previous next


[21arg] About the constellation which the Greeks call ἅμαξα and the Romans septentriones; and as to the origin and meaning of both those words.

SEVERAL of us, Greeks and Romans, who were pursuing the same studies, were crossing in the same boat from Aegina to the Piraeus. It was night, the sea was calm, the time summer, and the sky [p. 181] bright and clear. So we all sat together in the stern and watched the brilliant stars. Then those of our company who were acquainted with Grecian lore discussed with learning and acumen such questions as these: what the ἅμαξα, or “Wain,” was, and what Boötes, which was the Great, and which the Little Bear and why they were so called; in what direction that constellation moved in the course of the advancing night, and why Homer says 1 that this is the only constellation that does not set, in view of the fact that there are some other stars that do not set.

Thereupon I turned to our compatriots and said: “Why don't you barbarians tell me why we give the name of septentriones to what the Greeks call ἅμαξα. Now ' because we see seven stars' is not a sufficient answer, but I desire to be informed at some length,” said I, “of the meaning of the whole idea which we express by the word septentriones.

Then one of them, who had devoted himself to ancient literature and antiquities, replied: "The common run of grammarians think that the word septentriones is derived solely from the number of stars. For they declare that triones of itself has no meaning, but is a mere addition to the word; just as in our word quinquatrus, so called because five is the number of days after the Ides, 2 atrus means nothing. But for my part, I agree with Lucius Aelius 3 and Marcus Varro, 4 who wrote that oxen were called triones, a rustic term it is true, as if they were terriones, 5 that is to say, adapted to nominibus regionibusque docere nos ipse vellet, [p. 183] ploughing and cultivating the earth. Therefore this constellation, which the early Greeks called ἅμαξα merely from its form and position, because it seemed to resemble a wagon, the early men also of our country called septentriones, from oxen yoked together, that is, seven stars by which yoked oxen (triones) seem to be represented. After giving this opinion, Varro further added," said he, “that he suspected that these seven stars were called triones rather for the reason that they are so situated that every group of three neighbouring stars forms a triangle, that is to say, a three-sided figure.”

Of these two reasons which he gave, the latter seemed the neater and the more ingenious; for as we looked at that constellation, it actually appeared to consist of triangles. 6

1 Iliad, xviii. 489; Odyss. v. 275 ῎αρκτον . . . οἴη δ᾽ ἄμμορός ἐστι λοετρῶν ᾿ωκεανοῖο.

2 The quinquatrtus, or festival of Minerva, was so called because it came on the fifth day after the Ides (fifteenth) of March.

3 Fr. 42, Fun.

4 De Ling. Lat. vii. 4. 74.

5 A word made up from terra, “earth” ; the derivation is a fanciful one. Triones is connected with tero, “rub, tread,” etc.

6 This is true, whatever the origin of the name.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

load focus Introduction (John C. Rolfe, 1927)
load focus Latin (John C. Rolfe, 1927)
hide References (4 total)
  • Cross-references to this page (2):
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), ASTRONO´MIA
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), QUINQUATRUS
  • Cross-references in general dictionaries to this page (2):
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: