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 p1053  Spolia

Article by William Ramsay, M.A., Professor of Humanity in the University of Glasgow
on pp1053‑1054 of

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

SPO′LIA. Four words are commonly employed to denote booty taken in war, Praeda, Manubiae, Exuviae, Spolia. Of these, praeda bears the most comprehensive meaning, being used for plunder of every description. [Praeda.] Manubiae was the money which the quaestor realised from the sale of those objects which constituted praeda (Gell. XIII.24; Cic. de Leg. Agr. II.22). The term Exuviae indicates any thing stripped from the person of a foe, while Spolia, properly speaking, ought to be confined to armour and weapons, although both words are applied loosely to trophies such as chariots, standards,  p1054 beaks of ships and the like, which might be preserved and displayed (see Doederlein, Lat. Syn. vol. IV p337; Ramshorn, Lat. Syn. p869; Habicht, Syn. Handwörterbuch, n758).

In the heroic ages no victory was considered complete unless the conquerors could succeed in stripping the bodies of the slain, the spoils thus obtained being viewed (like scalps among the North American Indians) as the only unquestionable evidence of successful valour; and we find in Homer that when two champions came forward to contend in single combat, the manner in which the body and arms of the vanquished were to be disposed of formed the subject of a regular compact between the parties (Hom. Il. VII.75, &c., XXII.254, &c.). Among the Romans, spoils taken in battle were considered the most honourable of all distinctions; to have twice stripped an enemy, in ancient times, entitled the soldier to promotion (Val. Max. II.7 §14), and during the second Punic war, Fabius when filling up the numerous vacancies in the senate caused by the slaughter at Cannae and by other disastrous defeats, after having selected such as had borne some of the great offices of state, named those next "qui spolia ex hoste fixa domi haberent, aut civicam coronam accepissent" (Liv. XXIII.23). Spoils collected on the battle field after an engagement, or found in a captured town were employed to decorate the temples of the gods, triumphal arches, porticoes, and other places of public resort, and sometimes in the hour of extreme need served to arm the people (Liv. XXII.57, Liv. XXIV.21, Liv. X.47; Val. Max. VIII.6 § 1; Sil. Ital. X.599), but those which were gained by individual prowess were considered the undoubted property of the successful combatant, and were exhibited in the most conspicuous part of his dwelling (Polyb. VI.39), being hung up in the atrium, suspended from the door-posts, or arranged in the vestibulum, with appropriate inscriptions (Liv. X.7, XXXVIII.43; Cic. Philipp. II.28; Suet. Nero, 38; Virg. Aen. II.504, III.286, Tibull. I.1.54; Propert. III.9.26; Ovid. Ar. Am. II.743; Sil. Ital. VI.446). They were regarded as peculiarly sacred, so that even if the house was sold the new possessor was not permitted to remove them (Plin. H. N. XXXV.2). A remarkable instance of this occurred in the "rostrata domus" of Pompey, which was decorated with the beaks of ships captured in his war against the pirates; this house passed into the hands of Antonius the triumvir (Cic. Philipp. l.c.), and was eventually inherited by the emperor Gordian, in whose time it appears to have still retained its ancient ornaments (Capitolin. Gordian. 3). But while on the one hand it was unlawful to remove spoils, so it was forbidden to replace or repair them when they had fallen down or become decayed through age (Plutarch, Quaest. Rom. 37), the object of this regulation being doubtless to guard against the frauds of false pretenders.

Of all spoils the most important were the Spolia Opima, a term applied to those only which the commander-in‑chief of a Roman army stripped in a field of battle from the leader of the foe (Liv. IV.20). Festus (s.v. Opima gives the same definition as Livy, but adds "M. Varro ait opima spolia esse [etiam] si manipularis miles detraxerit dummodo duci hostium," a statement, if correctly quoted, directly at variance with the opinion generally received and acted upon. Thus when M. Crassus, in the fifth consul­ship of Octavianus (B.C. 29), slew Deldo, king of the Bastarnae, he was not considered to have gained spolia opima because acting under the auspices of another (Dion Cass. LI.24; cf. Val. Max. III.2 §6), and Plutarch (Marcell. 8) expressly asserts that Roman history up to his own time afforded but three examples. The first were said to have been won by Romulus from Acro, king of the Caeninenses, the second by Aulus Cornelius Cossus from Lar Tolumnius king of the Veientes, the third by M. Claudius Marcellus from Viridomarus (or Βριτόμαρτος as he is called by Plutarch), king of the Gaesatae. In all these cases, in accordance with the original institution, the spoils were dedicated to Jupiter Feretrius. The honours of spolia opima were voted to Julius Caesar during his fifth consul­ship (B.C. 44, the year of his death), but it was not even pretended that he had any legitimate claim to this distinction (Dion Cass. XLIV.4). (The question with regard to the true definition of spolia opima is discussed with great learning by Perizonius, Animad. Hist. c7).

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