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Ara

βωμός, ἐσχάρα). An altar. With reference to these terms, βωμός properly signifies any elevation; ἐσχάρα (Lat. focus) means an altar for burnt-offerings; ara and altare are often used without any distinction, but properly ara was a structure of less height than altare (altus), the latter being erected in honour of the superior gods, and the former to the inferior gods, demigods, and heroes. (Cf. Verg. Ecl. v. 65.) Sacrifices to the infernal gods were not offered on altars, but in cavities dug in the ground and known as scrobes, scrobiculi, βόθροι, λάκκοι (Festus, s. v. altaria).

In early times, and always in sudden emergencies, altars were made of earth, turf, or stones collected on the spot. Otherwise they were built of masonry or brickwork, as shown in the following illustrations.

Altar (Column of Trajan); Etruscan Altar.

Subsequently a base was added (βάσις), and a corresponding projection at the top (ἐσχάρις) to hold the fire. A movable pan or brazier (ἐπίπυρον) sometimes served this purpose. Altars were either square or round.

Altar (Herculaneum); Altar (Antium).

Vitruvius directs that altars, though differing in elevation according to the rank of the divinities to whom they were erected, should always be lower than the statues (simulacra) before which they were placed. Of the application of this rule we have an example in a medallion on the Arch of Constantine at Rome, shown in the annexed illustration.

Altar with Statue of Apollo (Arch of Constantine).

All altars were places of refuge. The supplicants were considered as placing themselves under the protection of the deities to whom the altars were consecrated; and violence to the unfortunate, even to slaves and criminals, in such circumstances, was regarded as violence towards the deities themselves. It was also the practice among the Greeks to take solemn oaths at altars, either taking hold of the altar or of the statue of the god. Cicero (pro Balb. 5.12) expressly mentions this as a Greek practice. See K. F. Hermann, Gottesdienst. Alterth.. 17 and 22.

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