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Bill Thayer

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 p1052  Speculum

Unsigned article on pp1052‑1053 of

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

SPE′CULUM (κάτοπτρον, ἔσοπτρον, ἔνοπτρον), a mirror, a looking-glass. The use of mirrors is of very high antiquity (Job, xxxvii.18; Exodus, xxxviii.8), but they are not mentioned by Homer, even when he describes in so circumstantial a manner the toilet of Hera. In the historical times of Greece they are frequently spoken of (Xen. Cyr. VII.1 § 2; Eurip. Medea, 1161, Orest. 1112, &c.), and they were probably known in Greece long before, since every substance capable of receiving a fine polish would answer the purpose of a mirror. Thus basins were employed instead of mirrors (Artemid. Oneir. III.30, p279, ed. Reiff), and also cups, that the image of the person who drank from them was seen multiplied (Plin. H. N. XXXIII.9 s45; compare Vopisc. Prob. 4).

The looking glasses of the ancients were usually made of metal, at first of a composition of tin and copper, but afterwards more frequently of silver (Plin, l.c.). Pliny says that silver mirrors were first made by Praxiteles in the time of Pompey the Great, but they are mentioned as early as that of Plautus (Most. I.3.111). Under the empire the use of silver mirrors was so common, that they began to be used even by maid servants (Plin. H. N. XXXIV.17 s48): they are constantly mentioned in the Digest, when silver plate is spoken of (33 tit. 6 s3; 34 tit. 2 s19 § 8). At first they were made of the purest silver, but metal of an inferior quality was afterwards employed (Plin. H. N. XXXIII.9 § 45). Frequently too the polished silver plate was no doubt very slight, but the excellence of the mirror very much depended on the thickness of the plate, since the reflection was stronger in proportion as the plate was thicker (Vitruv. VII.3, p204, ed. Bip.). We find gold mirrors mentioned once or twice by ancient writers (Eurip. Hecub. 925; Senec. Quaest. Nat. I.17; Aelian, V. H. XII.58);​a but it is not impossible, as Beckmann has remarked, that the term golden rather refers to the frame or ornaments than to the mirror itself, as we speak of a gold watch, though the cases only may be of that metal.

Besides metals, the ancients also formed stones into mirrors, but these are mentioned so seldom that we may conclude they were intended for ornament rather than for use. Pliny (H. N. XXXVI.26 s67) mentions the obsidian stone, or, as it is now called, the Icelandic agate, as particularly suitable for this purpose. Domitian is said to have had a gallery lined with phengites, which by its reflection showed every thing that was done behind his back (Suet. Dom. 14), by which Beckmann understands a calcareous or gypseous spar, or selenite, which is indeed capable of reflecting an image; but we cannot therefore conclude that the ancients formed mirrors of it. Mirrors were also made of rubies according to Pliny (H. N. XXXVII.7 s25), who refers to Theophrastus for his authority, but he seems to have misunderstood the passage of Theophrastus (de Lapid. 61), and this stone is never found now sufficiently large to enable it to be made into a mirror. The emerald, it appears, also served Nero for a mirror (Plin. H. N. XXXVI.5 s16, Isidor. XVI.7).​b

The ancients seem to have had glass mirrors also like ours, which consist of a glass plate covered at the back with a thin leaf of metal. They were manufactured as early as the time of Pliny at the celebrated glass-houses of Sidon (Plin. H. N. XXXVI.26 s66), but they must have been inferior to those of metal, since they never came into general use and never mentioned by ancient writers among costly pieces of furniture, whereas metal mirrors frequently are. Pliny seems to allude to them in another passage (H. N. XXXIII.9 s45), where he speaks of gold being applied behind a mirror, which we can understand, if we admit that Pliny was acquainted with glass mirrors.

Of mirrors made of a mixture of copper and tin, the best were manufactured at Brundisium (Plin. H. N. XXXIII.9 s45, XXXIV.17 s48). This mixture produces a white metal, which, unless preserved with great care, soon becomes so dim that it cannot be used until it has been previously cleaned and polished. For this reason a sponge with pounded pumice-stone was generally fastened to the ancient mirrors (Plat. Timaeus, p72C; Vossius, ad Catull. p97).

[image ALT: An engraving of an ancient hand-mirror.]
Looking-glasses were generally small and such as could be carried in the hand. Most of those which are preserved in our Museums are of this kind; they usually have a handle,​c and are of a round or oval shape. Their general form is shown in the woodcut annexed (Caylus, Recueil d'Antiquités, vol. V pl. 62).

Instead of their being fixed so as to be hung against the wall or to stand upon the table or floor,​d they  p1053 were generally held by female slaves before their mistresses when dressing (Propert. IV.7.75, 76), which office was also performed sometimes by the lover, when admitted to the toilet of his mistress (Ovid. Ar. Am. II.216). On ancient vases we sometimes find female slaves represented holding up mirrors to their mistresses (Tischbein, Engrav. from ancient Vases, vol. I pl. 10).

Looking-glasses, however, were also made of the length of a person's body (specula totis paria corporibus, Senec. Quaest. Nat. I.17): of which kind the mirror of Demosthenes must have been (Quintil. Inst. Or. XI.3 § 68). They were fastened to the walls sometimes (speculum parieti affixum, Dig. 34 tit. 2 s19 § 8; Vitruv. IX.6 (9) p280 Bip.), though not generally. Suetonius in his life of Horace speaks of an apartment belonging to that poet, which was lined with mirrors (speculatum cubiculum), which expression, however, Lessing considers as contrary to the Latin idiom, and therefore regards the whole passage as a forgery. That there were, however, rooms ornamented in this way, is probable from Claudian's description of the chamber of Venus, which was covered over with mirrors, so that whichever way her eyes turned she could see her own image (Hymn. in Nupt. Honor. et Mar. 106, &c.). We frequently find the mirror mentioned in connection with Venus (Athen. XV p687C), but Minerva was supposed to make no use of it (Callim. Hymn. in Lavacr. Pallad. 17).

(Spanheim, Observ. in Callimachi Hymnum in lavacrum Palladis, p547, Ultraj. 1697; Ménard, recherches sur les Miroirs des Anciens in l'Histoire de l'Académie des Inscr. vol. XXIII p140; Caylus, recueil d'Antiquités, III p331, V p173; Beckmann, History of Inventions, vol. III p164, transl.; Böttiger, Sabina, vol. I pp133, 152, vol. II, pp145, 169, Griechischen Vasengemählden, vol. III p46; Becker, Gallus, vol. I p97, vol. II p111.)

Thayer's Notes:

a But the object mentioned by Aelian may not be a mirror at all: see Mr. Eason's note ad loc. (on the gold tablet of Corinthian work).

b The stone called smaragdus in Antiquity is very hard to identify; in fact, the word covers many minerals, precious, and semi-precious stones, sometimes in the very same context and sentence. My best candidate for the passage in Isidore, quite off the cuff and if at least he meant anything more than "this stone reflects light", might be malachite.

c Often the handles have holes, or are in the shape of loops, to allow them to be hung easily: see for example this engraving in Ward's Roman Era in Britain).

d Yet see also Plutarch, De Auditu, 42B, where the Greek text — δεῖ τῷ κατόπτρῳ παραστῆναι — is clear: the mirror is almost certainly affixed to a wall or a support, since the customer stands next to it (παραστῆναι).

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Page updated: 4 Apr 11