.3 §1). It was displayed upon all great public occasions, especially in the circus and theatre (Liv. II.31; Suet. Octav. 43; Dion Cass. LVIII.4), sometimes, even after the death of the person to whom it belonged, a mark of special honour, bestowed on Marcellus, Germanicus, and Pertinax (Dion Cass. LIII.30, LXXV.4;º Tacit. Ann. II.83, and Comm. of Lips.; Spanheim, X.2 §1); and it was the seat of the praetor when he administered justice (Cic. Verr. II.38; Val. Max. III.5 §1; Tacit. Ann. I.75; Martial, XI.98.18). In the provinces it was assumed by inferior magistrates, when they exercised proconsular or propraetorian authority, as we infer from its appearing along with fasces on a coin of the Gens Pupia, struck at Nicaea in Bithynia, and bearing the name AVΛΟϹ ΠΟΝΠΙΟϹ ΤΑΜΙΑϹ. We find it occasionally exhibited on the medals of foreign monarchs likewise, on those of Ariobarzanes II of Cappadocia, for it was the practice of the Romans to present a curule chair, an ivory sceptre, a toga praetexta, and such like ornaments, as tokens of respect and confidence to those rulers whose friendship they desired to cultivate (Liv. XXX.11, Liv. XLII.14; Polyb. Exc. Leg. cxxi; Cic. ad Fam. XV.2; Spanheim, Ibid. X.4).

 p1015  The sella curulis appears from the first to have been ornamented with ivory, and this is commonly indicated by such expressions as curule ebur; Numidiae sculptile dentis opus; and ἐλαφαντίνος δίφρος (Hor. Ep. I.6.53; Ovid. ex Pont. IV.9.27); at a later period it was overlaid with gold, and consequently we find δίφρους ἐπιχρύσους, θρόνους καταχρύσους, τὸν δίφρον τὸν κεχρυσωμένον, recurring constantly in Dion Cassius, who frequently, however, employs the simple form δίφροι ἀρχικοί. In shape it long remained extremely plain, closely resembling a common folding (plicatilis) camp stool with crooked legs. These last gave rise to the name ἀγκυλόπους δίφρος, found in Plutarch (Marius, 5); they strongly remind us of elephants' teeth, which they may have been intended to imitate, and the emperor Aurelian proposed to construct one in which each foot was to consist of an enormous tusk entire (Vopiscus, Firm. 3).

The form of the sella curulis, as it is commonly represented upon the denarii of the Roman families, is given in p520. In the following cut are represented two pair of bronze legs, belonging to sellae curules, preserved in the museum at Naples (Museo Borbonico, vol. VI tav. 28); and a sella curulis, copied from the Vatican collection.

[image ALT: An engraving of three low backless camp stools — or rather of one complete stool and the leg portion only of two others — in which the legs form an X and clearly pivot around it to fold. They are examples of ancient Roman 'bisellia'.]

Ii. bisellium: The word is found in no classical author except Varro (L. L. V.128, ed. Müller), according to whom it means a seat large enough to contain two persons. We learn from various inscriptions that the right of using a seat of this kind, upon public occasions, was granted as a mark of honour to distinguished persons by the magistrates and people in provincial towns. There are examples of this in an inscription found at Pisa, which called forth the long, learned, rambling dissertation of Chimentelli (Graev. Thes. Antiq. Rom. vol. VII p2030), and in two others found at Pompeii (Orell. Inscr. n4048, 4044). In another inscription we have Biselliatus Honor (Orell. 4043); in another (Orell. 4055), containing the roll of an incorporation of carpenters, one of the office-bearers is styled collegi bisellearius (cf. Orell. 4046, 4047).

[image ALT: An engraving of a very elaborate four-legged backless chair, the seat of which comprises two flat boards, the upper supported by brackets resting on the lower. The brackets are carved in the shape of horses and are further sculpted with medallions. It is an example of the ancient Roman 'sella curulis'.]

Two bronze bisellia were discovered at Pompeii, and thus all uncertainty with regard to the form of the seat has been removed. One of these is engraved above (Mus. Borbon. vol. II tav. 31).​a

Iii. sella gestatoria: (Suet. Ner. 26, Vitell. 16; Amm. Marc. XXIX.2) or Fertoria. (Caelius Aurelian. I.5, II.1), a sedan used both in town and country (Tacit. Ann. XIV.4; Suet. Claud. 25), by men (Tacit. Hist. I.35, III.85; Juven. VII.141; Martial. IX.23), as well as by women (Tacit. Ann. XIV.4; Juv. I.124, VI.353;º hence muliebris sella, Suet. Otho, 6). It is expressly distinguished from the Lectica (Suet. Claud. 25; Martial. X.10, XI.98; Senec. brev. vit. 12), a portable bed or sofa, in which the person carried lay in a recumbent position, while the sella was a portable chair in which the occupant sat upright, but they are sometimes confounded, as by Martial (IV.51). It differed from the cathedra also, but in what the difference consisted it is not easy to determine. [Cathedra.] The sella was sometimes entirely open, as we infer from the account given by Tacitus of the death of Galba (Hist. I.35, &c.), but more frequently shut in (Juven. I.126; Suet. Ner. 26, Vitell. 16, Otho, 6). Dion Cassius (LX.2) pretends that Claudius first employed the covered sella, but in this he is contradicted by Suetonius (Octav. 53), and by himself (XLVII.23, LVI.43). It appears, however, not to have been introduced until long after the lectica was common, since we scarcely, if ever, find any allusion to it until the period of the empire. The sellae were made sometimes of plain leather, and sometimes ornamented with bone, ivory, silver (Lamprid. Elagab. 4), or gold (Claud. Honor. IV Cons. IV.583), according to the rank or fortune of the proprietor. They were furnished with a pillow to support the head and neck (cervical, Juv. VI.532, and Schol.), when made roomy the epithet laxa was applied (Senec. de Const. 14), when smaller than usual they were termed sellulae (Tacit. Hist. III.85); the motion was so easy that one might study without inconvenience (Plin. Ep. III.5), while at the same time it afforded a healthful exercise (Senec. Brev. vit. 12; Galen. de Tuend. Val. VI.4; Caelius Aurelian, l.c.).

IV. Sellae of different kinds are mentioned incidentally in ancient writers, accompanied by epithets which serve to point out generally the purposes for which they were intended. Thus we read of sellae balneares,º sellae tonsoriae,º sellae obstetriciae,º sellae familiaricae v. pertusae, and many others. Both Varro (L. L. V.128) and Festus (s.v.) have preserved the word seliquastrum. The former classes it along with sedes, sedile, solium, sellae, the latter calls them "sedilia antiqui generis," and Arnobius includes them among common articles of furniture. No hint, however, is given by any of these authorities which could lead us to  p1016 conjecture the shape, nor is any additional light thrown upon the question by Hyginus[Astr. II.10], who tells us, when describing the constellations, that Cassiopeia is seated "in siliquastro".

[image ALT: An engraving of a rectangular board atop four short legs carved in the shape of bird's heads. It is an example of an ancient Roman chair.]

Of chairs in ordinary use for domestic purposes, a great variety, many displaying great taste, have been discovered in excavations or are seen represented in ancient frescoes. The first cut annexed represents a bronze one from the Museum at Naples (Mus. Borb. vol. VI. tav. 28): the second, two chairs, of which the one on the right hand is in the Vatican and the other is taken from a painting at Pompeii (Mus. Borb. vol. XII tav. 3). A chair of a very beautiful form is given in the Mus. Borb. vol. VIII tav. 20.

[image ALT: An engraving of two chairs. The one on the left has a back that is curved from bottom to top, and although it appears to have a removable footstool, looks very uncomfortable. The other chair has a back that is curved from left to right, and the seat is supported by legs that curve very markedly outward, but looks far more comfortable. They are examples of Roman chairs.]

V. sellae equestres: [Ephippium.]

Thayer's Note:

a But see W. C. F. Anderson, "The Meaning of Fulcrum and Fulcri Genius" (Classical Review 3:322‑324, p323), who takes issue with the restoration of the object that underlies this specific engraving, and has it right, I think.

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