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The worst crime against mankind was committed by him who was the first to put a ring upon his fingers: and yet we are not informed, by tradition, who it was that first did so. For as to all the stories told about Prometheus, I look upon them as utterly fabulous, although I am aware that the ancients used to represent him with a ring of iron: it was their intention, however, to signify a chain thereby, and not an ornament. As to the ring of Midas,1 which, upon the collet being turned inwards, conferred invisibility upon the wearer, who is there that must not admit, perforce, that this story is even still more fabulous? It was the hand, and a sinister2 hand, too, in every sense, that first brought gold into such high repute: not a Roman hand, however, for upon that it was the practice to wear a ring of iron only, and solely as an indication of warlike prowess.

As to the usage followed by the Roman kings, it is not easy to pronounce an opinion: the statue of Romulus in the Capitol wears no ring, nor does any other statue—not that of L. Brutus even—with the sole exception of those of Numa and Servius Tullius. I am surprised at this absence of the ring, in the case of the Tarquinii more particularly, seeing that they were originally from Greece,3 a country from which the use of gold rings was first introduced; though even at the present day the people of Lacedæmon are in the habit of wearing rings made of iron. Tarquinius Priscus, however, it is well known, was the first who presented his son with the golden bulla,4 on the occasion of his slaying an enemy before he had laid aside the prætexta;5 from which period the custom of wearing the bulla has been continued, a distinction confined to the children of those who have served in the cavalry, those of other persons simply wearing a leather thong.6 Such being the case, I am the more surprised that the statue of this Tarquinius should be without a ring.

And yet, with reference to the very name of the ring, I find that there has been considerable uncertainty. That given to it originally by the Greeks is derived from the finger;7 while our ancestors styled it "ungulus;"8 and in later times both Greeks and Latins have given it the name of "symbolum."9 For a great length of time, it is quite clear, not even the Roman senators wore rings of gold: for rings were given, and at the public expense, to those only who were about to proceed on an embassy to foreign nations, the reason being, I suppose, because men of highest rank among foreign nations were perceived to be thus distinguished. Nor was it the practice for any person to wear these rings, except those who for this reason had received them at the public expense; and in most instances, it was without this distinction that the Roman generals celebrated their public triumphs.10 For whereas an Etruscan crown11 of gold was supported from behind over the head of the victor, he himself, equally with the slave probably, who was so supporting the crown, had nothing but a ring of iron upon his finger.12 It was in this manner that C. Marius celebrated his triumph over Jugurtha; and he never assumed13 the golden ring, it is said, until the period of his third consulship.14 Those, too, who had received golden rings on the occasion of an embassy, only wore them when in public, resuming the ring of iron when in their houses. It is in pursuance of this custom that even at the present day, an iron ring15 is sent by way of present to a woman when betrothed, and that, too, without any stone in it.

For my own part, I do not find that any rings were used in the days of the Trojan War; at all events, Homer nowhere makes mention of them; for although he speaks of the practice of sending tablets16 by way of letter,17 of clothes and gold and silver plate being kept laid up in chests,18 still he gives us to understand that they were kept secure by the aid of a knot tied fast, and not under a seal impressed by a ring. He does not inform us too, that when the chiefs drew lots to ascertain which one of them should reply to the challenge19 of the enemy, they made any use of rings20 for the purpose; and when he enumerates the articles that were manufactured at the forge21 of the gods, he speaks of this as being the origin22 of fibulæ23 and other articles of female ornament, such as earrings for example, but does not make any mention of rings.

24 Whoever it was that first introduced the use of rings, he did so not without hesitation; for he placed this ornament on the left hand, the hand which is generally concealed,25 whereas, if he had been sure of its being an honourable distinction, it would have been made more conspicuous upon the right. And if any one should raise the objection that this would have acted as an impediment to the right hand, I can only say that the usage in more recent times fortifies my opinion, and that the inconvenience of wearing rings on the left hand would have been still greater, seeing that it is with the left hand that the shield is held. We find mention made too, in Homer,26 of men wearing gold plaited with the hair; and hence it is that I am at a loss to say whether the practice first originated with females.

1 As Hardouin remarks, "This story is told by others, of Gyges, and not of Midas." He refers to Cicero, De Off. B. iii. c. 9, in confirmation of his assertion.—B. Both Gyges and Midas were noted for their wealth.

2 "Sinistræ." The play here upon the word "sinister" cannot be so well transferred into the English language; but it bears reference to the double meaning of the word, "on the left hand," and "unlucky," "illomened," or, as we say "sinister." We may remark, that rings were very generally employed by the Romans, not merely as ornaments, but as indications of office and rank.—B.

3 From Corinth, it was said: Damaratus of Corinth being the father of the first Tarquin. See B. xxxv. c. 5.

4 On the subject of "Bullæ," golden balls, worn hy the children of the nobles, see Dr. Smith's Dict. Antiq. p. 168.—B.

5 As to the "Toga prætexta," see B. viii. c. 74.

6 "Lorum." This word literally signifies a leather strap or thong, and Pliny is supposed by Hardouin to mean simply, that, in this latter case the strap was worn without the bulla, which was in other cases attached to it. Juvenal, Sat. v. l. 164, speaks of the "lorum" of the children of the poor.—B.

7 δακτύλιον, from δάκτυλος, a "finger."

8 Festus says that this was the Oscan name for a ring. It would appear to be allied to the word "unguis," which means a nail of the finger or toe, and would perhaps signify a "nail ornament."

9 As meaning a seal or signet, for which purpose, as we shall find explained in the sequel, the ring was used.

10 This seems to be the meaning of "Vulgoque sic triumphabant."

11 As to these crowns, see B. xxi. c. 4.

12 As to some other particulars connected with this usage, see the end of B. xxviii. c. 7.

13 And yet, as Hardouin remarks, before his time, when Scipio was besieging Carthage, the bodies of the Roman tribunes, when selected for burial by Hasdrubal, were distinguished by their rings of gold. The object of Marius, no doubt, was to ingratiate himself with the upper classes.

14 A. U. C. 651.

15 Known as the "anulus pronubus," or "engaged ring," according to Dalechamps.

16 "Codicillos." Il. B. vi. l. 168.

17 See B. xiii. c. 21.

18 Od. B. viii. ll. 424, 443, 447.

19 See the Iliad. B. iii. and B. vii. l. 175, et seq.

20 His meaning is, that although were used, lots or balls made of earth, we do not read that the impressions on them were made by the aid of signet-rings.

21 "Fabrieæ deûm." He alludes to the forge of Vulcan, described in the Eighteenth Book of the Iliad, l. 400, et seq.

22 This seems to be the meaning of "In primordio factitâsse."

23 The "fibulæ" were the brooches of the ancients, consisting of a pin, and of a curved portion furnished with a hook. See Dr. Smith's Diet. Antiq. p. 417.

24 As the meaning of this passage has been the subject of much discussion with commentators, we give it in full, as found in the Edition of Sillig. "Et quisquis primus instituit, cunctanter id fecit, lævis manibus latentibusque induit, cum, si honos securus fuisset, dextrâ fuerit ostentandus. Quodsi impedimentum potuit in eo aliquod intelligi, etiam serior is usus argumentum est, et majus in lævâ fuisset, quâ seutum capitur." Sillig is of opinion that Pliny is here alluding to the reason given by Ateius Capito (quoted in Maerobius, Saturn. B. vii. c. 13), for wearing the ring on the left hand. It was so worn, he says, from an apprehension that the precious stone with which it was set, might receive injury from the continual use made of the right hand.

25 Under the folds of the toga.

26 Il. B. xvii. l. 52.

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  • Commentary references to this page (1):
    • W. Walter Merry, James Riddell, D. B. Monro, Commentary on the Odyssey (1886), 4.73
  • Cross-references to this page (8):
    • Harper's, Anaītis
    • Harper's, Anŭlus
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), A´NULUS
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), VECTIGA´LIA
    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), A´STURES
    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), DALMA´TIA
    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), ICTIMU´LI
    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), VERCELLAE
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